Possibilities: Disability within Theatre (2002)

Monday – August 26, 2002 @ 2:15pm EST

An online roundtable discussion, hosted by the Non-Traditional Casting Project, Inc.

included the following participants:

Peter DuBois

Artistic Director, Perseverance Theatre

Alaska

Timothy Douglas

Associate Artistic Director, Actors Theatre of Louisville

Kentucky

Sandy Shinner

Associate Artistic Director, Victory Gardens Theater

Chicago

(led by)

John Belluso

playwright & co-director of Other Voices at

the Mark Taper Forum

Los Angeles

Monday – August, 26, 2002 @ 2:15pm EST

John Belluso:

Thanks to all for being a part of this conversation today about representing the disability experience on stage. And thinking strategically about what it means to bring this under-utilized group into the theatre, both as audience members, as playwrights, actors and all other aspects of performance.

So this doesn’t become a lecture, I’ll just throw the ball up into the air and see if there are any initial thoughts or experiences which might be a good starting point.

Timothy Douglas:

Well, as you form your initial thoughts, I’m reminded that this particular question of diversity had not been in the front of my mind since my days at the [Mark Taper Forum] when I got to work so closely with Other Voices.  [It was] probably the most rewarding time in development for me, because I was required to think in such [a] different way. Just being a part of this discussion makes me realize how ghettoized I’ve become with regards to race and representation on the stage…a necessary battle for me specifically, but I welcome this even broader challenge to my awareness.

John Belluso:

I think that’s a great point, but adding another category (disability) to this canon of inclusion…

Peter DuBois:

I have an actor in my company who is hearing impaired.  This affects his work in every way, from movement work to moment-to-moment work.  In a way he has his own acting style, which is entirely compelling.  I am interested in that part of the conversation.  Where disability intersects with performance style.

John Belluso:

That’s a great point Peter, I think one of the things that disability does is allow us to be reminded that theatre is centered around the body, and therefore has its kind of language.

Timothy Douglas:

It feels as though the (lack of) representation of the disabled on the stage is an exact reflection of how our society at large handles the visibility issue. The transformative nature of live performance reminds us constantly that all levels of “things uncomfortable” can have the greatest cathartic benefits when providing a compelling story.

John Belluso:

I agree, I think people are hesitant to explore this issue in part because they fear it is inherently “sad” or “tragic”.

Sandy Shinner:

I think that the audience responses have been quite extraordinary to work dealing with disability, although getting audiences to the theater has been difficult.

Timothy Douglas:

Again, I keep resonating on issues of race – especially now that I’m living and creating my art in “the South”. In cities like Los Angeles my productions about race and even disabilities were met with acceptance, for the most part. I was feeling pretty confident that the message was getting heard. But now that I’m in Louisville, I’m finding that August Wilson’s most established plays are being met as if this were the 60’s.

John Belluso:

I think comparing it to race is a really useful paradigm; when both people from both experiences enter the room they are, in a sense, “on display”; their difference appears immediately.

Timothy Douglas:

Where I was going was … I’m always amazed at my own amnesia around representation and how diligent I must remain no matter what success I perceive to have been made.

John Belluso:

Absolutely.

Timothy Douglas:

Every time I’m in your presence John, I’m reminded that I’ve gone unconscious even though I’d like to believe I have your back at all times. Both personally and professionally I don’t know where to draw distinctions. On the one hand, you’re a great talent, my pal and a great personality, you have a particular challenge that doesn’t fundamentally change WHO you are for me, and yet, I must recognize your challenge without objectifying. Which gets into all kinds of P.C. behavior, and AHHHHHHH…in this way I’m a true reflection of my culture.

John Belluso:

Thank you Tim, I think you do have my back, and it is so tricky isn’t it? Desiring our similarity while respecting our difference.

Peter DuBois:

What are your thoughts on how those differences/challenges can inform a theatrical vocabulary?  Whether dramaturgically or in terms of performance itself?

Timothy Douglas:

My instinct is to defer and ask that question of the one who is representing the disabled. At least I’d like to do that first and THEN layer in my sense of how to tell that story most effectively. I’ve had this encounter with a blind playwright who was determined to have his play staged for a “sighted” audience. The greatest challenge was not in the storytelling, but how best to communicate the form of what I was doing so that the playwright and I could have similar experiences.

John Belluso:

I tend to always try and think of it historically; I remind myself that the figure of the disabled body has always been onstage—from Sophocles to Shakespeare’s Richard III to The Cripple of Inishmaan— there is a canon of representation.

Timothy Douglas:

SO true John … what do you perceive our resistance to be specifically?

John Belluso:

There is a canon of disability, but it is always viewed through the lens (a lens smudged with fear and anxiety) of the non-disabled writer.

Sandy Shinner:

Shouldn’t we then encourage theaters to produce work by disabled writers in the same way we are trying to offer a season with differing points of view?  There are some terrific plays—certainly yours John—that should be seen.

John Belluso:

Yes, I think it’s like any other “minority” group; when the tables are turned and the stories/myths are coming from within the group, old perceptions are shattered.

Sandy Shinner:

That was definitely the case with Susan Nussbaum’s play No One As Nasty—the perceptions were certainly shattered and the audience of disabled and non-disabled patrons was blown away.

John Belluso:

Absolutely Sandy, I think the key is to encourage theatres to include disability in this desire to create new audiences and hear new stories, as you guys do at Victory Gardens, with your Access Project.

Sandy Shinner:

We are certainly committed to making sure we integrate the, now 10 year old, Access Project into the artistic life of the theater and move forward each season.

John Belluso:

I’m wondering, in terms of audience, how do the particular regions [from which each of you come], seem to affect the number of disabled people who come to the shows?

Timothy Douglas:

In terms of the short piece you did for The Humana Festival, it’s still resonating through the disabled community here. I think representation [of disability] in the mainstream theatre here never occurred to most people. Here specifically, although late, the effect has been positive and large.

Sandy Shinner:

I would have to admit that we have a small number of disabled patrons attending, although the number grows a bit each time we produce. Lots of work needs to be done in that area although the theater is fully accessible with captioning, audio description etc. As with any target audience, the numbers increase if they know that the playwright is disabled and not just writing about disability.

Timothy Douglas:

I’d echo Sandy’s observation.

Sandy Shinner:

What we have been most successful with is attracting audiences who have really never thought much about disability issues but are used to coming to see new work here.

John Belluso:

That’s great. It’s been my experience that non-disabled audiences are sometimes braver than producers think. And they love getting to hear an “authentic” voice coming from another community they may not know personally.

Sandy Shinner:

Absolutely…we hope that is the nature of theater-goers in general.  We therefore have a responsibility to bring these new points of view to audiences, encourage discussion and open up their eyes.

Timothy Douglas:

John, I liken that unto the experience of the first encounter with the person who lives with whatever particular challenge…once we allow ourselves to see past the disability, we get so connected so fast. (At least that’s my experience). My biggest fear is of offending. In those moments, I’m actually more focused on myself. As a result, once I break through, I find I allow myself to go deep fast. Audiences instinctively do this, because bringing the play to them has already done the hard, getting-to-know-you part. This is also my experience as a director, specifically with Lynn Manning and John Pixley. Once I got over myself, I was able to do some of my best work EVER.

John Belluso:

That’s such a good point Tim. Freeing yourself from the fear of offending is such a key to breaking down any kind of stereotypes.

Sandy Shinner:

I agree.

Peter DuBois:

Absolutely.

Timothy Douglas:

So what’s my resistance to doing this constantly?!?

John Belluso:

I don’t think you have a resistance.

Timothy Douglas:

I know one reason is that I spend much time on issues of race specifically, so I guess some part of me says, “Okay, John, this one’s yours”. Resistance isn’t exactly the right word, but the fact that I know this issue requires more attention… the fact that I “forget” to keep it high on the agenda feels like resistance…I know better.

John Belluso:

I think we are all products of our society, and it is a society which would prefer to keep us separated rather than forming strategic alliances, and so sometimes we operate that way.

Sandy Shinner:

It also involves a very broad spectrum—from making sure you have all the facilities that are required and are set up to make accommodations for staff, etc—as well as just produce the work.

John Belluso:

But forums like this remind us how similar we are and that our needs are the same; equality, justice, etc etc.

Sandy Shinner:

I think sometimes a theater feels like it can’t make that comprehensive a commitment and therefore doesn’t do anything.   It is better to try to do something in a small way than delay until everything is set.

Peter DuBois:

Yes. Absolutely. I want to come back to the question of region. In Alaska the challenge of everyday life here informs everything we do, from making theater to how we engage disability.  John, have you experienced an impact of “region” on your work?

John Belluso:

Yes Peter, I actually just returned last month from Australia and I think the different regions I go to have a huge impact on each production. My production here at the Taper last summer was a huge challenge.

Peter DuBois:

How so?

John Belluso:

Even with an institution as large as the Taper, we still had to struggle with questions like “How do we get the disabled audience members interested and coming to see the show?”

Peter DuBois:

What was Australia like?

John Belluso:

It was fairly progressive (and Beautiful!) but they had their access problems as well.

Sandy Shinner:

What were some of your ideas about marketing…Chicago has a very active disability community and I think that helps, but we still need to attract more patrons.

John Belluso:

I think in some ways the strategies the Public Theater used in NOISE/FUNK are very helpful: going into the community to build audience members from the inside out.

Peter DuBois:

Yes, for us it has been building strong ties and partnering with organizations that facilitate community building and access.

Timothy Douglas:

It seems to me that’s always the best way. What do you hear, John, as the roadblocks to more representation? OR what was it for you that inspired this roundtable? [And] how was the turn out for BODY OF BOURNE at the Mark Taper Forum?

John Belluso:

It was actually really good, but it required a good deal of work, but I think it paid off.

Sandy Shinner:

It is difficult to get anyone who hasn’t been going to the theater to step in the door—disabled or non-disabled.  How do we make people in the disability community feel more welcome and their presence more important to us, John?

John Belluso:

I think the good news is [that] we are on the right track.

Sandy Shinner:

I’m glad you think so.

Peter DuBois:

Going back to Timothy’s question—what are the roadblocks?

John Belluso:

We just need to keep thinking strategically and keep eyes open for new talent which can share a story that is meaningful to a disabled audience; and that of course becomes universal for all audiences.

Peter DuBois:

Yes.

John Belluso:

But back to the roadblocks…

Sandy Shinner:

I am actually surprised that there are so few funding organizations that are interested in promoting accessibility in the theater…has anyone had any luck there?

Timothy Douglas:

Well, I’ve always got my eye out for that new talent. I want you to know that you may send me those scripts and artists that you’re willing to share whom you believe are ready for the leap… (that goes for all of you!)

John Belluso:

Excellent.

Sandy Shinner:

Ditto for us too.  We are looking for scripts for both mainstage and studio production.

Peter DuBois:

Ditto here.  Sandy, we have had some luck with funding access locally, but that’s it.

John Belluso:

And of course for me at the Taper as well.

Sandy Shinner:

Thanks Peter, we have had luck only from a few corps and more from individuals.

Timothy Douglas:

It seems that many theaters are already physically accessible, but how to send the message that the work itself is actually accessible? There’s an arena that might just be vague enough to inspire funding. NEH (Nat’l Endowment for the Humanities), perhaps?

Sandy Shinner:

We have tried NEH for some projects and will do so again.

John Belluso:

Yes, the idea that always resonates with me is that we as people with disabilities need access to both sides of the stage, and when it’s stated in terms of going beyond “technical accessibility” and going into the realm of Artistry, people (and some corps) get excited.

Sandy Shinner:

The Kennedy Center has just embarked on an internship program for people with disabilities, as I’m sure you know. So they managed to get some money into the hands of interns who want to work, primarily, in administration which is an area we haven’t mentioned.

Peter DuBois:

Responding to John, speaking of artistry:  is there anything to talk about in terms of training and development—writing, acting etc.

John Belluso:

ABSOLUTELY! Training is a key issue.

Sandy Shinner:

Two of the scripts we have produced came out of work done in our Artist Development workshop which is an ongoing play development class…

John Belluso:

Without access to training, people with disabilities always end up on the audience side of the theatre. I think large training institutions need to be thinking about disability in the terms we have been framing in this discussion.

Peter DuBois:

Absolutely. When part of the training is exploring what may be perceived of as “otherness” to inform both the form and content of what you do, it becomes so empowering. And it leads to exciting work.

John Belluso:

As a part of the need for diversity (rather that a hindrance to performance, which I fear is how they think of it).

Timothy Douglas:

I can easily see integrating disabled writers into training as well as training specific to the disability. In your opinion, what might be a model for performers? I think I just answered my own question…allow the artist to take the lead, and what I can do is to provide or help track down the resources.

John Belluso:

Well, I think in some ways it takes me back to looking critically at the canon.

Peter DuBois:

Yes.

Timothy Douglas:

Yes…you’re saying training specific to the project or particular physical challenge.

John Belluso:

Yes, and by allowing say, someone with cerebral palsy to play Richard III.

Timothy Douglas:

I guess that doesn’t seem obvious to me initially, because I’m so concerned about offending! But who better to “get inside” Richard III?! What about new work, though?

John Belluso:

There is that balance to strike, but I think New work should also be influenced by past images as well, understanding the history of the experience. Wrestling with those images in a good and exciting way.

Peter DuBois:

I smell a fabulous project.

John Belluso:

Yes! I think there are so many possibilities by looking behind us, what has come before, in order to go forward with new Myths. And I think at the end of the day that’s really what we are talking about is new Myths.

Peter DuBois:

Yes!

Sandy Shinner:

You can certainly tell who the writer in this conversation is.

John Belluso:

Lol (laugh out loud), Sandy.

Timothy Douglas:

Yes, of course…I was asking more about training for the disabled artist, creating new work, which has not yet been created.

John Belluso:

Yes, creating work is so vital.

John Belluso:

There are so many things we’ve really never even seen on a stage before.

Timothy Douglas:

…And some we’ve seen way too much of.

John Belluso:

And training plays such a huge role in that balance.

Timothy Douglas:

This was great for me. Thanks John and all.

John Belluso:

Yes, let me send out a big “Thank You” to you all.

Sandy Shinner:

Thanks for including me, John.  I think when everyone—playwright, director and theater—makes it the goal to work with disabled artists and create new work with these images and ideas, it can and will happen.  It seems that getting the firm commitment of the theater is perhaps the hardest.

Timothy Douglas:

I’m very open to a follow up. Also, if you think of something which you believe I or Actors Theatre can act on, please do not hesitate to holler! Blessings…Timothy.

John Belluso:

Absolutely. Thanks Peter!  Thanks Sandy!

Peter DuBois:

Same here.  Thanks to all of you.  I will be thinking about new frontiers today.

John Belluso:

Excellent!

Adam Moore (NTCP – Program Manager):

On behalf of Sharon Jensen and everyone here at NTCP, thank you all for a wonderful afternoon. We will be in touch soon. Have a good week.

end

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