The Affects of Disability Portrayal and Inclusion in soot and spit

Listen, I’m not sure how to say this without sounding ignorant, so, toot toot, all aboard the self-immolation train: soot and spit kind of made me feel like I had autism. I entered the Galvin Theatre at Arizona State University on April 14 understanding playwright Charles Mee creates new works specifically to combat traditional linear storytelling. He has said, “most of the plays I grew up seeing didn’t feel like my life” (read: “Are you trippin’, dramatic structure?! Life is way more complex than rising action to climax to dénouement!). I expected the text about deaf and possibly autistic artist James Castle to be complicated, perhaps confusing, but that didn’t change the fact that from my seat I felt more than a few steps behind during the entire ninety minutes.

soot and spit is a noninteractive play without intermission—no opportunities to check-in with others around me. (“Are you guys getting this? The actress in a slinky dress who has been singing ‘hello’ into a telephone for the past five minutes…did I miss her introduction or am I supposed to not know who she is?”) Part of my brain wondered was I the only one in the theater unable to follow the soothing bluegrass songs, the inexplicable presence of a live chicken, the extremely long Dadaist monologues? I know how to react to linear plays. But what am I supposed to do, feel, analyze without knowing the rules? I recall a boy with autism I once knew whose mother was in the process of teaching him how to understand others better with a chart of emotions and facial expressions. I needed a similar emotional key when an actress wordlessly smeared lipstick all over her face. Was the laugh rising in my gut appropriate or not?

a man holding a baby chick.
Deaf actor Robert DeMayo plays the lead role in the premiere of
Charles Mee's soot and spitPhoto by Tim Trumble Photography

These are the risks of experimenting with nonnarrative new plays: audiences may equate your work to experiencing a social disorder. The upside for soot and spit compared to other nonlinear/mainly experiential plays is that since this play focuses on the success of a misunderstood artist, it is thematically about disabilities. Thus, the disjointed form actually works pretty spot-on. After all, there was a skeletal story. We are introduced to Castle through a clear-cut expositional narrator. From there, we are whisked away with sequences in which the Morton Salt Shaker girl comes to life or the ensemble sways a slow hula. The set, a homely Idaho ice house juxtaposed with screen projections of video, is warm and welcoming. The whole production was beautiful, and at times emotional. The trick is letting go of the attempt to understand the piece and simply bathe in it. Yet, there was one aspect of the production that I couldn’t easily absorb.

Director Kim Weild collaborated with Detour Company Theatre for this ASU production. Detour’s mission statement is to “provide quality and authentic arts education and performance opportunities for adults with developmental and other challenges, including deafness, blindness, and autism, through the magic and miracle of theatre.” Mee’s script specifically calls for a “Down syndrome choir” (six Down syndrome actors). When the Detour actors first took the stage (in a random gunny sack race just after the exposition), I had three responses in rapid-fire succession. 1. My eyes were drawn to them. “Those are not ‘normal’ actors.” Prejudiced as that makes me sound (theme of this article!?) it’s what I processed. 2. “Oh, those are the disabled actors. That’s really sweet/cool that ASU is doing communal outreach to them!” 3. “That’s sort of a condescending thought.” As if I as an audience member was gaining nothing from the Detour actors’ performance besides the self-satisfaction that I was part of a “community outreach experience.” But, despite forcing me to confront my own naïve perspective, I struggled to understand what was gained by the inclusion of Down syndrome actors.

The shame about most plays that feature an “other” is that the play is always about “otherness.” Disabled characters don’t just exist within theater—they represent, they pull thematic focus.

Disabled characters aren’t prominent in theater, but they are present. Popular plays featuring disabled characters include Richard III (title role), The Glass Menagerie (Laura), recently Clybourne Park (Betsy). There have also been plays that use disabled characters as vessels for disabled actors (The Jelly Bean Conspiracy, Children of a Lesser God). soot and spit was both. Castle was played by famed Deaf actor Robert DeMayo, and Detour actors popped up all over the production. There was a section of hefty monologues in the second half of the show that could be interpreted as representations of people with depression and OCD. The shame about most plays that feature an “other” is that the play is always about “otherness.” Disabled characters don’t just exist within theater—they represent, they pull thematic focus.

In the case of soot and spit, a play I expected to be about a deaf and possibly autistic artist, I was prepared for the character of Castle to represent. But why is this a story about Down syndrome too? Why is this story about OCD or depression? Isn’t it about deafness and autism? And potential autism at that. It should be noted, no one involved with the show was actually autistic…which is also interesting. Is the inclusion of multiple disabilities a statement that otherness is otherness is otherness and all should just be accepted? Maybe. Or, could the production accidentally imply all disabled people are the same? Also maybe.

Within minutes I found myself moving from condescension toward the Detour actors to feeling vicarious embarrassment while a Down syndrome actress playing Elmira (described in the script as “a single young fat woman in a fluffy pink dress”) struggled through a very long monologue, which was mostly memorized. An ASU actress was nearby feeding lines when they were forgotten. The play text was projected on a large screen in the theater presumably to accommodate deaf audiences. Unfortunately, the screen also meant it was obvious when the Detour actress jumbled lines. It made me think about what the effect of Down syndrome acting is on audiences. What stigmas are being helped by watching a Down syndrome actor struggle to do something the nondisabled actors present flawlessly? Of course, I was assuming that the intention of the script is to be understood. Which is my bias. Yet, soot and spit did offer opportunities for seeing the Down syndrome actors simply hopping across stage on bouncy balls or blowing bubbles, but that appeared borderline offensive—as if the actors, unable to participate with the rest of the cast, were stuck in remedial performance tasks.

soot and spit carried me away to a simpler Midwestern pie-on-the-windowsill time. The text, the structure, may have been complex but the experience didn’t have to be. I smiled genuinely as the cast happily signed “applause” during the curtain call. Perhaps whether the play enhances or helps dissolve stigmas surrounding disabilities is secondary to at least getting the audience to consider others. Arguably, being considered for one’s differences is better than not being considered at all. Throughout the entire show the lead character has no lines (in real life, Castle didn’t speak). At times, Castle, therefore, seems passive in his own story. But, he is actually active in a way that transcends conventionality. He creates art from beginning to end. Twice characters explain, “I don’t think he cared whether anyone liked what he did or not…He just wanted to do it.” And this may be a shadow of the attitude we should take in considering what is right or helpful in addressing disabilities in theater.

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Three comments, Alice.1. HUGE shout out for your extremely honest conversation here, what an ethical and helpful way to process. Thank you for sharing.2. My favorite, and to my mind the most honest emotional, moment of the entire play was the scene when the chorus mourned Castle's death by interacting with the objects on his desk. The real emotional depth portrayed by two of the actors in particular was stunning. Not because of dis/ability but because of the investment by the actors. I want to highlight Bill Crouch's comment here about no "higher or lower." This moment embodied his articulation of how we perceive and receive.

3. Adele (my 15 yo) went with us to the play and said after, "wow, I've never thought about how the world must be inside of special need peoples' heads" --- and after all, isn't that the function of theatre? Allowing us to live inside of someone else's perception?

What a theoretical paradox inclusive theatre can be! I am particularly struck by this thought from the article: "Disabled characters don’t just exist within theater—they represent, they pull thematic focus." I believe it takes great thought on the part of artists with disabilities and their nondisabled peers to think through possible implications of inclusive casting, and then hopefully, leap anyway!

"soot and spit did offer opportunities for seeing the Down syndrome actors simply hopping across stage on bouncy balls or blowing bubbles, but that appeared borderline offensive—as if the actors, unable to participate with the rest of the cast, were stuck in remedial performance tasks." Here is the core of your misunderstanding (which is lovely, your misunderstanding is also, I might suggest, part of the fun of the piece). There is nothing remedial about getting onstage. There is no "higher or lower" once the play begins. There is a huge amount of judgement in our capacity to understand one another from a cultural perspective. Our ability to see without comparing is extremely limited. Rethink the play with that in mind. Physical behavior, "flubbing" lines, etc are the goal of the piece, especially if the playwright is challenging accepted modes for understanding day-to-day life.

Disabilities are in fact the forte of story telling through the art of dramatic literature.

The conflicts of human interaction, connection or displacement and estrangement is the story of the "other".Works of Charles Mee usually make it an interllectual struggle for audience with his insistent use of pregnant monologues that override rising action in persuit of a thematic climax.

Otherness is a human condition. Playwrights like Mee attempt to highlight this otherness in other ways of story telling.

Experimental Theater is just what it postulates. An attempt at finding truth. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it fails.