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Against Sameness in Theatre


an actor on stage
Red Noses by Peter Barnes, 2015, featuring Colin Buckingham. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Barton-Fracas.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the signing the Americans with Disabilities Act and if you had told me twenty-five years ago that upon this anniversary I would be not only a writer and director working with disabled artists, but also an advocate for and about them, I would not have believed you. My company, Nicu’s Spoon, is this very year celebrating fifteen years as the first fully inclusive theatre company in New York City history. A fact that I am proud of but one that I think the NYC theatre community should not be.

I mean think about it. There are groups working with black artists, deaf artists, etc., but to not have a fully inclusive company until mine came along in 2001? That’s ridiculous. New York is a beacon for theatre and for this city to have been this far out of step is disheartening. Granted, the inclusive theatre landscape is marginally improved now with companies being created (Identity Theater), and other theatres realigning their mission (as in the case of Theater Breaking Through Barriers), but still not enough is being done.

There is a richness inherent in working with artists who have a bit more baggage than a “bad day.” There is a richness of life experience, less bull in general, and if given a safe place to play and rehearse and make art, a creative belief in new artistic ways of being. Disabled artists offer a springboard for new performance styles, reach new audiences (deaf, blind, and hearing audiences simultaneously for instance), and are a well of boundless creation for both the artists and the audiences.

Too often companies work with disabled folks in “one-off” productions and then discard them. This is as insulting as using a black actor in a production of The Great White Hope and never working with another black actor again. Actors of color, disability, age, etc.—any actor in a marginalized group is thought of by theatre companies in general as an accessory. A nice pair of earrings to accent the outfit, but the outfit is really what is special.

For me it’s the reverse. I actively search out those ignored and marginalized artists, many of whom have removed themselves from the arts as a result of being disabled. I deliberately miscast actors, cast actors with one disability as another disability entirely, employ age-aware, ability- aware casting; color-aware cast actors (not color-blind—that is a bullshit term; it isn’t color-blind, it is the opposite). I cast actors to make a point, show them off, to shake up preconceived notions of a play, a role, a notion that the audience has. How else can we reflect current society? And is that not what theatre should be doing?

Granted [inclusive casting and co-play productions] asks more of an audience than just showing up. They must pay attention and think about what they see and hear and feel. Active casting choices can illuminate plays and characters in new ways. All it takes is doing it.

One of my notions was to develop new performance styles, one of which I called co-playing. My idea in 2005 (after gestating for a few years) was that there was something beyond interpreting for the deaf (Deaf West in Los Angeles does “shadowed” work with artists, which is similar to co-playing), where a pair of artists would play one role, one hearing and one deaf, one signing and one speaking, but both acting and interpreting the role simultaneously. In the first project we did this we had the deaf artists play the inner persona and the speaking artists play the outer persona. (We since have done two other co-played productions where we threw out all previous notions about our own co-playing and continued to re-envision more new styles!)

In co-playing the acting pairs might move together or may be on opposite sides of the stage, but they are always connected visually and in dress. Notions that the speaking actors are primary are discarded and frequently the signing artist takes the lead. In our first production that used co-playing, Mark Medoff’s play Stumps, two of the actresses shared a role of a woman being abused. At one point in the play there was a long monologue about it. The normal choice is to have the speaking actress take the stage if there are two actresses. Instead, what I did was have the speaking actress sit behind the signing one on a couch and wrap herself around “herself” as she acted the monologue with the signing actress in the forefront acting and being the stronger image.

Two actors on stage
Stumps by Mark Medoff, 2005, featuring  Kate Breen and Thea McCartan.
Photo courtsey of Stephanie Barton-Fracas.

Granted this asks more of an audience than just showing up. They must pay attention and think about what they see and hear and feel. Additional choices might be to have an overtly masculine, abrasive role played by a very macho actor but with a small female signer as his counterpart. Perhaps a bigoted white role co-played by a black actor. What does that say then about the characters inner self? Active choices like this can illuminate plays and characters in new ways. All it takes is doing it. (A secret dream is to do Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but have Martha co-played and signed by a large, scary black man.)

Get a Clue
Again and again I hear incorrect ideas about what it is like to work with disabled artists. “How do you talk to them?” (As if they are human beings is always a place to start.) “How do you ask about their handicap? Should you ask about it?” (Of course, you should if it is pertinent to the play, their work, their stamina, etc.) Ask about it if you need to, with care and humor. It’s not like your asking about it makes them aware of it. (“What?! I have a handicap? Are you kidding me?!”) If you don’t ask them and talk about it then you are either overly anxious or very lazy. Make the effort. But only if it matters. Many times it simply doesn’t matter at all; you just think it does.

Oftentimes it’s not the physical part of the disability that matters on or offstage. More and more I learn that the physical aspects are the easiest for people. I was at a recent talkback after a documentary about my company and a very unaware audience member demanded of an actress why she had to drop out of a project if her prosthetic leg gave her problems. “Couldn’t you just take it off and do the play anyway and not have the stump be hurt? Then you could have your cake and eat it too.” What he didn’t get was the emotional and mental injury that comes with the disability (and this was a recently disabled person) and the notion that for a newly disabled person his unrealistic idea of, “Well, why don’t you just take off the leg?” is akin to stripping naked. It’s a very intimate issue, having a part of yourself not match the status quo.

Shaking Up Shakespeare
Currently, in our fifteenth season, my company is co-producing Richard III, and I am directing as well. For this new world of the play the society is a disabled one, everyone around Richard is disabled, the world is geared to the disabled and he is “perfect.” Every notion about the play is to be turned on its head. For example, Richmond (normally portrayed as a young strapping fellow who gives great speeches and then kills Richard), as directed by me, is an epileptic and after a few petite mal seizures in the play will have a grand mal seizure in the middle of his well-known speech before fighting Richard. But this will be normal in that world.

Another example is having Clarence (a role known for having tremendous feelings of guilt about his past wrongs) have an active backstory where he was born perfect like Richard III but had an “accident” that made him disabled and “made” him and his relationship to society. Did he have an accident? Did he do it to himself? We have many ways to now illuminate that onstage as we work through the text.

Many notions can be turned on their heads, such as making this a very physical production where we seat the audience onstage and have the actors performing around them and on the risers that make up the “audience area.” Having artists in wheelchairs, both in and out of the wheelchairs, artists with prosthetics work both with and without them (and again this type of artistic trust only comes from support and true caring). This frees both the audience’s ingrained perceptions of what the play should be, and the artists’ notions of what they can physically and emotionally do both onstage and in real life.

Again and again I hear incorrect ideas about what it is like to work with disabled artists. ‘How do you talk to them?’ As if they are human beings is always a place to start.

Pay Attention: A Call for Reality Reflective Programming
Theatre should be innovative, fresh; creating active debate and thought. If it is not, then why do it? Why do “Meh, it was ok…” theatre? That is the death of theatre. If theatre does not reflect our society, in all colors, abilities, genders, ages, religions and nationalities—then it does not reflect society at all. Not truly. It is just another play written by a perfect white, male playwright, directed by the same and starring the same. Boring with a capital B.

That “sameness” is not my reality, not the world I see on the streets of NYC, not on the streets of Europe, not in this global high-tech world. Theatres that have their heads stuck in the 1930s where, “Gee, we’re all white fellas and we’re going to do a show!” are horribly out of touch. The wealthy patrons and foundations that support them are out of touch as well and it saddens and angers me. Don’t get me started about opera houses funded by the wealthy, rolling in dough or the NEA and its active funding primarily of the same companies over and over again who really don’t need it.

We need as artists, director, writers, companies to do not only more reality reflective, socially challenging theatre, but also to bring more funders and donors to it. We are on the front lines of reflecting what the world really looks like when you pay attention to it.

I issue an open challenge to any director or company or author reading this. Write a role for a disabled artist, cast a disabled artist (in a nondisabled role), do a season about disability and open your creative world up. Broaden your creative horizon; look at colors, ages, genders, abilities, nationalities. There is literally a rainbow of artists waiting for you in this world. Don’t miss it because you are stuck in a rut or afraid to start. Heck, contact me and I’ll get you going, but get going. The world is changing fast, you need to keep up!

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I'm late to reading this piece, just now caught it on a retweet. Clicked through to the link and began reading immediately. You had me engrossed and then I hit the phrase "large, scary black man." I skimmed the rest of the article, closed my computer, needed to wander around the house. I almost never comment and when I do I try not to be a poo-poo-er; however I urge you to reexamine this imagery you put forward in your piece. (And then defended in the comment response to Godfrey.) It is racially charged and plays into some of the most basic stereotypes that are constantly endangering black lives today (or, rather, continually over time). Some of the writing that's been on HowlRound and in American Theatre lately has addressed this; check out Katori Hall's Op-Ed in The Root. Thank you so much for the work that you do; it makes it vital to work in all the areas.

One of the more interesting articles I've read here so far. Wonderful ideas and insights. But please don't totally throw out the over 50 white male playwrights [as I am one] and as I'm recent to the play writing scene, I'd like my work to be done somewhere.

Stephanie, great essay. Especially love the Richard III conceit. One thing, though. One caution. Please do not cast a "large, scary black man" to co-sign Martha in ...Virginia Woolf. The world has so rarely seen a production with ANYONE of color playing any of those roles, that whatever nuance or playing with stereotypes you would be after in that casting would be lost on everyone, particularly on audiences (and artists) of color. Let's see a black woman play Martha or a Pacific Islander play George first.

It is exactly why I would cast a 'large, scary black man' as Martha- to take advantage of and then work on the audiences expectations of what a 'large, scary black man' could mean or should mean or really means. The entire perception of 'scary, black man' especially in todays world is an idea unto itself that I would play with (and would want to play with in a production where I would also cast Asian, latino and disabled actors). I think it is a strong enough text to bear all of that- I would not do it with a weak text show though.

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