Re-membering the Canon

Sam Gold’s The Glass Menagerie

What is at stake when disability in the text doesn’t match disability in the actor’s body? This is the question that came to mind after seeing the current Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and then reading the critical responses to it. Though Menagerie remains one of theatre’s most famous memory plays, many critics had trouble with the re-membering (some would argue dis-membering) of Sam Gold’s production and revealed themselves to be more comfortable with the playwright’s incorporation of disability than the director’s. Gold’s bold interpretation of the play seemed to get under the skin of critics in a way that few productions do, as much as for his directorial vision as for his casting of an actor with a disability in a leading role. The vehement responses from critics admit their predisposition to privilege the supremacy of text above all else.

When disability shifts from being a theatrical metaphor to a material presence on stage, it raises questions about acting versus being and, indeed, theatrical representation itself.

While several critics did respond favorably, I am more interested in addressing those who expressed discomfort and dis-ease in their reviews. This production and the critical response to it foreground the consideration of disability in the text versus disability in a live, human body. When disability shifts from being a theatrical metaphor to a material presence on stage, it raises questions about acting versus being and, indeed, theatrical representation itself. Why, for instance, did critics applaud the casting of Deaf West Theatre’s two Broadway productions, Big River and Spring Awakening, which featured a mixture of deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing actors in nondisabled roles, but express something akin to outrage at the casting of an actor with a disability as a character with a disability in The Glass Menagerie? Gold’s casting of Madison Ferris as Laura incited some measure of critical controversy because she uses a wheelchair due to what one critic referred to as her “palpable muscular dystrophy.” Ferris’s wheelchair apparently did not sit well with critics who prefer their disability metaphoric and their texts sacred.

Menagerie, Williams’s first Broadway success, sits in a long lineage of disability as theatrical metaphor extending back to the origins of Western theatre (see: any Greek tragedy featuring Tiresias, theatre’s original “super crip”). Because the current production was greeted by such vitriol by critics who felt that Gold had somehow violated Williams’s text, let us turn to what Williams actually wrote. Williams himself does not shy away from disability as metaphor; indeed, Tom opens the play by describing how “the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind.” Williams’s description of Laura has led to the role nearly always being cast with an able-bodied actress cripping up for the role: “A childhood illness has left her crippled, one leg slightly shorter than the other, and held in a brace. This defect need not be more than suggested on the stage. Stemming from this, Laura’s separation increases till she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf.” The play contains two notable exchanges where Laura’s unnamed disability is spoken of, first in the second scene:

LAURA [in a tone of frightened apology]: I’m—crippled!

AMANDA: Nonsense! Laura, I’ve told you never, never to use that word. Why, you’re not crippled, you just have a little defect—hardly noticeable, even! When people have some slight disadvantage like that, they cultivate other things to make up for it—develop charm—and vivacity—and—charm! That’s all you have to do!

Later in the play, in scene five, Tom confronts Amanda with the c-word again:

TOM: Laura seems all those things to you and me because she’s ours and we love her. We don’t even notice she’s crippled anymore.

AMANDA: Don’t say crippled! You know I never allow that word to be used!​

These exchanges are all the extant mentions of disability in the text, and their brevity adds to their potency—disability is clearly not to be spoken aloud in this house. In the first exchange, Laura attempts to claim her disability identity only to be told by her mother to develop an extraordinary ability to “make up” for her “little defect.” Though Williams explains in the opening stage directions that “The scene is memory and therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license,” many critics felt the need to go to great lengths to point out the disjuncture between Ferris’s specific disability and Laura’s unnamed disability. Why does the presence of a disabled performer onstage seem to confuse reviewers’ critical ability to discern the difference between acting and being? In a piece arguing that critics should learn the language of disability, Howard Sherman asks, “Does a disability that blurs the line between actor and role blur it in some undefined way that all other acting performances manage to escape?” One might argue that critics often point out these differences, usually when they are about age differences between actor and character (to which this production was no exception), yet we must ask why the critical dis-ease with Ferris’s casting was so dominant in the negative responses.

Three performers on stage
Madison Ferris, Sally Field, and Joe Mantello. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

The onstage wheelchair, used for an actor’s mobility instead of as a prop for a nondisabled actor as is conventional, caused anguish amongst those whose sensibilities were upset by having the realization that realism is not the same thing as reality. Critic David Rooney went so far as to claim that “the incontrovertible reality of the wheelchair onstage constantly takes us out of the play.” He had earlier slammed Ferris for not playing “the fragile, terrified girl…that Williams wrote,” implicitly asking how dare Laura be played against the text and the usual type? In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz called the wheelchair a trick “that’s been done onstage before.” While he’s not wrong, there has been exactly one actual wheelchair user on Broadway before (Ali Stroker in the ensemble of Spring Awakening), yet Ferris is the first wheelchair user to play a leading role on Broadway. This alone should have been cause for celebration, not consternation. In an interview with People, Ferris acknowledged the difference her casting has on the play: “It definitely brings more to the character,” she says. “There’s higher stakes for the family of Tom leaving and there’s a literal, physical dependency on him. In this production, Laura ends up being the survivor of the family. Which is pretty empowering.” The Wingfield’s story becomes one of accommodation, which also raised the economic stakes for a Depression-era family at a time when the national conversation about disability was centered around institutionalization and/or sterilization rather than accessibility. The Wingfield apartment is clearly not accessible, as the opening moments of this production demonstrate; later, we see are shown how Amanda and Tom have learned to accommodate Laura’s disability and, devastatingly, the consequences of Amanda’s refusal to acknowledge Laura’s difference.

Most disturbing of all critical responses was Rex Reed, writing for the Observer. After parroting the by-now usual lines about Williams rolling over in his grave, Reed openly describes his prejudice against seeing disabled actors onstage. He writes, “Forgive me if it’s not a politically correct thing to say, but I found [Ferris’s] struggle alarmingly distracting enough to throw the whole play off balance. For an actress who knows too well this might be her last chance to be cast in a major role on Broadway, the experience is probably a dream. For the audience, it’s something of a nightmare.” Who knew Reed was a mind reader in addition to being a critic? I, for one, can’t forgive openly espousing this patronizing stigmatization of both actor and audience.

Why does the presence of a disabled performer onstage seem to confuse reviewers’ critical ability to discern the difference between acting and being?

Recent Pulitzer Prize winner Hilton Als, writing for The New Yorker, referred to Ferris’s casting in derogatory language, asking, “Why is Ferris’s disease called upon to generate a spectacle, the ‘drama’ of this scene? This kind of manipulative bid for tension is a trick that reveals not Williams’s understanding of illusions but Gold’s lack of comprehension.” Als pathologizes Ferris at the same time he turns her body into a prop to be used by the director, which is in line with those who see Ferris’s casting as somehow exploitative of her disability. Writing in the New York Times, Neil Genzlinger counters this line of argument by explaining, “I read that as, ‘It was unpleasant to see Ms. Ferris pull herself along the floor by her arms; I prefer that people with disabilities remain invisible, as they so often are.’” Theatre is, literally, a place for looking and spectators are asked to look at the bodies onstage. The critical response to this production is ultimately about what disability scholar Tobin Siebers describes in his book Disability Aesthetics as “how some bodies make other bodies feel.” For some of us in the audience, the bodies onstage made us feel awakened to a new perspective on a canonical play, whereas others felt like an old friend had been violated.

Two performers on stage
Madison Ferris and Sally Field. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Violence was the other metaphor critics turned to in discussing this production. Ben Brantley opened his review in the New York Times by writing that “Gold [took] a hammer to everything that’s delicate” in the play, before going on to privilege the seemingly destructible poetry of Williams’s language. Worse still, Hilton Als wrote that “the despair and disgust” he felt after seeing this production “was so debilitating” partially because he felt “robbed of the beauty of Williams’s script.” Als’ turn to disability as metaphor (was he really debilitated afterwards?) only hints at the regressive language to come. He ruminates, “But I don’t know how Ferris’s reality jibes with the world that Williams created: Laura wishes to hide her difference; Ferris’s difference cannot be hidden—it defines her in society and thus on the stage.” He seems to see Ferris less as a person and more as tool for Gold to use as he destroys Williams’s poetry.

This essay aims to push our theatrical and social cultures forward by challenging ableist assumptions not just about who gets to play certain roles but about who is allowed to be seen—not just represented—onstage at all. To those critics so finely attuned to the power of Williams’s language, I implore you to consider the power of your own.

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I am grateful for this piece. I am a huge Tennessee Williams fan and wished I had been in New York to see this production. When I read the reviews referenced I was shocked and disappointed. It never occurred to me that critics (and/or audiences) would respond this way and I felt sad for the actors and the director. So I welcomed a more thorough discussion. Thank you Mr. Donovan for a thought provoking piece. Plays are living breathing things that are by nature shaped and changed by the bodies on the stage. This production included an actor whose very presence made us see the work differently and hopefully see other people differently, too. For that I am grateful.

If it makes you feel better, the performance I saw had everyone (from where I could see from the back row of the orchestra, as I was still seated) standing up for an ovation at the end.

But for something that was billed as "reimagined", it felt to me like the same damn play (pardon the invective, I was annoyed at the end of it). For the first 20 minutes, I thought it was something new and different. After that, it was just the same script on an almost bare stage with rain coming down near the end. :-(

I love how you state the possibility of plays to be shaped and changed by the bodies onstage--beautifully put! I hope that even those who disliked the production were moved in some small measure to see other people differently, too; I believe theatre has the real ability to make that happen. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Ryan—thank you so much for this piece, particularly the opening question. I’ve sat on this comment for a few days now, unable to fully articulate all the complex ideas and emotions its stirred. I didn’t and won’t see the GM production, not simply because it’s closing so soon, but because I don’t need to see yet another GM. But Madison Ferris’ casting would’ve been the one element of the production to get me there. “What is at stake when disability in the text doesn’t match disability in the actor’s body?” I read your opening question (and think you pose it) expansively—what is at stake when the body in the text doesn’t match the actor’s body. And really, we’re talking an actor who is disabled appearing on stage and the disability is not the focus of the narrative (e.g. novel-turned-film “Me Without You”… disabled character performed by non-disabled actor btw). What is at stake? Everything. Possibility. Lives. Change. Inclusion. Hope for the American theatre. As a non-disabled person, a theatre maker, why must I only ever work with non-disabled people (or appearing to be non-disabled)? Because it’s easier for me? Because it’s easier, more comfortable for audiences? This makes no sense. I am working through my societally re-enforced, systemic ablism because not only does it make me a stronger theatre artist it makes me a more compassionate, empathetic community member in the world at large. I second your imploring. And I believe Tennessee Williams would too.

Thanks for your comment and grappling with these issues. Part of what bugged me about the critical response was that Ferris was used as an emblem of everything else some critics found wrong about this production.

I love the answers you propose to the opening question, especially change and inclusion. Theatre is a place where we can foster change and make spaces more inclusive for all bodies, onstage and off. This production and even its negative critical responses have certainly played a part in raising visibility for disability inclusion.

The ineloquence of the critics aside, and recognizing the need for all people to be able to tell their stories onstage, this article misses some pretty big points about Williams' script.

That is that the illnesses/disabilities/ etc Williams was truly writing about were mental ones, and that every very literal theatrical choice has an effect on the script and what is being conveyed flipping some methapors into literalism, and vice versa.

For example, take the following line from Amanda:

" And she said, “No —I remember her perfectly now. Her hands shook so that she couldn’t hit the right keys! The first time we gave a speed test, she broke down completely —was sick at the stomach and almost had to be carried into the wash room! After that morning she never showed up any more."

On its surface we have a mother recounting her daughter's very real panic/anxiety attacks, ones that debilitate her so much she literally almost needs to be carried somewhere.

Now, put that character into a wheelchair and the line is flipped and this either a line Amanda is fulling making up (I.e lying), or she fully believes and this line is now about insanity...Amanda's insanity. I mean, why would a woman in a wheelchair need to be "carried" to the washroom.

We have now flipped the literal to metaphor...and that's just one line, but the entirety of Amanda is flipped...and it's also a play about her possible (and profound) mental illness.

Such a choice as having Laura fully incapable of moving herself because of a wheelchair does completely change the entirety of the script, its reality, and its characters' truths. I would say in this case, a rather huge one.

I'm all for experimentation and exploration of a text in new ways, and agree that we shouldn't have stigmas of seeing people who are differently abled on stages, but perhaps this choice was simply not well conceived, or well executed. The critics were too harsh in their writing...as was the writer of this article.

The term "crippling up" for one is offensive...especially when "crippling up" physically means we negate the original, and arguably ACTUAL problem Laura had: anxiety and/or depression.

Respectfully, this seems to be a highly strict and specific interpretation of the script. It also suggests that people who are disabled can't also suffer from anxiety and/or depression... or that anxiety and/or depression can't come/go throughout their lives, be triggered by circumstances, or that non-disabled people don't impose upon them (like swooping in to "save" them in a moment of their "distress" carrying them to the restroom... which would like cause more stress and depression).

Thanks for your response and engagement!

For me, this production illuminated parts of the text in new ways. Your point about Laura's "actual" disability is where we differ--though it is clear Laura is anxious and shy, Williams actually explains Laura's disability in non-specific terms (see his character description quoted in the original post).

In terms of the phrase "cripping up" and its potential to offend, know that it is the term many disability activists use to describe the casting of non-disabled actors in roles having some kind of disability that could have otherwise gone to an actor with a disability. I think it SHOULD give pause because to really consider its implications means confronting the fact that actors with disabilities have been denied the right not just to represent themselves on screen but also the chance to play the full range of characters available regardless of temporary notions of ability.

Here is some context about the use of cripping up:
https://www.theguardian.com...

https://medium.com/@Vagrant...

https://crippledscholar.com...

It might be worth noting that the producers just announced The Glass Menagerie is closing on May 21st, some six weeks earlier than planned. Mr. Donovan chooses to focus on critics’ attitudes towards disability on stage, but he leaves out the other reasons that both critics and, evidently, the public at large disliked this production.( I am one of the critics whose review of The Glass Menagerie is on the aggregation site linked to in this essay. https://newyorktheater.me/2...)There is no glass menagerie in this Glass Menagerie, nor much of any set at all – a folding table and a couple of chairs that are clearly the kind of “furniture” you’d find in a rehearsal studio, not a family’s apartment in St. Louis. When Sally Field as Amanda dresses to greet the outsider Jim, she is wearing a frilly pink party gown such as an oversized 8-year-old would wear to her birthday party. This makes Amanda seem less like a Southern belle recollecting her prime and closer to Bette Davis’s psychotic in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.”Earlier this week, Field, who has been nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in this production -- and performed as Amanda to acclaim in a 2004 production at the Kennedy Center – candidly explained her reaction to her direction by Sam Gold during the rehearsal process: “I was the one who was constantly going ‘What?’ ‘That didn’t make sense.’ There was a whittling down, a letting go.”Even the lead actress, in other words, concedes that Sam Gold’s production was an out-there interpretation of Tennessee Williams’ play. Now, how central is the casting of Madison Ferris to the reaction of critics towards this production? Here’s what I wrote in my review:“There is something admittedly refreshing for a Broadway audience to be confronted with an actor who is not pretending to be disabled; such a practice is overdue. Gold has told interviewers that his aim is for the audience to understand palpably the situation the family is in. But is this the situation the Wingfield family is in, as the playwright conceived it?”Mr. Donovan seems to express contempt for this kind of question. He twice uses the word “privilege” as a verb to describe (dismiss?) the respect critics have for Williams’ text, language and intention. Mr. Donovan certainly has a right to focus on one aspect of the criticism. As a person with a disability myself, I appreciate somebody bringing attention to societal attitudes towards the disabled. I just wish there had been more context and nuance in his analysis.

It doesn't sound like the author HAS issues with the other criticisms, or at least, they are not central to his point. Can you explain how the critics described have more respect for Williams language, text and intention and why that would have been hampered by Ferris' casting? And what is your interpretation of "the situation the family is in" vs. Gold's interpretation?

The clear implication of this essay is that the criticism about the casting of one of the actors is central to the disappointment that critics felt about this production -- and that the reaction is a result of some kind of ignorance and prejudice about disability. The author is making this point by cherry-picking quotations out of their context. I don't want to do the same thing. Please read the reviews (such as mine) and you'll have your answers.

The reviews that I quoted, or "cherry-picked" as you say, did reveal some kind of ignorance about disability or at least the inability to see disability beyond its use as a textual and theatrical metaphor. That's the whole crux of my argument in this piece.

I don't know whether the critics are prejudiced against disability and do not claim so (again, I think critics are vital to theatre)--the point is that critics who felt Williams' language was so beautiful it could easily be broken did not appear to consider their own language in relation to people with disabilities and disability representation.

I was actually surprised at how many critics seemed to like the play when I started researching it, as I had such a visceral reaction against it (as far as I could tell, I was one of only a handful who didn't stand for an ovation at the end when I saw it in April). I had started looking at the reviews due to my annoyance with Sam Gold's direction, something that had been described as "re-imagined", but which felt like the same damn play (pardon my invective) after about 20 minutes. Had there been an intermission, I would have left then.

Granted, this has never been a play I liked all that well and I only got tickets because I thought a visiting relative might like it. So there's that to consider. Yet saying it was reimagined sparked my curiosity as to how one could look at the play from a different perspective. So maybe I missed the point. Maybe my dislike of the play overrode my ability to see the smaller changes within it, but I really thought "reimagining" would be, I guess, just more.

All in all, it's certainly got me thinking about what do we mean when we say "reimagined" with respect to a play's staging. That's what I'm researching now.

But back to the point you were making, isn't it possible for there to be a "both/and" here? That some or many of the critics did not realize (or in the case of Rex Reed perhaps didn't care or fully appreciate) the ignorance and/or prejudice in their words AND they also had other points/observations to make about the play. With the recognition that some of that prejudice and/or ignorance unfortunately for them undermined the arguments they were making.

Teresa, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I totally agree it can be and is a both/and--some of the critics I cited had other positive things to say about the production. My piece was not about the positive or negative reception of the production as a whole per se, but about how many critics wrote about disability in this production and how Williams' text was viewed in relation. Re-imagining familiar works is certainly a rich topic for research--especially lots to consider when the re-imagining provokes a lot of intense reactions both pro- and con-, like Gold's work here.

Thank you, Ryan, for beautifully articulating what many disabled artists and allies have been feeling regarding the shameful and unabashed ableism present in most of these reviews. To take your point even further, I consider some of their rhetoric (particularly, Reed's) to be hate speech. If a reviewer were to attack an actor of color in that way in 2017, people would be calling for his immediate dismissal. It's indicative of how far we still have to do with regard to issues of representation of disability.

Thanks for your engagement with the piece! I think that your question about the family's situation is valid and much appreciate that you ask it in your review. However, I think that the question of authorial intent is tricky--for instance, it has become de rigueur for director's to re-set Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Miller in times and places the playwright surely couldn't have intended. What fealty to an author's "intent" do we owe the playwright in revival?

As Sarah commented below, I chose not to focus on other aspects of the critical responses to this production because critical reaction to a performer with a disability was my central concern here. I think many critics raised valid points about where and why they did not like Gold's vision. And it's not that I have contempt for critics but rather that I think we need them --but also that they should be accountable for their choice of words and I thank you for holding me accountable to my own.

First, thanks for your civil response, which is much appreciated.I find the question of authorial intent potentially fascinating, worth exploring (Indeed, it's something I considered writing about myself -- the differing approaches this season towards "The Glass Menagerie" versus "The Price" or "The Little Foxes," for example.) But you don't explore it in your essay; instead, you just seem to condemn the critics for explaining why they think the violations of authorial intent don't work IN THIS SPECIFIC PRODUCTION. MKRAW25, who clearly saw this production, gives a glimpse into some of the reasons why. A full reading of the reviews you quote would reveal others. I see that you've responded to MK, so I'll add here what's in the reviews -- Williams was basing the character of Laura on his own sister Rose, the specifics of whose afflictions are in the historical record. Should we care? It's a question worth exploring, rather than simply condemning the theatergoers who do care.Another issue you could have explored, but chose not to, is why none of these same critics had any problem with the casting of disabled performers in Spring Awakening. This too is potentially fascinating. It seems to me there are two types of what one can call alternative casting. There's what used to be called color-blind casting; where you hire an actor who happens to have specific traits (race, ethnicity, age, gender, or disability, etc.) that are not necessarily ones shared by the character. An example of this is the casting in Spring Awakening of Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair. And then there's the hiring of performers BECAUSE of one or more of their traits, to make a point. A good example of this was the hiring of the deaf actors in Spring Awakening. It also works wonderfully well in Hamilton. It doesn't work for me in Sam Gold's The Glass Menagerie.I guess what I'm saying is, I wish you had chosen to focus on something less narrow than condemning critics for some stupid word choices. Some of these, when I read the full reviews, seemed taken out of context. So your choice of how to stand up for the rights of the disabled winds up in what feels to me like a misleading attack on theater critics.Critics are an easy target in a publication primarily by and for theater makers. But it's not the critics who chose not to hire an autistic performer for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, or a blind performer for The Miracle Worker -- or why there are so few disabled performers in any roles. It's not critics who do not provide captioning for any but rare and select performances. Does the Belasco Theater, the recently renovated Broadway house where "The Glass Menagerie" is being presented, offer state-of-the-art technology so that it's fully accessible to the blind, the deaf, and the physically challenged?

To respond to a few of your points:

Of course I read the full reviews of this production. More than 40 of them, in fact. This is what informed my need to write the article. And I appreciate that as a critic, you are free to disagree with my conclusions--and it's made for an interesting conversation!

I don't think I "condemned" anyone and certainly did intend to, scold perhaps, take to task, yes, but condemn is stronger language than I would use to describe this. And this is a piece about the impact of language after all.

I would suggest that actors with disabilities are easy targets for critics. I love critics but that doesn't mean I think they are unimpeachable. I disagree that this is merely about "stupid word choices." Totally agree with you that the critics bear no responsibility for theatre accessibility and that the onus is on the industry itself to change. Great points!

I did mention the casting of Deaf West's productions in the first paragraph: "Why, for instance, did critics applaud the casting of Deaf West Theatre’s two Broadway productions, Big River and Spring Awakening, which featured a mixture of deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing actors in nondisabled roles, but express something akin to outrage at the casting of an actor with a disability as a character with a disability in The Glass Menagerie?" I didn't go in to great detail but I did raise the question.

1.I never doubted that you *read* all the reviews in their entirety, and that you were genuinely offended by too many stupid word choices. What I’ve taken issue with is the way you’ve *presented* those reviews in your essay. I’ve said your selective quoting takes them out of context and thus gives your readers a misleading impression.Let’s take just one example, the review by David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter. You quote him as writing: "the incontrovertible reality of the wheelchair onstage constantly takes us out of the play " But the context of the line you quote is the following:Amanda’s “disconnect from reality comes across almost as willful cruelty when she chides Laura for using the word "cripple," insisting that her "little defect" is hardly noticeable. Gold clearly has no interest in literal representation. But the incontrovertible reality of the wheelchair onstage constantly takes us out of the play when Amanda instructs her daughter to go sit on the (invisible) couch or go to the grocery store for butter. We have observed over and over just how much struggle such actions would require of her…”Rooney was not saying that he was made personally uncomfortable by the presence of the wheelchair, which was what one could infer from your selective quoting. He was saying that it renders some of Amanda's lines difficult to make sense of. You also leave out the positive things Rooney says about the production -- the “bold experiment that's often riveting but seldom wholly satisfying…” -- and about the actress playing Laura -- "Ferris, in addition to being stronger than the standard Laura, is also more beautiful; the equalizing sweetness of their connection in that post-supper scene makes the dismantling of her moment of happiness all the more poignant.”2. Yes, of course, you did “raise the question” of the critics’ applause for the casting of Spring Awakening, but you didn’t attempt to answer the question, nor explore the implications the answer would have for your thesis that --- you quibble with the word condemn, so let’s use your words – scolds/impeaches the critics. If you truly believe that critics “target” disabled performers – if that statement that “actors with disabilities are easy targets for critics” wasn’t just an attempt at a snappy comeback – then why didn’t they “target” the performers of Spring Awakening?3. I'm sure we agree more than we disagree on all matters concerning the theater and disability rights, and I would have left it at that if I hadn't felt the need to clarify my point after this last response of yours .