The Secret Community: Disability and the American Theater
by Victoria Ann-Lewis, actor and writer
Disabled characters shaped by the old moral and medical models of representation have filled the stage for generations, from the stigmatized Oedipus and Richard III to Tiny Tim, the special child who manifests innocence and goodness in the world. "Sunrise at Campobello," the drama based on FDR's efforts to overcome paralysis, is the best known example of the medical model of presentation, but stories of overcoming disability now outnumber tales of deformity and monstrosity in the mass media. While these older stereotypes endure, the modern conception of disability, reflected in images of autonomous but participatory disabled individuals, is rare on our stages: Children of a Lesser God is the exception, not the rule.
One can argue that theater has been equally resistant to the voices of other American communities. Recent financial woes in the professional theater have resulted in conservative fiscal and artistic policies; Broadway creates ever more extravagant spectacles for a public consisting in large part of tourists. Non-profit, institutional theaters such as American Conservatory Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum gamely attempt to maintain artistic quality and explore dramatic innovation at a time when their traditional audiences are aging and the younger generation is not lining up to fill those every expensive seats.
Certainly there are progressive theatrical leaders working hard to open their doors to previously excluded communities. August Wilson's "Fences," Luiz Valdez's "Zoot Suit," Deborah Rogen's adaptation of Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Warrior Woman," Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" have proven critical and popular successes for the theaters that developed them. The commitment to these new voices is not solely linked to box office revenue. There is a belief, earnestly communicated in the halls of our leading theatrical institutions and around the boardroom tables of the foundations that fund them, that these voices are essential to the survival of American theater; that without them we, as a culture, will be left without guidance in a progressively disjointed and fractious future.
Unfortunately the articulation of this vision rarely includes reference to the disability community. The social revolution brought about by 20 years of disability rights struggle is one of the best kept secrets in the arts and humanities.
For the most part, I am referring to the institutional and academic theater, the so-called "not-for-profit" theater, not about Broadway. I also will not be looking in much detail at stand-up comedy or performance art, although, in truth, these are the fields where a new generation of theater artists with disabilities is flourishing: Cheryl Marie Wade, Kenneth Crow, David Roche, Mary Duffy, Nancy Kennedy, Paul Ryan, Jaehn Clare, Neil Marcus, Julia Trahan, Brad Rothbart and a host of people I've not had the chance to see. I am also not covering the grassroots theaters that are springing up (or have sprung up and departed) such as Diversability Theater in Michigan, Open Door in Minneapolis, and Accessible Theater in Portland, Oregon.
I want to focus on institutional theaters for economic and political reasons. One, these theaters are the few places outside of television and film where an actor can make a decent day's pay, and two, a success like "Children on a Lesser God" provides employment opportunities for deaf actors all around the world.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, coupled with the earlier Section 504 of the Rehab Act, encouraged our theaters, whether academic, non-profit, or commercial, to modify their physical plants and programming to accommodate persons with disabilities. This mandate is being met with widely varying levels of enthusiasm.
Take the issue of ASL interpretation. I know of theaters large and small that have canceled regular sign language performance in their seasons because of lack of response for what they perceive to be an expensive service. Another major theater, however, counted 1,000 tickets sold to deaf persons last year. Successful disability programming, just like that to various ethnic communities, is not a simple case of "If we provide it, they will come." Audience development is an important part of any theater's strategy for survival.
Even when a theater might have an exemplary program in terms of audience access, their backstage areas and administrative offices often remain inaccessible. The idea of a disabled director, actor, designer, PR person or producer has not crossed the minds of most nondisabled directors, actors, designers, etc.
But as serious as problems of physical access are, I am most concerned about the absence of disability from the cultural discussions of our major theatrical institutions. In my experience, technical personnel often find implementing access regulations an interesting application of their professional skills. It is the artistic leadership that remains unaware of the deep social and intellectual forces that brought the ADA about, forces in some instances in direct opposition to the images presented on their stages, yet forces that are ripe for dramatic exploration.
Dramatic literature seems particularly susceptible to the moral and medical models of disability. Consider the ease of signaling good versus evil by the addition of a hook, peg-leg or eye patch. Introductory screenwriting guides actually counsel fledgling authors to give their villain a limp or an amputated limb. The seductive plot possibilities of the medical model with its emphasis on overcoming and cures are irresistible in creating conventional dramatic structure. As historian Paul Longmore has pointed out, the medical model also serves as terrific PR for one of the most powerful of all American myths: the rugged individual who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps.
Most Western drama with its focus on a single hero or heroine supports this mythology. However, one of the contributions of disability studies to sociology and psychology is a deeper understanding of and necessity for dependence and interdependence in human behavior. Further, the new paradigm of disability stresses the social construction of disability. With this model, the responsibility for adjustment to disability is removed from the disabled person and placed on society, which must address institutionalized prejudice and discrimination.
How is this new paradigm to be reflected in cultural artifact, given the emphasis on individual responsibility in conventional dramatic plot and characterization? Add to this creative dilemma an American suspicion of "political theater." British playwrights much more easily integrate personal psychology and social forces (e.g. David Hare's "Plenty" ) than Americans. We Americans want our characters to exist outside the forces of history and economics, making it easier to fix things and achieve a happy ending, which in the case of disabled depiction translates into the cheerful cripple who overcomes all obstacles by sheer will power. The Carnegie Council on Children observed that: "No other minority group has had its social and political oppression so thoroughly masked as the 40 million (now calculated as 49 million) persons with disabilities in the U.S." The big secret.
Through the basic shift in thought concerning identity resulting from the disability rights movement, which substitutes a social construction of disability for one of personal tragedy or triumph, proves difficult to reflect in conventional dramatic terms, one possible way to present the new paradigm is in stories that directly confront prejudice and discrimination. There is dramatic precedent that such representation can be successful.
The play "Elephant Man" paints a searing indictment of societal prejudice and exploitation of the physically different. Though this play, like the movie "Mask," is progressive in that it locates the problem outside of the person, Longmore finds both depictions less than salutary. These characters, though more fully characterized than the monsters that preceded them, are incapable of an integrated life in society. Their fate is death.
Training and casting possibilities for disabled actors are limited. The relatively few characters with disabilities that occur in dramatic literature are routinely played by nondisabled actors, and the employment of actors with disabilities is so limited that the union for stage performers, Actors Equity Association, does not keep these statistics. Few students with disabilities attend theatrical training programs, the normal first step for an aspiring actor.
When I began my career 25 years ago, I was refused training at a prestigious acting academy solely on the basis of my disability. The argument went "This is a 'professional' institution, and since you are disabled you will never work professionally, so we cannot accept you." Of course, this was before the advent of civil rights legislation. Such blatant discrimination could never happen today.
Or so I thought until this summer when I met a young actress in Minneapolis. She had acquired her disability in the middle of a university degree program in acting, and one of her first lessons was the difference in instruction before and after her accident. Prior to her disability, her work was both praised and criticized; post-disability, neither occurred. Her reasonable analysis of this shift in attitude was that her efforts were not praised because no one wanted to give her "false hope" about an acting career, and no one criticized her because of hyper-sensitivity to "hurting the handicapped." But it was when she sought out "professional" training at a local commercial academy that she faced the full force of the societal prejudice against the competence of disabled persons. The academy instructor told her it would be "an insult" to his other students if he accepted her. This despite the fact that he had never met this young woman in person. His loss. She's markedly talented, according to my sources in the professional theater in Minneapolis, and beautiful.
Disabled British artist and activist David Hevey has said that ". . . It is imperative that the disability movement develop methods to influence media-making from inside and outside." My main concern here has been with efforts occurring "within" our institutional theaters and training programs. Again, there are pockets of artistic activity in the disability community around the country despite the reluctance of institutional theaters and academic institutions to make a programmatic commitment to this issue.
Minneapolis's Open Door Theater shows great promise as a grassroots theater. Bay area performance artist Cheryl Marie Wade in 1994 received a solo grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the first time a disabled-identified artist has been awarded one of these highly competitive grants. [Editor's note: theater performance fellowships are no longer available from the NEA.]
One recent phenomenon in American theater does bear our stamp. The Non Traditional casting movement (see accompanying article), which includes actors of color, actors with disabilities, women and seniors, is doing much to create opportunities for all creative artists who have been excluded from the theatrical mainstream. By the time the Non-Traditional Casting Project appeared in the late 1980s, the disability community was already a force to be reckoned with, having fought to be included in non-discriminatory language in Screen Actors Guild (SAG) contracts. Actors Equity was more resistant to the inclusion of people with disabilities in their statement of non-traditional casting, but reason prevailed over prejudice.
Recently Actors Equity and the League of American Theatres and Producers agreed to work together to expand and diversify the pool of applicants for production assistant positions for musicals and plays on Broadway. They identified the production assistant as a good starting point for introducing people of color and people with disabilities into professional theater. Over time, these sorts of programmatic commitments will change the face of American theater.
Whether we as a community will be ready to take advantage of such programs remains a question. The Department of Rehabilitation has begun to consider supporting careers in the arts. Some state branches of Very Special Arts, the most widely known and well-endowed of agencies dedicated to arts and disabilities, have backed professional advancement of disabled artists in addition to their traditional emphasis on arts education for disabled children.
In the meantime, the truth, as Paul Longmore pointed out, is that the most progressive depictions of disability today are in commercials. Sorry if I'm less than overjoyed about cultural proof that yes, we disabled people can consume, too. It's probably a good thing that we're being exploited to sell hamburgers. Some disabled actors are getting work and anything that fosters tolerance these days is OK by me.
But I want more. I want ART. I want theater to reflect the social revolution that's going on in our homes, our "special" schools, our "care facilities," our courts and our streets for the past 20 years. If advertising executives can't afford to neglect a potential market, neither can our cultural institutions for reasons both economic and artistic.
Most importantly, the disability experience is part of the discussion of cultural diversity in the American theater, and we should be at the table. We can wait to be invited or we can just show up. But without a struggle the old assumptions will prevail: that the disability arts equal incompetence, amateurism, therapy and charity. The secret is that the disability movement offers a fierce critique of the nature of power in this country, a critique as disturbing and potentially healing as that of communities of color, the women's movement, or gays and lesbians. Theater as an institution mimics the prevailing order, which means, not to beat a dead horse, that decision-making rests predominantly in the hands of white, privileged, able-bodied males. But theater as an art form depends on power from a different source -- the passion and vision of the creative voice which knows no boundary of race, gender, class or physical ability.
This article is reprinted from The Disability Rage & ReSource, Sept./Oct. 1995.
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