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In NYC, A Play Festival Spotlights Stories Of Disability
Ike Schambelan doesn't like thinking about disability, and he's guessing you don't either.
"We hate it. We do not want to see it," he says. "Personally, I want to see it least in myself, second in my wife, third in my cat and fourth in you and all others. I don't want to know about it. I want to be in a total state of denial about it as much as I can be."
But discomfort with disability shouldn't mean shunting disabled people to the shadows. That's why Schambelan has spent 34 years as artistic director of Theater Breaking Through Barriers, an off-Broadway company that gives disabled artists a professional home.
Through June 28, the company presents "Still More of Our Parts," its third annual festival of new short plays, with works commissioned from writers like Neil LaBute (Reasons to Be Pretty) and Samuel D. Hunter (The Whale). The veteran critic Julius Novick dramaturged the program, and Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins is in the ensemble — but as with every TBTB show, these shorts integrate performers with a range of disabilities.
Bekah Brunstetter's 2013 entry, Forgotten Corners of Your Dark, Dark Place, stars actresses who use wheelchairs and motorized scooters, playing various women trying to sort out their lives.
Schambelan's company members can be understandably reluctant to be pigeonholed as disabled artists. The spirit of inclusion, however, doesn't eradicate direct questions about what disabilities are, what they mean, and how they should be addressed.
"The hope is that you're seen as an actor first, and that there is no role out of bounds," says Mary Theresa Archbold, who's appeared in several TBTB shows. She has a prosthetic arm, but in her Web series Pat and Mary Save Their Marriage, she never mentions it.
"It's one of the things I enjoy most about [the show]," she says.
Archbold does have a disability, though, even if it can sometimes be invisible. And if she could risk being ghettoized by focusing on an impairment, couldn't she also risk diminishing her particular point of view by never mentioning it at all?
"It's a rock and a hard place," she says. "I feel like I cherry-pick when and where I talk about it." (She's not hiding anything, for instance, in her show Jazz Hand: Tales of a One-Armed Woman.)
Schambelan walks a similar line with his company's programming, which features Shakespeare as often as impairment dramas.
"We try to do plays about disability, but also to do plays that give disabled actors wonderful parts to play that they wouldn't normally get to play," he says.
Other Approaches To Approaching The Other
Of course there aren't exactly hundreds of plays about disability just waiting to be produced. So a festival like "Still More of Our Parts" — where all six of this year's 10-minute plays directly address disability — is designed in part to help add to that particular canon, encouraging established playwrights to explore writing for disabled actors.
Those writers might follow in the steps of disabled scribes like Charles Mee and the late John Belluso, whose work often contends with the limits of the body. On his website, Mee identifies himself as "an old crippled white guy," and he notes that "there is not a single role in any one of my plays that must be played by a physically intact white person."
When Mee's show soot and spit, about the deaf artist James Castle, was produced this spring at Arizona State University, it featured cast members who have Down syndrome and other cognitive disabilities. Those performers were part of Arizona's Detour Company Theatre, which also casts disabled performers in musicals like Oklahoma! and South Pacific.
Some theaters don't even look to playwrights for story ideas, finding them closer to home instead. Vermont's Awareness Theater Company and St. Louis' DisAbility Project — the latter a program of That Uppity Theatre Company — both work with disabled actors to create shows based on their own lives.
"We're trying to have the members put their imagined lives or their life stories on stage in an interesting way," says Emily Anderson, Awareness Theater's director and founder.
Awareness tours these shows and related workshops to schools, and Anderson says the impact is obvious not only on the performers, who have a unique chance to express themselves, but also on the students.
"They were dumbfounded," she says, recalling one particular high-school group. "I think it's because the company members have this confidence. The kids will say, 'Wow, I was led through a warm-up by a person with a disability.' They can look up to these people not just as peers, but as mentors."
When Archbold talks about Theater Breaking Through Barriers, she cites a similar emphasis on visibility — a similar chance to make disabled people seem less foreign.
"People will assume that if you're in a wheelchair that you can't have perfect comedic timing, but you can," she says. "They can use their chairs in ways to make a moment even funnier. That's important for an audience to see. The more we can increase people's comfort with disabilities, the more they can become mainstream."
Plus, as Ike Schambelan suggests, seeing successful artists with disabilities could ultimately make it a little easier to deal with our private fears.
"People want to believe, 'You're disabled, and I'm not,' but it's really a sliding scale," he says. "It may just be that everyone's walking around with these hidden wounds that they don't talk about or show because they're not supposed to. But if we can talk about these things and deal with them more, then it could be OK to be flawed. And what is 'flawed,' anyway?"