We Will Make That History Visible

by Gregg Mozgala

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for We Will Make That History Visible

(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)

Diversity & Inclusion blog salon: Disability in the American Theatre

JACQUELINE LAWTON:  First tell me about the work you do as a theater artist and/or administrator.

GREGG MOZGALA:  I am an actor, performer, sometimes playwright and just over a year ago, I became founder and artistic director of a new company, The Apothetae, which is dedicated to the production of full-length plays that deal with the “Disabled Experience.”

JL:  Where do you live?  How has your community addressed issues of disability for its theater artists and administrators, and also its audiences?  How has this impacted your work?

GM:  I live on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City.  Since moving to the city in 2000, my knowledge of the Disability Community has grown and expanded.  My own perception of this particular community and my place in it is in a constant state of flux.  My first job here was with a theater company that worked with people with physical disabilities.  This was the first time I had ever truly, consciously entered that world in the hopes of connecting with like-minded theater artists who themselves had disabilities to explore and participate in the work that was being created.  I should say, that it was the ‘first time’, not because I resisted that world, but because I had not known of any other companies of that nature that existed before.  I went in with the best of intentions and the highest of hopes, (finally, here was a place specifically for people like me!), but the place was a bit of a nightmare and the job only lasted a year.  It was an incredible learning experience however, and has helped shape where I am today.

The major issue with the company (which is no longer in operation) was that while it was a great place for people with disabilities to meet and work with each other on a social level, it was not a place for people who were interested in the serious pursuit of a profession in the theater.  The entire place had a therapeutic bent to it and the company never produced shows.  In the rare cases where they did present productions, they were cabaret-style musical performances that had a droll, saccharine sentimentality to them.  If you have ever heard a choir of people with various physical disabilities sing, “I Believe I Can Fly,” I can assure you, that that song takes on an entirely new meaning.  Experiences like this always left me feeling like I was being trotted out and put on display for an audience, rather than just being presented as a legitimate actor or performer.  In one instance, during a presentation of selections from Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris, the director (who was also the artistic director of the company) made me walk to different points of the stage in between verses so that my cerebral palsy would be visible to members of the audience.  I did it begrudgingly because I was getting paid, but that direction did absolutely nothing to enhance the storytelling.

Since 2001, I have been pursuing work as an actor.  The Alliance For Inclusion in the Arts, formerly known as The Non-Traditional Casting Project, is a fantastic organization.  They were and continue to be a great resource and keep me abreast of audition and casting opportunities, which has led to me booking some gigs and working with some great people.

In 2006, I joined a company called, Theater Breaking Through Barriers.  They were formerly called Theater By The Blind, and worked exclusively with actors with visual impairments, integrating them with able-bodied actors.  They approached me to join because they had just received a major grant from TCG to expand and include more actors with various physical disabilities.  I worked with them as a performer in several of their productions and as an administrator in various roles throughout the years.  Their model was to present two shows a year, a Shakespearean work and a classical or contemporary American work.  It provided me with an artistic home and gave me great opportunities as a performer.  However, there was no emphasis on new work, which would ultimately create more opportunities for actors with disabilities and there always seemed to be a disconnect between my work with TBTB and the larger theater scene here in New York and elsewhere.  Even though I was gaining chops, cutting my teeth on the works of Shakespeare and Miller and Shaw, etc. I wasn’t getting those same opportunities outside of the company.  An audience could accept me playing Chris Keller from All My Sons, for example, within the context of a disabled theater company, but outside of those parameters it just didn’t happen.  Statistically, based on reports from Actor’s Equity, the number of characters on stage representing American Indians, Arab Americans, Middle Eastern Americans and People with Disabilities is so small that they totaled less than 1% combined.

These barriers to employment, opportunity and the overall lack of narratives that deal with disability in the American Theatrical Cannon, ultimately led to me creating The Apothetae.  We just started our second year, had our first production in June, and have already garnered critical attention and praise for our work.

JL:  Do we need disability based theaters and programs?   What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?  What is lost?

GM:  Yes.  I believe Theatre offers one of the greatest venues for perceptions about disability to change; it is immediate, events happen in real time and it demands participation.  It also provides visibility, creates community and serves as a place of inclusion and a forum for ideas.  Every other large marginalized group that has broken through to mainstream American culture; African Americans, Asian Americans, Gays and Lesbians, Women, Latinos, etc. historically have used theatre to tell their stories; to challenge and change perceptions and to carve out a place for themselves in the larger American landscape.  Commercial theatre, Hollywood and major studios began to take notice when the stories of these various peoples started showing up on stage.  Today in 2013 (while there is always more work to be done), ethnic diversity is prevalent on television, in film and on stage.

Why isn’t this true of disability?  I think the answer is two fold:

1.) Quality material for theatre artists with disabilities that concerns itself with the disabled experience in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries does not exist.  Who are our heroes, cultural icons and role models?  It is The Apothetae’s goal to serve as an incubator for new works about disability in the hope that an entirely new canon of plays will be created.  Disabled people have existed since the dawn of time.  We have always been here, yet that history is largely unknown.  Through our work we will make that history visible; our contributions, our struggles, our triumphs and yes, even our failures.

2.) The disabled community is incredibly varied and complex.  Disability crosses all socio-economic, political and racial lines.  Unlike an ethnic minority, there is no specific country or culture to look back to for particular inspiration or historical context.  In addition, the experience of someone with cerebral palsy for instance, is very different from that of an amputee or someone who is visually impaired or suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome.  There are commonalities to be sure, but I believe what makes disability hard to define and codify is the same thing that makes it inherently dramatic in nature.  It is my firm belief that the artist’s job is never to say, “this is the way things are,” or “this is what you should think about this,” but rather explore the questions surrounding the issue and make them visible.  Every time I work I want the questions to become clearer.  The creation of new works and the re-appropriation of existing works help frame our experience in a historical context while simultaneously creating new mythologies.  It finally allows us to take ownership of our personal and collective identity.

In my own life, I don’t just hang out with disabled people.  Nor am I only interested in “disabled stories;” ones that more often than not show us triumphing over adversity.  I am a thirty-something crippled white guy.  I was the third of four children raised by a first-generation Italian mother with strong Catholic beliefs and a father who spent twenty plus years in the United States Navy.  I was born with a disability, but disability does not consume my life. Most of our lives are taken up with love, and loss, and work, and sex, and family and the day-to-day struggle for our lives —just like anyone else.

I originally commissioned four writers, three able-bodied and one disabled (visually impaired), to write new plays based on the “Disabled Experience.”  I would like to have worked with other writers with disabilities, but the talent isn’t there and needs to be developed.  John Belluso passed away in 2006 and Charles Mee, who contracted polio as a teenager, has been very clear on his feelings about writing specifically for the Disabled Community over the years.  Historically, I’d say we’re a good quarter of a century behind.  The ADA (American With Disabilities Act) came out twenty-five years after the Civil Rights Act of 1965.  There’s been activism and political movement surrounding Disability Rights for several decades now, but the exploration of disability through a cultural, artistic lens is still relatively new.  By working with writers who are established in the New York and Regional theater scene, they bring their own networks of actors, directors, designers and audience to the table.  I am interested in exposing the actors and theatre professionals with disabilities that I know and want to work with to people with a wide range of expertise, experience and backgrounds.  Non-disabled actors and playwrights will be asked to write and say the things about the disabled experience that they think they should not. Disabled actors must respond instead of reacting.  Only through honest interaction and collaboration, can habitual perceptions be altered and new ways of being and seeing one another achieved.

JL:  What practical actions, steps and/or resources would you recommend to local, regional and national theater companies who would like to address the issues of accessibility for its artists, administrators and audience?

GM:  I don’t know if there’s a simple answer to this question.  Systemically, in the fields of physical therapy and the medical community, there’s a large disconnect between the decision makers, those who dictate policy and the disabled individual.  More often than not, people with disabilities are never actually consulted about programs, and facilities that are supposedly there to benefit them.  This seems like common sense, but it happens more often than not.  Engagement is key, and there are plenty of people and organizations that are willing to do this, but the question is, where do you find the Disabled within the community?  Do they show up to Theater?  Programs just can’t be built or developed and then an audience be expected to appear.  In addition, it costs a lot of money to make a theater truly accessible to disabled audience members.  However, if the majority of subscription holders for major theaters are senior citizens, whom will be facing visual, hearing and mobility impairments as they age, then theaters need to take a good look at the economic benefits of keeping those people coming to their shows.  For theaters that want to engage with the Disabled community, taking on a board member who is familiar with these issues or part of the community may be a good start.

JL:  Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of disability in theatre?

GM:  These days I can’t look on Facebook or open a newspaper or magazine without seeing some article about the “Diversity Debate” raging in theatre, television or on film.  It seems to have started in December 2011 with the hoi polloi over the casting of white actors as Puerto Ricans in Hartford Stage’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play, The Motherfucker With The Hat.  The chatter reached its peak with a flurry of articles surrounding HBO’s new hit series, Girls.  Creator Lena Dunham had been accused of “whitewashing” New York City through her monochromatic character choices.  Most recently, I stumbled upon this article in The New Yorker entitled, “The Diversity Debate: Primary Colors,” which takes as its focus ABC’s, Scandal, created by Shonda Rhimes (of Grey’s Anatomy fame), and starring Kerry Washington.  In all of these articles, and the subsequent responses surrounding them, I have not seen “disability” mentioned once.  Not once.  For me, this begs the question, “Why?”  Why isn’t Disability (with a capital “D”), even considered when discussions pertaining to the issue of diversity arise?

I have been thinking about this a lot lately.  Last year, The New York Times reviewed Theatre Breaking Through Barriers’, “More Of Our Parts” a festival of six new ten minute plays about disability.  There’s a line three quarters of the way through the review that says, “The cast includes artists with disabilities and they do themselves proud…” This caused my spidey sense to go haywire.  Would a reviewer ever write that about the cast of Clybourne Park or the all African American production of Streetcar.  I don’t think so.

For a more expert view on the subject I consulted my friend who is a long time disability advocate in Washington, D.C.  When I asked them over email why they believed disability wasn’t seen on the same level as a racial or ethnic minority, they responded with the following:

- - Because disability isn’t thought of as diversity.  To most people it is still a medical issue, not a cultural one. Not a topic of social concern.  The biggest problem?  Even PWD’s distance themselves from it — to our cultural, political detriment.  Look at our language, even when people are trying to be positive there is a attempt to distance ourselves from it: We’re not disabled Americans (as in African American, for example), we’re people with disabilities — like men with suitcases or women with handbags — like it is something we could leave behind or should.  My attempt to re-frame takes this on squarely by saying, “We haven’t been taught to think about it this way, but disability puts the “D” in Diversity — not after the fact, as an afterthought, a last minute addition after the first batch of invitations went out out but squarely, undeniably, at the beginning — it’s high time we acted like it.  Owned it.  Reclaim it.  And god damn it, do it better this time.  It’s not 1950.  Jerry Lewis has been canned from the telethon.  If we don’t claim our power, how can we expect anyone else to?

There’s a lot of work to be done.  I don’t claim to have any answers.  The Apothetae’s plays will explore these issues and many others.  I think the “Diversity Question” is one that will constantly be reexamined and explored.  I’m not sure when Disability become the Dennis Kucinich of diversity politics, but I do know all we want is a spot on the dais.

JL:  As an advocate of Disability in the Theatre, can you recommend plays that I should be reading or playwrights I should be following?

GM:  Read the plays of John Belluso.  Charles Mee is a genius and all of his work is posted online.  Keep an eye out for the plays soon to be produced by, The Apothetae.

Gregg Mozgala is a critically acclaimed actor and playwright.  Gregg has been in various New York productions Off and Off-Off Broadway with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, The LAByrinthTheatre Company, La Mama ETC, Performance Space 122, Theater Breaking Through Barriers, Foolish Theatre CompanyThe Brick Theater, The National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped, Imua! Theatre Company, Visible Theatre and the Ensemble Studio Theatre.  He has appeared on stage at the Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts and the Spoleto Festival USA.  He has worked internationally in London, England and Zagreb, Croatia.  Gregg is the founder and Artistic Director of The Apothetae - www.theapothetae.org

Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com