(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 theatre artist or administrator.
ANN MARIE MORELLI: I have been a professional actress for 25 years both in NYC and regionally. Currently, in addition to performing, I am an administrative assistant with Theater Breaking Through Barriers, formally Theater By the Blind, a theater dedicated to advancing the careers of performers with disabilities. We are an integrated company of disabled and non-disabled people working together seamlessly. We are one of the few theaters dedicated to working with Performers with Disabilities and the only professional Off –Broadway Company of its kind in NYC. In my administrative capacity, I am in charge of new play research and development. I also help to find new talent and coordinate special projects. In fact, right now we are preparing for a special performance at the UN in NYC. We have been invited to perform at the opening ceremonies on Dec. 3, 2013 for International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This is our second invitation from the UN in 2 months. We also performed on Oct. 10 to help raise awareness for Disaster Risk Reduction while another branch of our company travelled to Zagreb, Croatia to perform at the Blind in Theater Festival, an international theater festival which brings together blind and low-vision theater companies to share works and exchange ideas.
JL: Where do you live? How has your community addressed issues of disability for its theatre artists and administrators, and also its audience? How has this impacted your work?
AM: I live in Midtown Manhattan. I am very fortunate, because I live at Manhattan Plaza, a housing complex dedicated to performing artists. It is completely accessible to me. In fact, most areas are because of A.D.A. rules. Our company, by our mission, is dedicated to being accessible to people of all abilities. Generally, public areas are accessible. We just need to get to the point where facilities are made accessible for performers as well as audience. Since we unfortunately do not own our theater space, we as a company have purchased ramps to make back stage areas accessible to our wheelchair users. We also have tricks to make the stage more accessible to blind and low vision actors, like using rope or raised areas on stage that they can feel with their feet so that they can navigate the space easier and have created sound cues that have multiple frequencies to help our hard of hearing actors hear cues.
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?
AM: We should not need. We are all people. We all have stories to tell. No two people have the same experience in life, so as theater artists, we need to tell our story from our own perspective.
We have made great strides in racial equality in the arts, though, of course, there can be more. Disability is the next prejudice we need to conquer.
I was “able-bodied” for most of my life and I know the fear that is attached with the prospect of disability. I believe that fear is the real reason for discrimination of any kind.
We need to recognize that and once we do, then I think that then we can overcome it.
JL: What practical action steps and/or resources would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies who would like to address issues of accessibility for its artists and administrators, and audiences?
AM: We should see that if a person is qualified to do a job, they should be given the opportunity to do it. We can’t say that a person is less than without seeing what they can do. Every person disabled or not has strengths and weaknesses. Focus on peoples strengths.
JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of disability in theatre?
AM: 15% of the world is living with a disability– that is over 1 billion people and as life expectancy gets longer, more and more people are becoming part of that number. No person wants to be defined by one single characteristic. I can no longer walk and I use a wheelchair to ambulate. I didn’t start using a chair until about 7 years ago. What makes anyone think that it is all I am? I have never wanted to be an advocate for PWD’s, but circumstances in my life even before my own disability, have made me realize that disability is something that most of us have to deal with in some way in our lives and that it does not define a person.
JL: As an advocate of disability in the theatre, can you recommend plays that I should be reading or playwrights I should be following?
AM: There are of course the plays of John Belluso, Lynn Manning, David Freeman and others but rather than looking to do plays by and for people with disabilities, I think that it is our obligation to broaden our perceptions of casting and realize that with certain exceptions, (physical limitations to play a character) a PWD should be given a level playing field. Granted you wouldn’t cast a man in a wheelchair to play Jessie Owens (unless it’s a man who thinks he’s Jessie Owens, in which case all bets are off) but why not a blind Willie Loman or a wheelchair using Hermia ( which I did)? Theater is about creating your own world, so anything should be possible.
Ann Marie Morelli is an actress and administrative assistant with Theater Breaking Through Barriers, a professional Off-Broadway theater company in NYC. TBTB established in 1979 as Theater by the Blind, is an integrated theater company that works with artists, writers, designers and staff with and without disabilities. She studied theatre at Marywood University and The Royal National Theatre of Great Britain. She has worked in NYC, regionally and internationally for over 20 years.
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