(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.
PAMELA SABAUGH: I am a professional actor, singer/ musician and writer living in New York City. I am also a core company member and artistic associate with Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), an integrated company working to advance artists with disabilities. This October, I directed and produced a fully realized production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot (with 2 blind actors in the central roles of Vladimir and Estragon, and a vision impaired actor in the role of Lucky) which TBTB presented at the 8th International Blind In Theatre festival held in Zagreb, Croatia.
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?
PS: I believe disability based theatre and programming is important, and can help to bring about a much needed awareness. It should be added to the mix, but in a way that emphasizes inclusion, rather than perpetuating the long held practice of exclusion.
As an actor (performer with a disability), and associate with TBTB (a theater which could easily be termed disability based), I’m committed to promoting the work of artists with disabilities. We should be creating original and diverse stories within the American Theater, and these stories should be told with an authentic voice. I certainly believe the time has come for roles to be cast accordingly. If the character has a mobility disability, for example, let’s see that reflected honestly in the casting. Please, no more curtain calls where the actor leaps up out of the wheelchair to take a bow. It’s time to really start questioning the validity of such choices. At the same time, I balk at the idea of being placed in a niche, or category, singled out from the rest. Too often the disabled experience is relegated to the margins. Even within the topic of diversity, Disability is frequently left out of the conversation all together. Why is this? My fear is it is sometimes an unintentional dismissal. And indifference can be worse than outright discrimination.
I do believe however there is a growing recognition that this is a community with verve and experience which can no longer be ignored, and this is a good thing. But the change in attitudes should not solely be left in the hands of the few smaller theaters committed to doing this work. The responsibility must also be taken on by the larger theater community. Especially theaters promoting diversity.
In setting out to exclusively do “disability based” theater my fear is we run the risk of furthering the alienation which exists in the professional theatrical landscape. The work can still too easily be dismissed–at worst, treated as charity, or a curiosity, at best, as something that is “good for you.” Like eating your broccoli, you’ll be healthier for supporting it. But this support is merely an appreciation and doesn’t lead to more audience, opportunities or programming. It’s something “those guys” are doing, glad you’re doing it, but don’t expect any crossover any time soon. There needs to be a shift in the perception that the disabled experience, or an individual with a disability, is somehow “other.” Rather we need to appreciate that these individuals, the writers, actors and administrators, have much to offer, and their voices, skills and perspectives—whether specific to disability or not–are vital to keeping live theater vibrant and relevant.
As important as it is to explore new esthetics and bring about awareness by creating theater specific to disability, it is equally vital to simply weave these voices and experiences into the fabric of story telling as it already exists: classical or contemporary, conventional or non traditional, disabled-centric or not. After all as theater professionals, it is our job to shed light on the human experience–an experience which is vast and multi-dimensional. and that is what I would like to see the larger Regional, National, Broadway, and off-Broadway theaters doing as well. The landscape in which we live is rich and diverse, so let’s start seeing that reflected on stage!
That’s why I am first and foremost committed to presenting quality theater, professional and provocative, which includes artists that happen to be disabled. That’s not to say we avoid the question all together. What exactly this “experience” is, needs to be probed and examined. How is it different? How is it the same? The same as what? What is the “norm” anyway? How might it inform the art we do? Usually ones experience with a disability is highly individualized, and the disability is merely one aspect of many that makes up the whole person.
For me personally, I have never liked to be categorized. I don’t believe in labels in general, and in my case I truly do fall through the cracks. When I was 14 years old, I was diagnosed with Juvenile Macular Degeneration, which caused me to lose sight in my central vision, and rendered me “legally blind.” This means my vision can’t be improved with corrective lenses, but I do not need to use a white cane to get around, and I use what vision I was left with to the best of my ability. Therefore on the surface, I may appear to be fully sighted. Ever since the diagnosis, I have struggled with how exactly to explain what it is I do or do not see, deal with how I’m mistakenly being seen, or figure out where exactly I fit in. I wrote my solo show, Immaculate Degeneration, in part as an attempt to grapple with these complex issues of identity, and the failing of labels in general when dealing with disability, especially this even lesser understood category of invisible disability.
I have acted in many more sighted roles than blind. And never have I seen a role written for someone whose vision is like that of my own. That’s why I wrote a play about it, to try to articulate and come to terms with being in-between.
The theme of “betweenness,” however, resonates with me in ways that go beyond being somewhere between sighted and blind. It gives me a unique perspective. Things are not always as they seem; one’s life experience and identity can’t be boiled down into black and white generalities. Disability has shaped my point of view, but that does not mean I should only be viewed as someone who is disabled. And this has a lot to do with why I feel so passionate on the subject of integration and inclusion.
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?
PS: There is not one easy answer or path to accessibility. It must start with willingness, and that willingness must outweigh any fear or awkwardness around the subject. Start by asking questions: is the auditorium, backstage, etc. accessible? What, if any, adjustments and accommodations could be made? Reaching out without being afraid of saying the wrong thing, or thinking that it’s simply way out of the realm of possibility, is key. I’ve had to say in my time, “don’t worry, a professional blind actor is not going to fall off the stage.” This thinking might sound rather primitive, but in some instances, vague assumptions and misconceptions still exist. And by confronting the issue, you may end up acknowledging what dusty notions might be lurking in the back of your mind.
Overhauling these notions, and realizing it may not simply be someone else’s problem, can go along way in dispelling myths surrounding disability, and can help in moving forward to practical solutions.
The category of disability is broad and complex. You may not solve all issues for every aspect of your operation all at once. Take things on a case by case basis. Remain open and curious. Reach out. Casting is a great place to start. There is a treasure trove of talent with (visible and invisible) disabilities, actors that could enhance any story in exciting new ways. Don’t just simply read them for roles that happen to call for a disabled performer.
JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of disability in theatre?
PS: Most importantly we must keep the conversation going. The more discussion there is on the topic of disability, the less fear and shame. Yes shame. It sounds harsh, but when you avoid the issue, it becomes something to be ashamed of. Instead of thinking that this is a certain subset of society that should be acknowledged, realize it is society. Disability doesn’t discriminate, it has no borders. And anyone at any time can suddenly find themselves in this category. Fortune is fickle. I’m not saying this to be scary or threatening, I’m saying it to try to bridge the gap perpetuated by the “Us and Them” attitude which is still all too pervasive.
JL: As an advocate of disability in the theatre, can you recommend plays that I should be reading or playwrights I should be following?
PS: John Belluso
Pamela Sabaugh is a New York-based performer, playwright and musician, and is a leading company member of Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB). She has performed with them in numerous Off- Broadway productions and serves as artistic and administrative associate. This year Pamela directed Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, which TBTB presented at the 8th International Blind In Theater Festival in Zagreb, Croatia. Sabaugh has also worked extensively on regional stages as well as film and television. She was the first visually impaired actor to play the title character in Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney, with The Amaryllis Theater at the Adrienne in Philadelphia in 2007. Her critically acclaimed, solo rock musical, Immaculate Degeneration, premiered in the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival, and is published under “Best of the Fringe,” at Indie Theater Now.com. Pamela is a past recipient of The Princess Grace Award, and received her MFA in Acting from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.
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