Disability doesn’t discriminate, it has no borders.

by Pamela Sabaugh

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Disability doesn’t discriminate, it has no borders.

(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
Lynn Manning
Greg Mozgala

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

  • Tim

    This all sounds lovely in theory. I would love to include performers with disabilities in my productions. However, the expectations for a performer would be the same as for a fully able performer. And at the most basic level, I doubt that I could get the fullness of a performance that I would need out of actor who cannot see me or his cast mates or the set, etc. Actors act with their whole bodies and all of their senses. I’m not saying it couldn’t work, but I think it would be a hell of a lot harder to work with an actor who was confined to a wheelchair than an able-bodied actor acting in a wheelchair. I’d be putting extra pressure and responsibility on everyone else, and I’m not sure it’s fair. Definitely something to think about though. I would never dismiss an actor for having a disability, but I don’t see myself lowering my standards for quality of talent anytime soon either.

  • Betty Siegel

    No one is asking you to lower your standards, certainly not the disability community. And, I am not going to ask you to lower your standards, but I am going to ask you to address your ignorance. No one I’ve ever met in the arts with talent, ability, creativity and imagination deliberately discriminates against individuals with disabilities . They may do so inadvertantly because they haven’t given it any thought. People like Pamela and Jackie – offer us a treasure in that they give us the opportunity to be deliberate, intentional and thoughtful about human diversity and the value that it brings to the arts.

    Your response (above) that any actor with disabilities is an onorous burden on you and others and is less capable and less talented are two perspectives frequently found amongst people who lack experience and who fear the unknown “other”. I suggest you look around you. 1 out of 5 individuals in the United States has a disability. Statistically odds are that you are already working with indivdiuals with disabilities … it is simply that they don’t conform to your preconcieved and eroneous notion/stereotype that an actor with a disability equates to lower quality of talent and higher degree of difficulty/burden to work with in the theater context.

    I give you ten examples of people who have disabilities that I think you would actually be thrilled to work with (and, I’m going to use well known people even though I could name many others that are equally talented but far less famous)- 1) Steven Spielberg (dyslexia and learning disability, 2) Michael Fox (parkinsons), 3) John Hockenberry (parapalegic), 4) Marlee Matlin (deaf), 5) Stevie Wonder (blind), 6 Sudha Chandran (amputee), 7) Cher (dyslexia), 8) Danny Glover (learning disabiity), 9 Whoopie Goldberg (dyslexia), 10) Robin Williams (ADHD) — there are so many more that I could list.
    So when you are ready … please feel free to hire an actor with a disability and be prepared to have your bias blown out of the water.

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  • Tim

    Every actor comes to a production with any manner of “baggage,” and I would consider someone with any sort of disability similarly. If you have dyslexia, as a performer that’s going to present a considerable challenge to you. If you’re a good performer and can overcome it and still learn all your lines, AWESOME. Glad to have you. If you can’t, regardless of your talent, I can’t use a performer who cannot learn lines.
    I am thinking now particularly of an actor, Bob, who must use a wheelchair for mobility at all times. Who cannot move around a stage without one. If we are in production with a story that includes a character who needs a wheelchair at all times during the story, then I can possibly use an actor like Bob. However, if our story includes some scenes from a time that Bob didn’t need the wheelchair, say before the illness or accident that caused him to need it occurred, then I cannot use Bob. I have to have an able-bodied actor who can portray this character pre-disability. Additionally, if I cast Bob in a role that does not specify a wheelchair-bound character, my story doesn’t make sense anymore unless we address it. A wheelchair onstage is a powerful image, and the production then becomes at least in part about this wheelchair. I’m not saying it could never work, and I really do want to see a show that includes a character bound to a wheelchair portrayed by an actor that is too. I’m saying it’s a really difficult problem logistically and artistically. I’m glad this discussion is happening but I would just like to point out that not casting folks with disabilities is not a direct result of bias or just being a big jerk. It’s a more complicated issue.

  • Betty Siegel

    Yes .. just as complicated as the issue in the 1960′s, 70′s and 80′s when the same excuses you use above were used to justify not hiring people of color and women. Thank goodness, some members of the theater/cultural community were not deterred and took on these tough and complex issues, giving the arts social relevance, deeper artistic impact and meaning.

    Think of the production of “The Great White Hope” produced by Arena Stage, in 1967 that portrayed an inter-racial couple and an onstage kiss between actors of no less talent and ability or difficulty to work with than Jane Alexander and James Earl Jones (http://arts.gov/about/40th-anniversary-highlights/arena-stage-takes-risk-great-white-hope).

    Think of how much poorer we as a society would be if, using your logic, Leontyne Price had only been permitted to sing roles written for an African American woman (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leontyne_Price).

    Casting, working with and integrating actors/performers with disabilities is no less nor no more complex than these other deep and difficult questions still being debated and discussed around casting and diversity (http://www.policymic.com/articles/80225/6-young-asian-american-filmmakers-who-are-shattering-america-s-asian-film-bias). I am saddened that, after 30 years of working within the arts/cultural community specifically on the rights of people with disabilities, old stereotypes, inaccurate presumptions and discrimination linger.

    However, I am heartened because when I look around today I see that there are more examples of artists with disabilities being cast and pursuing careers, and that disability is being portrayed as part of life. A few examples –
    Private Practice – Michael Patrick Thornton (quadriplegic)
    Switched at Birth – Katie Leclerc (deaf)
    Glee – Lauren Potter (Downs Syndrome)
    Colorado Shakespeare Theater – Jenna Bainbridge (partial paralysis)
    Cirque du Soleil – Dergin Tokmak (polio)

    In addition there are organizations presenting disability and the talents of people with disabilities going on across the world –

    Assitej – just created the Inclusive Arts Network with participation from TYA-USA – see http://inclusiveartsnetwork.com/

    The Kennedy Center – has long featured amazing artists with disabilities in such venues as the Millennium Stage – search the archives for performances by Homer Avilia, Justin Kauflin, Adrian Anantawan, Blue Eyed Soul Dance Company, Lisa Bufano. http://www.kennedy-center.org/programs/millennium/

    We still have a long way to go, as evidenced by this discussion. It take thoughtfulness, it takes intentionality and, I idealistically believe, that it take us … in the theater and in the arts … to show the world what our community looks like.

  • Mark Dissette

    Tim, there is so much wrong with your attitude and your statements that I won’t even try to address them. I have worked as and with disabled performers for the last 24 years. The Phamaly (pronounced family) has mounted full scale productions with casts that are comprised entirely of disabled actors. Physical, emotional, cognitive and developmental disabilities have been represented in all our shows. I would suggest that you look at the website http://www.phamaly.org to see what can be accomplished by and for actors with disabilities. Here is the link to youtube for our production of “Man Of LaMancha”. I feel it is a good representation of what we can create. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CqV9YflDyo at 01;33;25;00 there is a remarkable performance by Regan Linton as Aldonza. A truly moving moment.

  • Pat Loeb

    Tim, as a stage manager who has worked extensively with a variety of performers with disabilities – from a blind cast member (who only self-identified to me) in Take Me Out to extensive work with Deaf West, whose company creates magic with performances by deaf and hard-of-hearing actors that is accessible to all, you are cutting yourself off from a treasure-trove of talent and artistic value.

    Working with differently abled actors does not mean in any way changing your standards for quality or adapting your shows. In fact, some of the most brilliant actors I know happen to be (for example) deaf or mobility impaired. Yes, there are minor accommodations, but they usually bring much more interesting qualities to the performance. The richness and layers these actors bring to shows more than compensates for any challenges presented.

    The blinders you wear keep you from artistic assets on so many levels. As an example, Deaf West’ production of “Streetcar” – which was extended 3 times – brilliantly and achingly sharpened Blanche’s relationship with reality as she interacted with deaf actors playing Stella and Stanley, her hard-of-hearing courtship with Mitch and the Beautiful Young Boy. “Doubt” was done by Blue Zone with a young wheelchair actress in the lead, and it made her interactions with her father even sharper and more devastating.

    Try it. It works.

  • Pat Loeb

    Hope I didn’t stop the discussion – because it needs to continue. And it needs to continue not just among those already members of the community but with people like Tim, who we want to help as well as being among those we want to encourage to open minds and opportunities.

  • Anita Hollander

    I’ve been a professional actor for 50 years, 32 of those years on one leg (lost due to cancer). I trained at Carnegie Mellon University and London Academy of Dramatic Art. I’ve performed Off-Broadway, London’s West End, NY Shakespeare Festival, Carnegie Hall, The White House, and throughout Europe and America, all on one leg. I’ve played roles never conceived as having one leg (a 3-legged Grizabella in CATS), and some roles that were written as having one leg (Bass For Picasso, Off-Bway). I’ve been Golde in Fiddler, Emma Goldman in Ragtime, Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret, Blanche in Brighton Beach Memoirs, Paulina in Death & The Maiden, Maggie in Dancing At Lughnasa, Gorgeous in The Sisters Rosenzweig, and even tap-danced (on a prosthesis) in Nunsense. My most recent NY Times review called me “Fierce & Funny.” Your assumption that having a disability means being talentless is based on ignorance and lack of experience. You didn’t mention that working with an Asian, African American, Latino, senior or gay actor would compromise your standards. Neither should your working with an actor with a disability.

  • Gregg

    Tim, you’re absolutely right. It is complicated. I think one thing people are taking umbrage with is your perceived tone of not wanting to explore the complications associated with the issue and the default being to choose the easy solution- the casting of able-bodied actors over a qualified, disabled actor. Any actor with a disability (like myself), who has been pursuing this line of work for any amount of time has come across this obstacle time and time again in various audition and professional working situations. Playwright Christopher Shinn wrote an article on this very topic recently in The Atlantic. Check it out. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/07/why-disabled-characters-are-never-played-by-disabled-actors/374822/

    Unfortunately this tune you’re singing has gotten old and thankfully there are talented, dedicated theatre professionals and artists who won’t stand for this kind of excuse from decision makers in the industry any more. It may take a little more time. It may take people out of their comfort zone. When was theatre ever supposed to be comfortable?

    I believe the responsibility falls upon us to take control and agency over our stories and personal and collective identity. We need to develop the talent, share our stories, bring people into the conversation and have the conversation amongst ourselves. This is what other minority or marginalized groups have done- to great success.

    We (the Disabled) can do this together and by aligning with like-minded friends and allies in the industry. There are good actors everywhere. There are bad actors everywhere. From all walks of life. Your statements make the assumption that all Disabled actors are bad or not as capable as their able-bodied counterparts. Of course you would think this way, because where have you seen any differently? Have you even bothered to look? Have we given you anything to look at? We have to do the work.

    People make assumptions about my abilities and my humanity every day. I have these same questions myself and my community. If you have any questions in the future about Disability or the casting of Disabled actors feel free to contact me. I’m happy to have the conversation with you. If i don’t know the answer myself, I can put you in touch with someone who does.

    Gregg Mozgala, Actor/Artistic Director, The Apothetae

  • Pat Loeb

    I think it’s very brave of Tim to participate in this thread, because he is the only person not already on the team who has shared his opinion, and in spite of having a clearly unpopular view is willing to continue to discuss the mainstream perspective being challenged to the table.

    That is important. How do we bring in those like Tim, and those like him didn’t have the guts or willingness to participate in a thread about performers with disability, let alone this discussion. How do we reach these folks and how do we open minds?

  • http://about.me/svetlanakouznetsova Sveta

    ASL plays by Deaf West are NOT accessible to “ALL” – especially that 98% of deaf/hoh people don’t sign. They are leaving out majority of deaf and hard of hearing people by not providing live captioning for every performance. Learn more in the blog post: http://audio-accessibility.com/news/2016/01/spring-awakening-pros-and-cons-of-broadway-plays-in-asl/