The Playing Field Needs to be Razed and Rebuilt

by Michael Patrick Thornton

in Diversity & Inclusion

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(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.

MICHAEL PATRICK THORNTON:  I’m the co-founder and artistic director of Chicago’s The Gift Theatre. We’re a professional ensemble theatre who have produced 50 full productions over twelve years, half of which have been premieres. Situated in the working class neighborhood of Jefferson Park, The Gift’s success has strongly contributed to the cultural and economic revitalization of one of Chicago’s most hard-hit areas from the Great Recession. I choose plays, pair directors and playwrights, provide opportunities for the ensemble to train together, and am attracted to sub-rosa love stories which emphasize hope, humanity, and community. I use the aesthetics of a Chicago storefront—long considered a space for plays and performances infused with masculine brutality and hyper-sexualization/objectification of women—to instead tell great stories with honesty and simplicity, nurtured by the intimacy of the space, with a reverence for the audience/actor relationship.

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?

MPT: I grew up and still live in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Chicago. I think both the IAMPWD and EEOC campaigns/initiatives of, respectively, SAG/AFTRA and Actors Equity have brought the conversation to its loudest amplification that I can remember since becoming disabled in 2003. To be quite frank, I actively resist playing characters where the disability is a strong part of the story (if mentioned at all) because I feel what helps an audience’s willingness to accept an actor with a disability playing a non-disabled-identified character is having the audience deal with the absence of context rather than hand-hold them thru a potentially didactic theatrical experience concerning the familiar tropes such as disabled folks being triumphs of the human spirit, etc. etc.

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?

MPT: I feel like the purpose of the arts is to understand each other and to share the dualistic truth that life is (a) often exceedingly difficult and, yet, (b) eminently worth living. Absolutely there should be programs and theatres whose mission in whole or in part should be to give voice and space to the narratives of the marginalized because this reinforces the truism that everyone’s story is worth telling. The danger, of course, is how much impact these stories will truly have on a non-disabled audience, for whom seeing a play about capital-I Issues can sometimes amount to empathetic tourism. What is the macro goal? To me, it can’t just be about adding my story of struggle to the dramaturgical canon. Rather, with regards to casting, admin employment, and audience access, the playing field needs to be razed and rebuilt.

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?

MPT:  First off, make sure people can get into your fucking theatre. Make sure the elevator is working and if it is we’re not always riding up the freight surrounded by boxes of lettuce.  Have a seating plan for a manual wheelchair versus motorized wheelchair users. Basically, show that you’ve thought about these things, which show that you care. It would also be lovely to have seating options which aren’t reduced to either the first or last rows. Programs such as pre-show Touch Tours for the visually impaired and sign interpreted performances for the hearing impaired should be supported. Steppenwolf’s Evan Hatfield has really been a game changer with respect to encouraging Steppenwolf to be increasingly accessible and, to their great credit, they have. You have to be willing to get out of your comfort zone and engage by asking how may we be of service?

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

MPT:    Because you had to ask the question.

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

MPT: Gift ensemble member Andrew Hinderaker has been instrumental in writing roles for me to play as a disabled character which hardly ever focus on the disability vis a vis plot or character. His new play—Colossal—does, however, examine disability thru the lens of college football, therefore providing the opportunity to have this conversation inside a far more expansive framework: our American relationship to/complicity with violent sports .

Maybe in addition to seeking out disablist playwrights, we should also be strongly encouraging our national playwrights to encourage casting directors to see disabled actors for non-disabled-identified roles and advocate for them to producers. To me, that’s really a critical step toward the endgame of perceptive normalcy. Casting director Linda Lowy is a great example of this; showing my audition to show creator Shonda Rhimes; what resulted was a very responsible depiction of disability on prime time national television (Dr. Fife, “Private Practice”) which changed my life and career but, more importantly, in front of millions of people put a sexually active, confident, and intelligent character who just happened to be disabled and, most importantly, whose disability was never explained. That helps shift the focus in a major way from the chair to the human.  Steppenwolf associate artistic director and casting director Erica Daniels has also boldly cast me in non-disabled identified roles, thereby putting me in front of thousands of people a week who, in their seats, have to deal with whatever dissonance the absence of context creates.

This has caused great post-show conversations to happen as well as encourage disabled actors that not every job has to be about our disability. I know I’m in the minority on this one, but I believe our taking those jobs only retards our progress towards the macro goal of being seen as equal.

I think American audiences have a unique difficulty in the absence of context. It’s why “What happened to you?” is often one of the first questions a stranger asks a disabled person. It’s asked in a sort of compassionate ice-breaky sort of tone but my suspicion is the asking of the question really stems from our fear/denial of death and so the answer provides an opportunity for the asker to distance themselves and therefore re-affirm that since they are not a snowboarder/motorcyclist/skydiver/cocaine user/drunk driver etc. etc. that whatever happened to their wheelchair-bound acquaintance will not darken the door of their vitality and able-bodiness.  To be clear once and for all: asking a stranger “What happened to you?” is the equivalent of saying “Tell me about the worst day of your life.” It’s skull-numbingly and heart-sickenly ignorant and the reason I hardly ever answer it truthfully, if at all.

It’s simply none of your business.

And so during the writing process and thru conversations about casting disabled actors, playwrights can be a force for change by creating contextless experiences for audiences. Correlatively, disabled actors—when given the all too often rare opportunity to audition—simply have to be excellent, doing everything within our power to give the most fastidiously detailed and professional and human audition we can.

The rest, like so much, is out of our control.

Michael Patrick Thornton: Artistic director & co-founder of Chicago’s The Gift Theatre, Michael was most recently seen in the UT-Austin and Kennedy Center workshop productions of fellow Gift ensemble member Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal. Michael worked with Les Waters on the Midwest Premiere of Will Eno’s Middletown at Steppenwolf and is currently working again with Waters on the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville production of Our Town.

A director, improviser, and writer, Michael was a very grateful assistant director on Steppenwolf’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning August: Osage County.

Michael was honored with a Joseph Jefferson Award for his performance in Conor McPherson’s The Good Thief.

Michael appeared in Ron Howard’s The Dilemma, FOX’s The Chicago Code and played Dr. Gabriel Fife on ABC’s Private Practice.

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.

  • ML Hart

    Thanks for a fine interviewer, both of you.Springboard for more thought, important issues (little i). I was trained in theatre (costume design), am a lifelong theatre-goer, a closet playwright and my documentary photography work has been mostly backstage with musicians, dancers, actors and opera singers.

    While opera tends to be color-blind in casting, it’s taken longer in theatre (in some companies, longer than others). Michael’s point about casting against the character description, if you will, is key. Two of the most memorable productions I’ve ever seen did this. Both Shakespeare, one long ago at La Jolla Playhouse, with Howie Seago as Caliban. He signed, Miranda interpreted (spoke) for her father’s benefit – as the text says (not the deaf part, but that Miranda had learned Caliban’s language).

    The other, a couple months ago, by the LA Women’s Shakespeare Company in, regrettably, their last-ever performances. Multi-racial, multi-cultural, and Rosencrantz was played *as* a woman, bringing sexual politics to the audience’s awareness; add in how the king used R (and G) (Hamlet, too)… Ann Colby Stocking was the Player King, in a wonderfully layered, provocative view of marginalized “types” who are socially invisible. In the context of the story, actors were outcasts; in our world, those with a “different” appearance are pushed to the side.

    Thanks again for a terrific piece. All the best, Martha

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  • Alice D’Addario

    I have had the good fortune to have seen Michael in a number of roles at The Gift. I can state unequivocally that his work has been totally successful in focusing the audience on the character and not the disability. Solid, empirical proof of this fact is that in all of the times I have seen him perform I have never heard and audience member state, “I wonder what happened o him?” The space is too intimate o miss such a remark, and in addition, I possess “teacher ears.”
    Having taught high school for over thirty five years, I cannot stress how significant a breakthrough this is for a disabled adolescent. It helps to mitigate one area of self consciousness among a population that is self conscious about virtually everything.