I had the most interesting chat with Liz Carr, who uses a power chair and Christine Bruno who uses a scooter to get around but isn’t using it on stage in this performance–about the censoring of the disabled body on stage. Liz who lives and works in London and Christine who lives and works in NYC were telling me that in other jobs their directors didn’t really want to see their bodies in motion; they wanted them to be stationary or,in Liz’s case, sitting behind a desk in front of a microscope. Directors want the idea of disability, the sense of having included the disabled body without the messiness of the disabled body itself. What Christine and Liz loved about working on The Ugly Girl is that Donna Nudd, Ben Gunter and I asked everyone to make use of their bodies– fall, zoom, drag, be off balance, stumble, take their time, let it be as hard or as effortless as it really was. We really wanted to see the body in all its difference and glory. And that’s exactly what happened. We told Christine – who because of her CP sometimes, out of the blue, falls flat on her face–that we’d incorporate that possibility into the script. And if she wanted to use it to comic effect, we’d find ways to do just that. And we did. The sexual first-meeting -duet Christine does with Gillian Dean (who is vision impaired) is made both funny and poignant by the physical awkwardness, the off-kilter balance of their two bodies. The different bodies brought something new to the genres (vaudeville, English Music Hall, Punch & Judy, American Musical), enlivening them. It was thrilling to behold.
In The Ugly Girl, Liz used her chair to do a comic tango with Julie McNamara (who has traumatic brain injury; to run seductive circles around a woman she was intent on wooing and killing, to confront and then run over a nondisabled man with whom she was arguing and then to later scoop him off stage as if he were debris and she and her chair were a snowplow. And yes, it was different than how an able body would tango, seduce or confront and that’s what made it all the more dynamic, funny, mean and alive.
Christine Bruno was allowed to explore the comic possibilities inherent in her body and her performance because she didn’t have to cover up her disability – her “thumping,” as she put it, gait or her habit of failing flat on her face. Because these particularities about her body became points of interest and exploration rather than points of embarrassment and shame.
Gillian Dean told us that producers often want her to portray her disability as more disabling than it actually is; that they often ask her to perform a more traditional take on “blind” as someone who uses a cane, is tentative in their movements, uncertain of their whereabouts, etc. They want a blind person who isn’t really blind in the way they think of blindness, to portray the familiar kind of blindness they believe is socially acceptable. We almost fell into that trap ourselves because Gil, once she has the lie of the land, is fearless in her movements, confident as she walks, has little if any trouble with location. We were going hmmm no one is going to believe she can’t see two inches in front of her nose. Gil was wiling to “perform” her own disability to comic effect—i.e. talking to the hat rack instead of her sister, cheap joke moments like that—but we nixed that option (although we agreed it was a potential option in any future production). Instead, we gave Gil free reign and let her decide when/if she’d provide her own ironic commentary about her vision impairment. And then, well, we forgot all about it. In The Ugly Girl she got to be as vision-impaired as she did or did not want to appear.
Jimmers Micallef is an American actor from Tallahassee, Florida who has worked with the Mickee Faust Club there for the last 12 years. In working with Faust he was worked with a number of other long-term Faustkateers who have disabilities—CP, vision impairment, MS, traumatic brain injury. For the most part Faust has accommodation needs down pat. But in The Ugly Girl the needs were so various and sometimes conflicting that accommodation, he said, became a constant and fascinating negotiation. We were constantly making creative negotiations with ourselves and with the script all while trying to explode popular misconceptions about the disabled body (even among ourselves) about how it should or should not be portrayed and used.
Working together in creative collusion allowed us to see what our bodies were capable of doing when we were untethered to society’s (and our own) diminished expectations, allowed us to imagine how much more our bodies could do in performance.. And as Liz Carr said, we were all changed by it. For me it felt like the most exhilarating reminder that as Artists it is in our DNA to take risks, to assert, to challenge. And that in doing what Artists do, we weren’t just leading the way, we were helping to create the way.
Terry Galloway is a deaf lesbian writer, performer and director who writes, directs and performs. If you’d like to know more, pick up a copy of her memoir, the Lambda Award Finalist, Golden Crown winner, Mean Little deaf Queer, published by Beacon Press.
Photo Credits: DaDaFest International 2014 and photographer Mark Loudon
Nasty Polly: Liz Carr
Punch: Julie McNamara
Headmaster: Jimmers Micallef
Ugly: Gillian Dean
Pretty: Christine Bruno
Inga: Liz Carr
Peg (the dead mother) Jean Graham-Jones
Final Image, Jinx: Christine Bruno