(This post is part of the blog salon curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2015 TCG National Conference: Game Change. The following questions will inform the final plenary session, “Artistic Leadership: How We Change the Game.”)
Before I was an actor, I was an athlete. As a kid, I played soccer, softball, and anything else I had time for. In sports, you didn’t become a good player – a literal game changer – in one play. Yes, a great goalie save or the diving snag of a line drive could change the tide of a game, maybe even the course of a season. But one save, catch, or play would not a championship make. You had to practice and repeat your performance. Constantly get on base. Constantly block penalty kicks. It took time, patience, mastery, and commitment.
When I got my masters in social work, it was the same thing. You couldn’t solve a social problem or effect healing in a community with one idea, one program, or in one year. The first lesson of community work is that you must invest: get to know the community, foster relationships, build trust.
And when I was paralyzed in a car accident, I didn’t just jump right back into life after a few months in rehab, and I certainly didn’t rediscover and learn to use my newly-wheeling bodily instrument in just one play or musical. It took years to figure out how things worked: momentum, flexibility, lung capacity, posture, and so on. It took time, repetition, constancy.
The value of repetitive steadfastness is evident in all corners of our society. If you’re a scientific researcher, a discovery is pretty useless if the results can’t be replicated. In marketing, it’s said you have to repeat information a number of times before consumers actually retain it. To change a habit you need not just one day, but at least three weeks (or in my experience, much longer). Most of us don’t get a raise on the first day of a job. And of course, as I learned in grad school, repetition is a Bogart Viewpoint. Boom.
But sometimes in the grand practice of theatre, we get sucked into the same trap as the rest of the world, one that may spell ultimate demise for human society: the quick fix. Just as some people seek a miracle weight-loss pill or believe that a single summit will make peace in the Middle East, we theatre folk dream of the game-changing production that will fill our coffers, set us apart, and put us on the path to theatre glory. We don’t have time, we don’t have money. Hell, we’re struggling!!! Just trying to get through the production, or the season. We’ve got to sell tickets, stay afloat, find our next job, write our next play, “live in the moment.” The problem is, change rarely takes just a moment.
Some of this obsession with momentary living is beyond our control – the multitasking, overstimulated world is hooked on instantaneous smartphone notifications, memes, tweets, whops, doodles, and glips (I made up those last three for plosive enjoyment). But what if we challenged this? What if we had the hope, heart, patience, and fortitude to think of game-changing as an endeavor of endurance? Not a momentary epiphany, but the forging of new longstanding traditions?
Here’s an example. From where I sit, as a professional actor who ambulates on wheels, I think one of theatre’s greatest opportunities/challenges for game-change is rectifying the significant underrepresentation of humans with non-normative physicalities and abilities in our storytelling. Some might call them “people with disabilities,” but I like to broaden that idea a bit, because to me, it’s about seeing the representation of human difference, not “lack” of ability. Wheelchairs. Crutches. Osteoporotic backs. White canes. Large bodies. Squiggly bodies. Bodies with 2 limbs, 3 limbs, 5. Skin that folds, sags, wrinkles. Men who look like women. Women who look like men. Those who look like neither. Bodies with tattoos. Unibrows. One ear. Palsies. Essentially, the bodies that actually exist in the reality of the world, but in theatre have historically been relegated to sensational endeavors like freak shows. They don’t regularly make it into our stories of “normal” life, even though that’s exactly what most people with these identities live.
Now, typically what I witness with this opportunity/challenge is a MOMENT of the game. A theatre brings in one actor for one show, and “ooh! Isn’t that interesting! Bravo! Look what we’ve got on OUR stage! Way to go us!” But in the next play, the next season? Nowhere to be found. The opportunity is seized, the box checked, that back patted, and then it’s return to the status quo.
Now, is that one play, one actor, one season important? Sure. It’s a spark that can send a previous notion about what’s impossible into flames. But there’s a reason “non-traditional” casting is termed as such…it’s not yet a tradition. Audiences don’t expect to see it, because it isn’t replicated with enough regularity.
With this particular opportunity/challenge of non-normative bodies, there is little to no tradition. It doesn’t matter whether the play is about disability or not. Think about how frequently you’ve seen some of the above descriptors onstage, authentically represented by an actor…I would venture to say not that frequently. There’s a lot of surface still unscratched.
In order to actually change the game, some physically non-normative actors have to be added to the team, and put in regularly. Not in the inspirational last-minute Rudy scenario, but with consistency.
If you’re curious about who’s actually changing the game with this opportunity/challenge, check out Phamaly, the Denver theatre company that has produced award-winning work since 1989 using actors with disabilities (www.phamaly.org). Or Mixed Blood, whose Disability Visibility Initiative and other diversity programs promote the production of disability-related plays, and encourage theatres to incorporate actors, playwrights, and other artists with disabilities into their communities (www.mixedblood.com). Check out artists like Michael Patrick Thornton, a wheeler who has a longstanding successful career as a respected actor in Chicago, and continues to work with Steppenwolf and others. Or hell – self plug! – come see me up at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Yes, these successes have taken work, investment, and time, but they have effectively changed the game.
Increasing the presence of non-normative people in theatre is just one example of an area ripe for game-change – there are many others. But when we think of changing the game, we must think beyond the momentary, and look for establishing new traditions.
Game-changing should involve overhaul. Reexamination of stated values and long-term commitment to what a theatre determines is truly meaningful. If you find yourself saying, ooh, I don’t know if we can realistically accomplish or commit to that, especially into the unknown future, it’s probably exactly what you should be doing.
What other theatre traditions can be changed? Instead of bland, predictable, and broad traditions of “excellence” or “artistic quality”, how about new traditions of “theatre that breaks shit apart” or “theatre that dismantles isms” or “theatre where everyone can physically get onstage”? What if it was tradition that productions of THE GLASS MENAGERIE should always have a physically non-normative Laura? Or that phones are not allowed inside a theatre? Or conversely that phones are expected in the theatre to live tweet captioned responses? Or traditions that demand theatres to be more sustainable in recycling set materials? Or committing to raise the next crop of actors from their local school? Or…?
Who knows, the possibilities are endless. And our commitment to whatever we think will effectively change the game should be, too.
Because the only way to really change the game is to strike out and do whatever it is that seems totally impossible. And then do it again. And again. I.e. don’t just cast one actor with a non-normative physicality that ONE time you need it, make it a regular practice.
Is it risky to commit to long-term game-change? Yes. You could fail. Multiple times. You could have to shut your doors and lay people off. And be left without a job, either to restart your life in a new way or wander destitute until you die. Yes, it could happen. But if you’re not living and working with those stakes every day, then what are you doing? Not changing the game, and not art, I can tell you that.
Regan Linton (MFA, MSW) is an actor from Denver, CO. In January 2015, she joined the company at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR as the first full-season company member on wheels. She can be seen in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND through November 1. – www.reganlinton.com
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