Healing Wars vs Inspiration Porn

by Kate Langsdorf

in National Conference

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 (This post is part of the blog salon curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2015 TCG National Conference: Game ChangeThe following questions will inform the final plenary session, “Artistic Leadership: How We Change the Game.”)

JACQUELINE LAWTON: What was the most game-changing production you’ve seen or created, and why?

KATE LANGSDORF: Last summer, I had the privilege of seeing Liz Lerman’s dance theatre piece, Healing Wars, at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. It was a game changer for me on two fronts. I don’t tend to see a ton of dance, but because of my work at Ford’s Theatre, I have high interest in the unique ways the social history of the Civil War can be illuminated through art, especially performance.

I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I decided to go to this show, so I was electrified by the beautifully designed and intricately choreographed vignettes that welcomed me into the space. This informal start of the production took some of the best elements of museum exhibit and interpretation practice—The objects (or in this case, the performers) contained their own stories while pointing towards a larger theme; it was designed appropriately for audience traffic, mobile accessibility, and way-finding; it facilitated revelation based on information; the “object” labels were clearly written—and combined them with impressive theatrical artistry. In each of the vignettes, dancers expressed distinct Civil War-era historic characters and archetypes in intricately created environments, which audience members were able to get as close to as we dared. Just this installation would have been worth attending. Professionally, I get to exist within both the museum world and the theatre world, and I’m frequently perplexed that those worlds don’t collide more often. There is a tremendous wealth of knowledge within the museum field about how to help facilitate personal meaning-making among visitors, while much of the theatre world continues to be quite anxious about the concept of audience engagement. The theatre industry, as we all know, excels at presenting an awe-inspiring level of artistry, while most people can recount at least one cringe-inducing educational performance they were made to endure in a museum setting. I found Healing Wars to take the best elements of the two industries in which I find myself nestled, turning it into something warmly familiar yet entirely new.

The other way in which Healing Wars changed the game for me was its prominent use of dancers with varying level of abilities—the show featured Bill Pullman totally pulling off that choreography, and he’s better known for his presidential portrayals in movies where we fight aliens than for his fouetté turns—including a veteran whose leg had been amputated, who was also rocking that choreography. It seemed like this was the result of a clear intention, and that Liz Lerman believes that her work is available and accessible for all kinds of people. Although the show dealt heavily with medical issues brought on by war, it didn’t have the after-school-special flavor that I associate with shows “about disability.” I walk with a cane, and disability is a thing that has to come with me in whatever space I’m in; but nothing about me has interest in seeing a show that feels like it’s “about disability.” I do, however, get really excited when I see a show where there can just be a dude with a mobility aid and not have it be Dude With a Mobility Aid: A Serious Drama About Coming to Terms With Things in Three Acts. This show didn’t feel like “inspiration porn,” the term sometimes used to describe a story, featuring a person with a disability, with the primary purpose of inspiring people without physical differences to overcome obstacles and live the life of their dreams.  In fact, I really can’t think of another live show I’ve seen where I thought to myself, “Oh, cool, they cast a dude with a prosthetic leg.”

I’m glad that I hadn’t been given too much information about Healing Wars, beyond that it was part of a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, before I saw it. If any of the marketing copy had even a sniff of “an inspiring true story of a disabled veteran who comes to terms with things, rises up and overcomes, and teaches us all a valuable lesson about the triumph of the human spirit,” I would have stayed home and watched Mad Men.

There have been other, recent area shows featuring disability that I really wish I had seen, but didn’t know until after they closed (and were highly talked about by my colleagues) that I knew they weren’t going to be inspiration porn. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to go see both Tribes at Studio Theatre and Colossal at Olney Theatre Center.

I would really like to get to a point where I can a) count on seeing a dude with a non-plot-driven mobility device in a play from time to time, and b) greet plays centered on a characters with disabilities without my current suspicion and/or disinterest. I think the time is coming, very soon, where my knee-jerk reaction to hearing about the next Tribes or Colossal will be something other than, “Well, that sounds gross. I’m gonna go lay in bed and binge watch Mad Men instead.” D.C.’s 2014 theatre season, in retrospect, has made me very optimistic about the kinds of programming and casting decisions I think we can expect in the near future.


Kate Langsdorf is the Education Programs Manager at Ford’s Theatre, where she previously served as Tour Manager, Assistant House Manager, Visitor Services Associate, Teaching Artist, Child Wrangler, Education Programs Coordinator, and Distance Learning Coordinator; she hopes to one day collect the full set. Kate has also worked with dog & pony dc, most recently as one (of many) co-creators of Beertown. She gets really fired up about audience engagement and holds B.A. in Theater Directing and Performance from CSU Long Beach. She is an M.F.A. Creative Writing candidate at Full Sail University and writes jokes on the Internet at hipstermother.com.


conf13_jacqueline_lawtonJacqueline 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