Seamlessly Interweaving

by Talleri McRae

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?

TALLERI A. MCRAE: One of the most striking pieces of theatre I know is one that I’ve only read—Peeling by Kaite O’Reilly. It offers a disability twist to the chorus of The Trojan Woman; it makes the audience reconsider their assumptions not only about the actors in front of them, but about the stories of war, despair, and overcoming that we all tell ourselves. In so many ways, Peeling is theatricality at it’s best—a story told visually, aurally, intellectually, and emotionally.

JL: Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?

TAM: Lately, I’ve been taken with PHAMALY Theatre Company’s approach to artistic excellence. This Denver-based organization believes that high quality inclusive theatre can “inspire people to re-envision disability through professional theatre.”

When I see their work, their sense of artistry is seamlessly interwoven with the sense of creativity and innovation that defines the disability community. Transitions, scene changes, and dance numbers unfold in delightfully unexpected ways—ways I might never consider if I was watching a non-disabled ensemble.  When I see their productions, I leave the theatre excited by the endless creativity that is possible when making accessible theatre.

JL: What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?

TAM: It will only take one generation to change what theatre looks like around this country. If today, professional Theatres for Young Audiences cast an actor with an apparent disability in their season, THEN young audience members will come and see, in some way, themselves on stage.

THEN, those young people will take classes—not only classes that build their sense of self and community, but they will go on to take higher-level skill-based classes and identify as artists. They will continue to teach their teachers how to instruct them, and go on to study theatre at the university level.

THEN, inspired by the kind of creativity that comes with inclusive theatre, university professors and scholars will re-define rigor in the theatre arts to embrace a wider diversity of movement, expression, and intellect.

THEN, in just 10 short years or so, the depth and breadth of the talent pool of professional actors will look significantly more inclusive than it does now. (Gone will be the days of, “We would have loved to cast someone who _______, but we couldn’t find them.”) Actors, directors, choreographers, and designers with disabilities will create innovative theatre, and young people will see it, see themselves, and the cycle will continue.

As a theatre community, we can address this exciting call to action by being open to it. We can acknowledge that some of the rubrics for “excellence” we currently have in place might exclude artists who have much to contribute. We can articulate when we are afraid to try something new, to re-define our parameters, to offend someone. And we can push past our own fears, because as artists, that’s what we do every day in order to create something new.

JL: What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?

TAM: Theatre can make a difference by reflecting back not the world as it is, but the world as it could be. What an exciting time for accessible professional theatre!

Today, more and more organizations are making their performance spaces, their performances, and their production processes accessible to people with physical, sensory, and intellectual disabilities. I suspect that at the moment, many organizations are seeing the SOCIAL benefits of including people with all abilities. Before long, more and more theatres will discover the ARTISTIC benefits of inclusion as well, and stories will be told on stage like never before.

Since 2010, Talleri A. McRae has worked with StageOne Family Theatre in Louisville, KY. This spring, she transitioned to a part time teaching artist with StageOne in order to pursue work as an educator, disability scholar, and inclusion/access specialist. She is a contractor with the access department at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Actors Theatre of Louisville, and The University of Louisville. Her national and international connections include the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, TYA/USA, and the International Inclusive Arts Network.

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.