(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.
BRYCE ALEXANDER: I have the immeasurable pleasure of serving as the Artistic Director for the actors, board, and staff of Phamaly Theatre Company. For those unfamiliar with Phamaly Theatre Company, we solely utilize actors with disabilities. Central to our mission is the empowerment of our artists and our diverse audiences through professional dramatic and musical presentations that are refocused through the lens of disability. The advocacy lessons of diversity and inclusion remain ever-present in our productions as the very performance of a Phamaly production is a statement, but our true impact comes from the conflicts within each show, which are informed by the performers’ own life experiences and highlighted by the addition of disability theory within each concept and each character. Exploring these concepts in our work is a true joy and is my favorite part of the many facets of my job.
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?
BA: Phamaly is based out of Denver, Colorado – a community that has a rich and important history when it comes to disability rights. It’s not surprising that the community has played a huge role in the company’s success. Over Phamaly’s 27 years, the Denver theatre community has worked to support Phamaly and lend the company its strong professional reputation. The city’s critics have continually touted the company’s ability to stand among the other best theatres in the state; and those theatres have taken note by regularly employing many of our disabled artists in their own seasons. Likewise, Phamaly employs non-disabled design professionals, IATSE crews, and AEA stage managers from around the state, continually challenging the company to grow and maintain professional standards while also exposing these professionals to an area of theatre with which many are unfamiliar. The end result is a community that is more diverse and more aware than many theatre communities around the country.
Most recently, Phamaly Theatre Company teamed up with a local municipal performance venue, the Lone Tree Arts Center, to host the Sensory Friendly Summit. The Summit was attended by nearly 100 arts and culture organizations, including the Zoo, major museums, operas, and regional theatres. With a keynote address by Benjamin Endsley Klein, the Associate Director of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the community discussed ways to partner with local disability advocacy and service organizations (SPD Foundation, Autism Society, and others…) to create sensory friendly programming for audiences in all cultural institutions. The goal was to make Denver “the most sensory friendly city in America.” Nearly all of the organizations agreed to take part in exploring and creating programming.
At Phamaly, the community’s efforts have encouraged us to serve more diverse audiences, to collaborate more often, to expand our national reach, and to launch our first international tour traveling to Osaka, Japan last spring. The city and its theatre community have been a true launchpad for ideas – but also a stern advocate of professional, quality theatre for people with disabilities; always challenging our work to be better, more relevant, and more impactful.
(Photo: Michael Ensminger)
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?
BA: We need disability based theatres and programs more than ever. This style of theatre allows companies to parallel the often misunderstood and feared world of disability with the common struggles of any individual who has fears or is misunderstood. After all, any person can relate to having felt like an outsider; and these common feelings help pull each performer and each patron deeper into the common world of the play – and of disability. Whether the story is specific to disability or not, the themes can always relate; and increased awareness and a new perspective from the lens of disability can only add to the national cultural landscape.
Beyond this truly valuable artistic expression, it can’t be denied that theatre based in people with disabilities is an important tool in many additional regards. First, many highly talented artists are unable to work in a traditional theatre setting because they may need accommodations that most theatres would deem inappropriate or impossible (longer breaks and more weeks of rehearsal are a simple example). Theatres that are willing to make accommodations are able to empower any artist to do their best work. With the huge population of aging Baby Boomers, the issues surrounding disability are only going to increase in importance and relevance.
Secondly, amateur theatre programs for people with disabilities provide an important tool for social skills, life skills, and community. The same lessons taught to typical young people through theatre are perhaps more important for people with disabilities. Phamaly, for example, has the privilege of partnering with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Education Department. One of our students who has Fragile-X syndrome was unable to hold a job after high school. A complication of his disability, social anxiety would cause him to freeze – he would literally not move or speak for extended periods of time. After a few workshops in theatre improv techniques, this young man chose to apply his classroom lessons to life – and he has since gone on to be fully employed and explore a career as a public speaker. This is a very real application of arts education in disability.
So far – I can only think of things that are gained through the stories and programs of people with disabilities. Perhaps what is lost is a general uneasiness and fear of “otherness” and “disability.”
(Photo: Michael Ensminger)
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?
BA: The first step to addressing issues of accessibility is to accept your own fears or pre-conceived notions so that you may put them aside. Many companies feel like disabled patrons are a legal threat, or talented disabled performers need substantial financial investment in accommodation. Neither is true. Once you can embrace the importance, ease, and joy of increasing accessibility the practical steps for implementation are easy.
Have a goal. Who are you serving and why? If it’s simply to look good on paper, then you’re not embracing the benefits of the programs. Once you see how increased ticket sales, diversified talent, and community partners can truly benefit your theatre, it will be easy to connect with your local service-providers and advocates to discuss their populations and their needs. Not only are they connected to the community you’re hoping to reach, they also have the expertise to guide you along the way to ensure your programming is successful. The best part? Most of these organizations are as invested in creating cultural opportunities as you are – so you’re really building strategic partnerships, potential sponsors, and developing audiences all at the same time; even if only one of those things is your primary goal.
Don’t be afraid to think about the many different kinds of disability. Reach out to the local chapter of the Autism Society, or the local physical rehab facilities. Need additional help? Connect with the theatres around the country that work with people with disabilities. I’m always happy to provide personal recommendations, examples of our successes AND failures, and make introductions. You can also connect with the Kennedy Center or ASSITEJ – both have valuable and easy resources online. Looking for talent? Connect with the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts to help publish your productions to correct populations.
Truly, the hardest part of programming for people with disabilities is making the effort to do it. Even Sensory Friendly performances can be implemented with very little financial investment, but the long-term rewards could be significant. Be patient, and be persistent in your goals and values. The investment will pay off.
(Photo: Michael Ensminger)
JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of disability in theatre?
BA: There’s no question that the United States has come a long way in opening doors to artists and audiences with disabilities. There’s also no question that many countries in Europe and around the world are far ahead of us – and we all have so much more to do. If American Theatres want to make sure that their art stays as relevant and realistic as ever before, disability will need to be in the forefront of every major theatre. Whether that’s physical access for the older generations, or physical representations of the characters we’re presenting on-stage, the need and the talent exist and are under utilized.
Additionally, as developmental disabilities continue to grow, the importance of cultural access – and a cultural voice – for this population has never been in more desperate need. Theatre has always been a place for providing voices, and a new generation of stories is being born. Until we are serving all of our patrons and artists with disabilities with dignity, understanding, and are looking for the valuable cultural lens they provide, we will never be able to stop improving or talking about this particular subject.
JL: As an advocate of disability in the theatre, can you recommend plays that I should be reading or playwrights I should be following?
BA: Mixed Blood theatre has put together a very good listing of plays and playwrights that I often tell people to reference. It is by no means exhaustive, but it is a wonderful tool in demonstrating the vast styles and stories that exist within the disability realm. Their list is as follows:
AN ACCIDENT by Lydia Stryk (Physical– Spinal Cord Injury) “fierce, funny, and surprisingly uplifting tour de force for two actors”│ BLUR by Melanie Marnich (Blind/Vision Impaired) “lovely, poetic, and humorous”│COLOSSAL by Andrew Hinderaker (Physical– Spinal Cord Injury) “wonderful, epic sized-play, about love and loss”│DISTRACTED by Lisa Loomer (ADHD) “Immersed in a world wrought with sensory overload, Lisa Loomer’s humor and pathos reveals the complexity of ADHD”│GOOD DANCER by Emily Chaddick Weiss (Physical- Cerebral Palsy) “a romantic comedy that takes on issues of race and disability”│HISTORY OF BOWLING by Mike Ervin (Blind/Deaf, Physical, Invisible) “a sly and funny play, challenges preconceptions”│LOVE PERSON by Aditi Brennan Kapil (Deaf) “a gorgeous exploration of the confounding language of love”│PEELING by Kaite O’Reilly (Deaf, Physical, Invisible) “gorgeous, theatrical, quietly ground-breaking”│SOMEDAY by Julie Marie Myatt (Physical- Cerebral Palsy) “universal issues of infertility and reproductive rights”│SOOT AND SPIT by Charles Mee (Deaf, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome) “poetic, contemplative, and celebratory”│SWEET NOTHING IN MY EAR by Stephen Sachs (Deaf) “…beautifully embraces deaf culture as a culture with its own language and traditions and not a disability” Plays by John Belluso earned a category of their own: GRETTY GOOD TIME (Physical) “polio-survivors in mid-1950’s. It is simply brilliant”│PYRETOWN (Physical) “a lovely and romantic 2-hander”│THE BODY OF BOURNE (Physical) “poetic, complex, and life-affirming”│THE RULES OF CHARITY (Physical- Cerebral Palsy) “profound and intelligent”│Plays you’ve probably heard of, worth exploring in collaboration with actors with disabilities: CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD by Mark Medoff (Deaf)│FIFTH OF JULY by Lanford Wilson (Physical)│NEXT TO NORMAL by Kitt/Yorkey (Mental Health)│THE BOYS NEXT DOOR by Tom Griffin (Developmental, Mental Health)│THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAN by Martin McDonagh (Physical- Cerebral Palsy)│THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME by Simon Stephens (Autism Spectrum Disorder)│THE NORMAL HEART by Larry Kramer (Physical). Plays ineligible for funding that we can’t resist mentioning as we’d love to see these two pieces performed by their creators: STILL STANDING by playwright/performer Anita Hollander (Physical)│WEIGHTS by playwright/performer Lynn Manning (Blind). These two plays by John Belluso do not contain characters with disabilities, but are well worth a read: A NERVOUS SMILE and HENRY FLAMETHROWA.
Bryce Alexander currently serves as the Artistic Director for Phamaly Theatre Company based in Denver, Colorado. He recently returned from Osaka, Japan, where he led Phamaly’s first international tour - The Fantasticks to sold-out audiences. Bryce also led a series of community workshops to promote inclusion and the effective application of disability theory in both western and traditional Japanese art forms. In June, Phamaly hosted a regional “Sensory Summit” in Denver to provide arts and cultural organizations the knowledge and tools they need to produce their own Sensory Friendly programs. His work at major regional theatres and in various small community venues around the country has given him a well-rounded perspective on the significance of accessibility in the arts.
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