I recently sat down with Eric Graise who portrayed, Blizzard, the legless kingpin of the Lower East Side underworld in 1920's New York City. I asked Eric about his process and his work with The Apothetae.
-Gregg Mozgala, Artistic Director
1. In a phone conversation before rehearsals started, I asked if you would be comfortable going legless for the presentation, and you said you had been, "looking for an opportunity to do so." I thought this was an awesome statement. Can you talk about how you communicate/negotiate your disability with producers, directors, theater companies, etc. to date, and how this particular process working on "The Penalty" was the same or different?
The first thing I do when speaking with anyone in the early stages of the creative process is to say that I'm not afraid of anything! I'm completely open to any and all suggestions regarding my prosthetics or amputation. I think often times those who don't have disabilities tend to think of it as just that: a disability. But disabilities aren't present in the arts until we make them present. We are in the business of creation and if we spend all of our time focused on what I can't do, we miss out on the chance of creating a world in which a character like me is far from disabled.
Working on "The Penalty" was a vastly different experience. Many times I feel the need to apologize in the rehearsal process for being different, but none of that was needed here. I was able to truly explore a character without feeling the need to hide anything about myself or succumb to blocking and choreography that doesn't cater to someone like me. And Blizzard is definitely the type of character that feels no need to apologize for anything.
2. In my experience as a disabled actor, I have found that when I am cast in non-disabled roles, I often spend a lot of energy working to hide my disability or make it invisible to the audience. I do this a lot in my daily life as well. In those rare opportunities where I actually play a disabled character, I find I can focus more on the acting and just doing my job as part of an ensemble. This could just be me. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this phenomenon and if this process was somehow different because you were playing a legless character, etc?
When you asked me to be apart of this, it clearly was a no-brainer for me. And honestly I found it be one of the easiest/hardest experiences I've had in theatre. It can be tough to discover the physicality of a character, especially being a predominantly musical actor. Portraying Blizzard was a comfort because he was a double leg amputee as well, but also difficult in that I've never had the experience of working without my prosthetics with a character as physically active as Blizzard. The only other times I've worked without my prosthetics were when I did "Misery" and we amputated my legs on stage and also when I've worked as a zombie on "The Walking Dead."
I would say that the show itself is as much a representation of my personal experience as an amputee as much as Sweeney Todd is a representation of the experience of barbers. But that's what makes it so much fun! I think what spoke most to my experience in life was in the rehearsal process. Having the opportunity to work with many actors who go through similar hurdles was something I might never have gotten without The Apothetae. Hearing their stories and getting to know them gave me some solace in knowing that there is a community of people who also chose this profession. And a talented community at that! I would have hated to be a part of something that was merely a "crips only" invitation. But an attention to make not only meaningful art, but also make it highly entertaining as well was clearly present. I would work with you all again in a heart beat.
The feeling is mutual, Eric. The feeling is mutual. I certainly hope an opportunity presents itself sooner rather than later. Thank you!
Eric is currently in a production of Sweeney Todd at Actor's Express in Atlanta, GA where he resides.