-Gregg Mozgala, Artistic Director
I am a disabled Artistic Director. You are a disabled Artistic Director. That may be where our similarities end. However, both of our theater companies share a commitment to great storytelling and community engagement. While I don’t think of The Apothetae as a “Disabled Theatre” company per say, Disability is more front and center in our mission and all of our public-facing material. Your theatre, The Gift, is not a disability-specific theater, however, the theme of the body at the core of your process and the company’s mission of creating work for traditionally underserved communities can certainly point in that direction. Can you talk about how disability, if at all, factors in when you are looking at plays, developing a season, taking on new actors, staff, etc.
I think since the very first moment when we gathered around a fire and looked up into the starry night sky, we tried to wrangle these giant feelings of simultaneous loneliness & connection into some sort of contextualization, and we did this through storytelling. Whether it was paintings on a cave wall or the parables of Jesus or Zen koans, storytelling is our first ethics & morality class. And so in a very very roundabout way of answering your question, my disability sorta beckons me as an artistic director to treat Disability in metaphorical iterations; i.e. what's disabling our society? What's disabling our country? What's disabling me? Very often, that answer is fear. Very often, the answer is a paucity of love. So, while yes The Gift has me--an incomplete quadriplegic--as the artistic director and we have an ensemble member who is legally blind and yes we've featured a deaf actor on our stage and yes one goal for our future home is the most handicapped-accessible theatre in the world, I don't really think of us as the disabled ones. I'm not trying to be cute with this phrase, but I believe everyone has their own wheelchair. Everyone, at certain points, needs "assistance." And for me, this is what the best art does: it meets us in our time of need or estrangement or quiet internal panicked peril and shows us we are not alone. If we want to pursue this further down the rabbit hole, I believe the single greatest disabling thing about being human is over-identification with the ego. That puts us in us-versus-them modes of perception. It puts us into an experience of the world where we are always the starring role with everyone else merely extras, or, as David Foster Wallace wrote, "lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation." And what happens when you game this out from the individual level to the global is a dangerous world obsessed with death, starving for empathy; this is where art comes in. The Gift plays are held together by this connective tissue of Love, and while the plays may look very different, situationally very often they are about a character or characters having to give up the over-identification with the ego (i.e. The Story of Themselves) to shed that hard skin in order to open up and really start living. And we're demanding the highest level of emotional bravery of our ensemble to tell these stories by being ruthlessly honest and near-confessional in their living them out loud in real time onstage; so a sort of very breathtaking overlap manifests betweens actor & character which then ripples into the audience. And hopefully we all feel a little more fresh, a little lighter on our way out the doors and back into our lives. If you reach enough people this way, and if they continue to pass the baton forward, you can change the world. And I know how that sounds, but after two close brushes with death, I don't really care. Wallace was right: in an ego-driven world, single-entendre principles--Sentimentality--is the new punk.
You are currently in rehearsals for a production of “Richard III” by William Shakespeare where you will be playing the title role. I am about to begin rehearsals for a modern adaptation of “Richard III” set in high school entitled, "Teenage Dick." I don't think it's hard to see why you and I would be attracted to the character/archetype of Richard III. Can you speak on what you think is different about someone who actually has a visible, physical disability playing arguably one of the most (in)famous characters in Western Literature- does it make a difference in how audiences view or perceive that role/Disabled people? Does any of that matter?
First of all, I think it's so wonderful that Adolescence is your lens for your production, as so much of these gnarly existential thorns start popping up in high school when our brains are still developing and hormones are raging and factions and alliances shift seemingly on an hourly basis. High school can be its own War of the Roses for both the outsiders and the popular--the internal turmoil of the cheerleader and the bullied AV Club nerd might be exactly the same. Who knows. I really wish I could see what you all do with it.
You know, when I was at The University of Iowa I read Antony Sher's Year of the King about his preparation and process for RICHARD III and I remember being so enthralled with it; pages of pages dedicated to his sketches of how to play Richard as a bottled spider and his use of arm crutches and physical training etc. etc.. But that was before I became disabled. And now, I look at that sort of focus on one aspect--the disability--by a non-disabled actor and it seems sadly empty and sorta parlor tricky and kind of insulting, actually, as if everything about Richard can be tied to his disability which, when you think about it, doesn't seem that much more of an evolved point of view on disability than the medieval explanations for disability as outward manifestations of a crooked and evil inner soul. I think Richard's tragedy is he chooses to "prove a villain" because society can't see him as anything else. He identifies with and nurtures the dark in him, not the light. So, to me--and forgive me for not expanding too much on this but the truth is I am no-pun-intended paralyzingly superstitious about articulating too much about my process--RICHARD III is not merely a play about disability. For me, it's really about loneliness.
I'm sure you and I can go thru a fair amount of beers trading stories back and forth about insults we've received via the entertainment industry (producers refusing to cast us or even see us, etc.) or stunningly dense things said to us by audience members post-show. For example, in the past I've had people come up to me in the lobby post-show and tell me my portrayal of a wheelchair-user was "top notch". Mind you, they're telling me this as I am sitting in my wheelchair. Or people at opening night parties asking why I'm still sitting in the chair since the show's over. Or people saying I don't really need this wheelchair because they saw me upright on TV; of course, they're referring to "Private Practice" and evidently blocking out the fact that I was upright because I had a standing Levo C3 wheelchair for that show. I think what happens when you or I take the stage in a character like RICHARD III is we move the scales back towards even. I mean, the representation of disability on TV and film is like, what?, 1% I believe is the last statistic I read. I'd love to know what % of actors who've ever played Richard have been disabled, and if it's over 5% then I'll eat the Folio. You know, Gregg, I really struggle with my opinions about representation because on the one hand I firmly believe in my heart that the arts are a vehicle for empathy and just because I can't play Lance Armstrong in a biopic because of my disability doesn't mean that non-disabled Actor X shouldn't play disabled character Y. But when the scales are tipped so disproportionately, when the opportunities for disabled artists are so scant--when sometimes we can't even audition because the location of the audition is not accessible or involves us waiting in the rain in the pot-holed alley while the receptionist calls the building manager to call the elevator guy to open up the service elevator so we can ride up in a creepy lift surrounded by boxes of lettuce, the floor sticky with garbage juice which gets on my tires then my hands, I get to a point where I say this is bullshit. Where I feel like I'm not welcome on Planet Non-Disabled. But the ghoulish irony is that disabled people constitute the largest minority on Planet Non-Disabled. And, without wishing any ill-will toward anyone of course, the plain math of life is that, eventually, most of us are headed to Planet Disabled. So we should be having conversations about this topic. But we don't, because America has drunk the infinite-growth/we're gonna live forever kool-aid. And the reason we drink that kool-aid is fear of death. Which returns us to the conversation about the ego.
So, yes, I do think it matters that you and I--artists with disabilities--are currently playing the looming Macy's Thanksgiving parade balloon character of all disabled characters, Richard III. I think our respective plays will be enriched by our different points of view and that the perception of the role changes from How Ugly Can I Make Richard? to How Human Can I Make Him?. If Richard III is always going to be understandably inescapable from the Disability conversation, then we can't just punt and leave the articulation of that subject matter to Olivier and Sher and McKellan and Spacey and every other non-disabled actor who has played and continues to play that character. I mean--and I know I run the risk of offending an entire country by saying this--Laurence Olivier evidently based his Richard III on a mean producer and on the Big Bad Wolf; I'm all for oblique and alternative approaches to making art, but as an actor with a disability, I'm no longer comfortable having that be the filmic standard-bearer for the most (in)famous disabled character in Western Literature. In fact, it makes me kind of want to slap the shit out of him. There are worlds of depth beyond what Richard looks like and, while the physicality was presumably "the way into Richard" for those actors, my question is "in to what?" Heavily focusing on the playing of the disability as the panacea to playing Richard is, I'm sorry, precisely the miscalculation that arguably only a non-disabled actor would make. And I understand that this probably reads a bit hot and outragey and that really isn't who I am (or, who knows?, maybe it is), but these are my feelings right now. Maybe they're more readily at the surface because I'm living as Richard these days. Maybe he's stolen the laptop and is pecking away, furiously. (Insert smiling bunch-backed toad, spider king emoticon).
But at a certain point, enough is enough. The conversation surrounding disability needs to be more nuanced and a great way to have that conversation is through works of art featuring artists with disabilities playing all sorts of characters--disabled identified ones and, even more revolutionary, ones that are not.
So, to your question Does It Matter?, I think it does, yes. Maybe not to every audience member, but ultimately, on a long-enough timeline, I believe it really does.
15th Anniversary! We have an upcoming production of Grapes of Wrath that I'm so excited about with a very diverse Joad family that is a mix of biology and necessity--a family who bonded together by virtue of being ostracized. I think it's going to be revolutionary. And then we conclude with a thrilling Melissa Ross premiere called A Life Extra Ordinary about a woman's disappearance which reunites our ensemble member John Gawlik with Melissa after having directed her Thinner Than Water premiere at The Gift. A Life Extra Ordinary also features a powerhouse Gift ensemble; I'm so excited to see it I'm excited for developing new works for the American theatre by underserved voices. I'm excited for a new space that allows us to continue our conversations, a space that demystifies and democratizes art. I'm excited for our ensemble at The Gift and excited to do everything I can to make their dreams come true. I'm excited to build something perfect that is the clearest expression of everything you've been so kind to let me ramble on about like a lunatic. Life is hard. Art helps. To me, it's not really about the plays. It's about the people. The plays are the trojan horses that bring the conversation into the space, that allow us all to sit around the fire and look to the stars and say: "We're here. We're alone. We're together. It's okay."
Best of luck with the production, Michael! Break legs! (And Happy Birthday!)
The Gift Theatre Company's RICHARD III is part of Steppenwolf Theatre's Garage Rep Season. The production begins previews Thursday March 3rd and runs through April 24th
"Teenage Dick" by Michael Lew/Commissioned by The Apotheate, Gregg Mozgala, Artistic Director, goes into rehearsals March 8th, and runs March 24th-April 2nd at the Public Theatre.