Ever since I ran sound for a production at my local community theater as a teenager, I have loved Bernard Pomerance's play, The Elephant Man. I have also enjoyed Bradley Cooper's work ever since he played Will Tippin, the intrepid, love-lorn reporter who finds himself in way over his head on the hit show, ALIAS.
How can you not like this guy? He's an attractive, charismatic, multiple academy award nominated movie star. As a consciences disabled American however, I think it's only natural to question why in this day and age an attractive, charismatic, successful guy plays arguably the most famous- and famously deformed- disabled person in all of modern history.
In an Introductory Note to the play, Pomerance states-
Merrick's face was so deformed he could not express any emotion at all. His speech was very difficult to understand without practice. Any attempt to reproduce his appearance and his speech naturalistically-if it were possible-would seem to me not only counterproductive, but, the more remarkably successful, the more distracting from the play. For how he appeared, let slide projections suffice.
Any one who has spent any time with someone with severe disabilities that effect their speech know that they are capable of expressing emotion and can in fact be understood. At the time the play was written in the late 70's, I'm sure the playwright didn't know of any actors with disabilities, and like most people then and now, his was an all-able-bodied universe. How could The Apothetae help to change the shape and perception of that universe?
I decided The Apothetae would present an informal reading of the play. As Pomerance suggests, I decided to use a cast of seven actors. As an exercise, I decided that the cast would consist entirely of actors with physical disabilities.
In addition to the reading, I was interested in the power of the image I had seen at breakfast that morning. As the play has traditionally been done since its Broadway premier in 1979 (with Phillip Anglim in the role of Merrick), the audience is being asked to see a traditionally "beautiful" man as a hideously deformed other. What if however, an audience was confronted with the image of a disabled or non-normative body? What if an audience was confronted with that body for ninety plus minutes?
On Monday, The Apothetae presented an informal reading of The Elephant Man to an invited audience at the New York Conservatory For The Dramatic Arts. As an exercise, the reading raised more questions than presented answers- which I think all good art does and should do. In this play about otherness, eroticism, power, art and medicine paramount of these questions among the ensemble was, what does it mean to have a soul? We of course were seeing the play through an entirely different lens than the producers of the current production who from the marketing seem to be pitching the play- at least to audiences- as a sort of love story.
Based on the real life of Joseph Merrick, THE ELEPHANT MAN tells the story of a 19th-century British man (Cooper) who became a star of the traveling freak show circuit. When the renowned Dr. Treves (Nivola) takes Merrick under his care, he is astonished by the man's brilliant intelligence, unshakable faith and, most of all, his resounding desire for love and understanding. He introduces Merrick to the beautiful actress Mrs. Kendal ( Clarkson), who is deeply touched by this pure and genuine soul. As a complex friendship blossoms among the three, Treves and Kendal struggle to protect Merrick from a world of questionable intentions...and so begins a story of love as unique as "The Elephant Man" himself.
We also had many heated discussions- or maybe it was one long continuous one rather- about the intent behind the author's note. Did Pomerance mean that no disabled actor should play the role of Merrick? Ever? Could that be used as ammunition by producers and casting directors to discourage the auditioning and hiring of actors with disabilities? Or was it rather, an attempt by the playwright to release the actor from having to rely on prosthetic make-up and intense physical choices to focus more on the character's inner emotional life?
I had written a post in June of this year about several of the issues surrounding authenticity, the casting of disabled actors and the market forces of The Great White Way. The upcoming production of The Elephant Man starring Bradley Cooper is mentioned, naturally. If you're interested you can read that post here-
The Fabulous Invalid
The reading and subsequent photo project are, I hope, just the beginning of a conversation and examination into the role and responsibility of artists with disabilities taking ownership and agency of their stories, their bodies and engaging with the field at large.
Thanks for reading and go see The Elephant Man! Let us know what you think!
-Gregg Mozgala, Artistic Director