Full disclosure, I went to school with two of these women, was in Youngblood (Ensemble Studio Theatre's OBIE winning emerging writers group for people under thirty), with another, but that does not change my admiration and full agreement with the sentiment that they are done talking about the problems women writers
face in our industry and are ready to take action to do something about changing it.
These women and representatives from other minority or marginalized groups have been working tirelessly to confront the barriers to employment in our industry and produce exciting and challenging works. I applaud these efforts and support them whole-heartedly. At the same time, I am a little conflicted and, yes "jealous" would be the right word, for the simple fact that The Kilroys can and have in fact compiled a concrete and comprehensive list of 47 excellent plays by female playwrights. There’s still work to be done, but a road map and legacy has been laid by those who came before. Plays that deal with the experience of Women, African Americans, LGBTs, Asian Americans, etc., and written by people from those populations are being done and produced in theatres large and small all over this country. Ethnic and gender diversity exists on stage and in film and television. This is due to the decades-long efforts of countless activist and artists who worked to tell
and make visible the experience of their communities. They demanded their voices be heard.
In 2014, the same cannot be said for disabled actors or playwrights. I would kill for 47 producible plays by disabled playwrights.
I have written on the lack of material and opportunities for Disabled Artists on The Apothetae website and in a blog post entitled, "The 'D' In The Diversity Debate." Like The Kilroys, I know what the problems are. I want to focus on taking action to do something about it.
Help me out here. Please. Because if they're out there I'd love know about them. At this moment I cannot think of a single organization or entity specifically devoted to the development of new plays or works by Disabled playwrights or artists. Mark Taper's Other Voices project is no more. VSA Arts, after getting blown severe cutbacks in 2009 is focused primarily on education and grades K-12. The Alliance for Inclusion In The Arts, a TONY winning organization, which promotes and advocates for full inclusion of artists of color and performers with disabilities at all levels of production in theatre, film, television, and related media is not a producing entity.
Beyond Victims & Villains: Contemporary Plays By Disabled Playwrights (Victoria Lewis, Editor) was released in 2006. This anthology, the first of its kind, explores how disabled artists depict the world they inhabit with their disabilities. It contains the following plays by disabled playwrights.
a collaborative project developed by Doris Baizley and Victoria Ann Lewis (Los Angeles, CA)
Gretty Good Time
by John Belluso (Los Angeles, CA)
The History of Bowling
by Mike Ervin (Chicago, IL)
by David Freeman (Canada)
by Lynn Manning (Los Angeles, CA)
A Summer Evening in Des Moines
by Charles Mee, Jr. (New York, NY)
No One as Nasty
by Susan Nussbaum (Chicago, IL)
None of these plays have received a major production this decade.
Oh, there are plays about disability or with disabled characters. In fact, Disability was all over Broadway this past season. Just look at this year’s TONY nominations. Cripple of Inishmaan, Of Mice & Men, Richard III and Glass Menagerie all have disabled characters at their center. With the exception of Of Mice and Men, three of
those plays received Best Revival nominations. Daniel Radcliffe, Brian O'Dowd and Mark Rylance all received best actor nominations. Celia Keenan-Bolger received a nomination for Best Performance in a Featured Role for her portrayal of Laura Wingfield.
The Elephant Man is coming to Broadway next season starring Bradley Cooper. I guarantee he (Cooper) will win for his portrayal of Joseph Merrick. A revival of Sideshow is opening at The Kennedy Center. It’s a musical about circus performers and side show freaks. Intelligence sources have informed me that the cast does at least contain one or more disabled actors. It's a start. It's not good enough.
I don't know if any actors with disabilities were considered for any of the TONY nominated shows listed above.
Probably not. At the end of the day however, anything on Broadway is about money. Which means even if there was a disabled actor with the same cache and talent as a Bradley Cooper, they still wouldn't get the job.
Let me be clear. I don't advocate affirmative action in the theater. My argument is about using theater, a thriving and viable art form, as a platform for change primarily...THROUGH THE WRITING OF NEW PLAYS...I am not interested in shaming producers into hiring disabled actors instead of movie stars....I think it's a different conversation.
***If I may touch on that different conversation for a moment with a personal anecdote***
Disability is not ethnicity. Disability is not gender. I am currently in Omaha, Nebraska with Nebraska Shakespeare performing as Caliban in The Tempest. A strong argument could be made for Caliban being a disabled character. I think my disability weighed heavily on the decision to cast me in the role and I am confident they feel they made the right choice. I certainly think they did. I am also in the ensemble of "The Compleat Works Of William Shakespeare...Abridged." An African-American actor in the cast of "Compleat Works..." at various points in the production is rapping and speaks in urban slang. These moments get laughs and are, "appropriate." At one point in the play I assume the role of Richard III (yeah). I have one line, the famous, "A horse, a horse..." line. One day in rehearsal I decided to adopt, what I call a, "CP dialect" for the line delivery. During notes the director said, "That's a choice. It's funny. But I want you to pull it back." I told the director, whom I respect and have a good rapport with, that I was just using what I had available to me as an actor and drew the parallel to my choice mirroring the actions of my African American cast member. "It might make people too uncomfortable" was the gist and I dropped it.
Disability is not Ethnicity. It is not Gender. Disability is like fire- it doesn't discriminate. It is also an extremely uncomfortable topic for people to grapple and be confronted with. It's uncomfortable for me on a daily basis, and in the moment I made the choice to make Richard III disabled (heaven forbid), I revealed to my cast mates that I myself was disabled and we all had to deal with it. Live. In the room. For real. In that moment I was comfortable with that choice. The perception was that my castmates, and apparently the larger Omaha audience would not be. I get it. I don't have to like it but I get it. The African American experience, in this example, has more context because we've seen it. It has been explored, made visible, laughed at, dissected and disseminated. Disability does not have the same context.
When confronted with an African American or other ethnicity, one can look back to Africa or a specific, established culture for context. Disability has no specific culture. It does however, have a specific context. When confronted with Disability people see anxiety, struggle, birth and death. This is our greatest issue. This may be our greatest obstacle. It is also our greatest strength. As Disabled individuals, we have confronted death and beat it. Why would we not use theatre as a tool to fully explore and exploit this fact?
The late playwright, John Belluso said that, "to be disabled is to always be on stage." He was right. I am always negotiating a relationship to an audience whether it be walking to the store or performing Hamlet. How I choose to engage with that audience is entirely up to me.
The thing that is subversive about the Kilroys is that they are naming themselves. But they couldn't do that until they did the work. They wrote the plays. But it's more complicated than that. Even though they are women, they share the belief that they CAN and SHOULD write the plays. They probably grew up writing, most of them trained as playwrights, they've been writing for years. The reason there isn't a canon of plays written by disabled people about disabled themes, is...there just aren't many disabled playwrights.
People may ask, why Theatre? Why not film or televison? I have written and spoken about this in my essay for TCG's Diversity and Inclusion blog salon entitled, "We Will Make That History Visible."
I recently found this from Robert Cohen, University of California, Irvine in Theatre (9th Edition) and love it.
**For decades now, theatre has been thought of as an endangered species. Broadway was called a "Fabulous Invalid" as early as Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's play of that name in 1938, and the advent of television has made the theater's predicament seem even more dire. The idea that theater risks extinction, however, is lunacy. Film and television have only increased the popularity of live theatre, in part by turning theatre actors- such as Jane Fonda, Sean Penn, Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, James Gandolfini, Dustin Hoffman, patrick Stewart and Denzel Washington- into worldwide celebreties.
Live theatre in America has never prospered as much as it does today. Despite the staggering recession that hit the United States in the fall of 2008, the Broadway theatre earned an all-time box-office record that entire season ($939 million in 2008-09), while attracting 12.15 million spectators, far more than all of New York's major league sports teams- the Mets, Jets, Nets, Knicks, Yankees, Giants, Rangers, and Islanders- combined. What's more, that season saw the highest proportion ever of theatergoers under the age of eighteen, and the largest number of new productions since 1983. And while the recession lowered the budgets of many of America's professional regional theatres that year (along with usually every other cultural and business
activity in the country), the number of these theatre companies grew to from 425 in 2007 to 488 in 2009. Nor has theatre yielded to film economically, as many mistakenly believe. Indeed, it's the other way around: The film Titanic broke the all-time worldwide box-office record by earning $1.8 billion, but the stage production of Phantom of the Opera (another disabled character!), had earned, at time of writing, $3.2 billion and that show is still running eight performances a week in ten cities around the world. Between 2002 and 2008 Broadway's box-office income rose a whopping 46.6 percent-compared to the increase in the nation's film-ticket income of a mere 5.6 percent. In both its popularity and its contribution to the national economy, therefore, Broadway (and by extension all American theatre) may be fabulous but it is certainly no invalid.
Theatre's main asset, however, is not the income it creates. Rather, like the live rock concert versus its televised counterpart, theatre flourishes mainly because it pulses with real life. Both performers and audience dive into the same story and are swept up in the same whirlwind of feelings and ideas. The theatre's events are unique and alive, neither digitized in a file nor affixed to a strip of cellu-loid. Theatre is an art of flesh and blood.**
As a group, The Disabled need to start showing more flesh and spilling some blood on stages across Amercia. Metaphorically, yes, but perhaps in reallity also. People need to see that we aren't just symbols of pity or inspiration, and that we pulse with real life as well. I belive, and theatre has proven time and again, to be the best platform for this to occur. The documented history of other populations and minorites doing so has proven to already be economically viable, and true to form, has led to the proliferation of more ethnic and gender diversirty in film and television. No one can argue with the social importance of making the stories of Disabled Americans more visible, and the model for creating and sustaining such theater already exists!
Now, I am not only interested in working with Disabled people. Doing so would not be refelctive of my experience as a theater artist and as a disabled individual. Frankly, I think that view is myopic and I would be bored to death.
I've recently started The Apothetae. My ambitions far out weigh my means at this point, but maybe I'll start a collective; a workshop for able-bodied and disabled artists who want to write. Maybe I'll call it, "The Fabulous Invalids." Maybe I'll bring in established playwrights to teach it. I have four commissioned, highly skilled and talented writers. Maybe I'll bring in my commissioned playwrights. Maybe I'll call it playwriting 101, and by the end of the course everyone writes a play and every play is matched up with a fancy playwright who edits and reworks it. Maybe there's a festival...
The women of the Kilroys didn't necessarily know how to write a play when they started, but they had great mentors to get them started, and then as they should, they used, and will continue to use each other to get better and better and more famous and more visible. Why can't we do the same?
What are we waiting for? In 1990, a major piece of legislation was signed guaranteeing every Disabled American equal protection and opportunity under the law. Have we been willing to sacrafice our Culture at the expense of our Rights? The time for waiting is over. No one is going to hand the opportunities to us. We must creat them ourselves. It's time to remember, that People With Disabilites Act!
-Gregg Mozgala, Disabled American/Artisitc Director