Disabilities on Center Stage

     On Sunday, June 30th The New York Times ran an article about a unique theatre company on the Lower East Side, Apothetae—named for the place where Spartans supposedly abandoned weak or disabled babies.  Founded by Gregg Mozgala, an actor with cerebral palsy, Apothetae’s mission is to showcase the experiences of people with disabilities.  Theatergoers might expect inspirational stories of triumph over adversity and plays that are politically correct.  Instead they might see toe-sucking (yes, you read that correctly), and playwrights who deliberately say “everything you feel shouldn’t be said about disabilities,” through a mix of disabled and mainstream actors.

     Few playwrights have devoted themselves to the subject of disabilities and the lives of those challenged by them on center stage, while there are plenty of examples in film and television.  Films like Rain Man, Elephant Man and Forrest Gump are just a few of the films which come to mind.  Keep in mind the starring roles in those movies went to Dustin Hoffman, John Hurt and Tom Hanks, all mainstream actors.   But some actors with disabilities have also been stars.  Marlee Matlin, a deaf actress, won an Academy Award for her performance in Children of a Lesser God and has had a 25 year career in film and television.   In just the past few years, there have been films and TV shows featuring actors with Down’s Syndrome, like Glee star Lauren Potter, who has said of her disability: “we’re just like anyone else.”  There’s also a wonderful actor on Game of Thrones, Peter Dinklage, who happens to be a dwarf.

     As the mother of a daughter on the autistic spectrum, watching actors with various disabilities and reading about the birth of Apothetae, offers a sliver of hope to a growing population of  the marginalized and misunderstood who live with the ASD label.   It’s difficult enough for non-disabled actors to succeed if they’re attractive and talented.   Imagine what it’s like if you’re missing a limb or mentally challenged?  What about socially and emotionally challenged or blind or deaf?  How many parts are even out there for those with disabilities?  And who’s to say how many of those parts will end up being given to mainstream actors instead of those with disabilities?  I’m guessing that most people don’t even entertain the concept of disabled people with a career on stage (unless they are from a previous generation who saw them at the circus).

     I know that I never expected my daughter Sarah to be cast as the leading actress in “Keep the Change,” a Columbia graduate student’s film about two young adults with disabilities who struggle to connect.   I also never dreamed the movie would win “Best Film” in the New York and Los Angeles Film festivals.  Sarah is 22 and has been auditioning her whole life for plays at school and sleep away camp.  Never in all those years did she win the leading role in anything.  Most of the time she got small roles—if any—and often lost parts to disabled kids with less talent and ability.  When I once questioned the head of a camp about why Sarah didn’t get a part, I was told that Sarah had a stronger ego; the girl who got the part “needed it more for her self-esteem.”  It was a camp for special needs kids, after all.  

     You can only begin to imagine my surprise and delight when Rachel, the director of “Keep the Change,” told me she had auditioned a hundred mainstream actresses, but chose my daughter to be the star.  I figured it was a one-shot deal, but no, Rachel is expanding the film into a full length feature and plans to keep the original cast.  Sarah and her co-star, who has Asperger’s and Tourette’s Syndrome, will start filming next summer.   In the meantime, Rachel is consulting BOTH of her disabled actors and asking for their input on the expanded script!  Another one shot deal, I tell myself.  Certainly, this isn’t a career path for Sarah.  Or is it?

     When I read the article about Apothetae and  Mr. Mozgala, an actor with cerebral palsy who was successful and courageous enough to open a theater company which explores the experiences of disabled people on stage, it makes me wonder.  Could Sarah one day be part of a theater company like Apothetae or audition for one of its plays?  It’s possible, right?   Of course, Sarah still has to finish her senior year at Pace University and is committed to working on the full length feature next summer.  After that, she would be free to go on to another project….  Any casting agents or directors interested?

     The bigger and more challenging question is when and if disabled actors will ever be truly appreciated for their talents and abilities.  Are they being applauded out of pity for their disabilities?  Perhaps people think that it’s less of an accomplishment to play characters who have disabilities if the actor has the same disability in real life.  Yet there are those who would say that many of the great main stream actors—like Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier—are “themselves” in every role and still win awards.  Actors like Gregg Mozgala, with cerebral palsy, would like to “erase the line” between the actors with and without disabilities.  

     I don’t know how audience attitudes will evolve toward actors with disabilities.  But at least Sarah and other actors with disabilities are finally getting opportunities to show the world, one by one, that they are like everyone else—a unique mix of strengths and weaknesses.

 

 

 

 

 

               

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