Let’s face it; working in theater is hard, if not almost impossible at times. But to an actor with a disability, the odds are even more stacked against you. A disabled actor often finds himself being considered for a very small number of roles. Unfortunately, many directors don't want to take a risk by hiring an actor who is more different than the rest. How do I know this? Well I'm a disabled artist trying to break stereotypes.
Theater was, and probably will always be, my greatest passion in life. It offers a kind of creative freedom that is very liberating, especially when you have physical limitations. I never quite understood the notion of type casting because playing and creating a character is rooted in pretending so why can't we pretend that a character has a disability as part of them? I've been told things like, “unless we do Of Mice and Men, you don't stand a chance! (I was told this by a professor, which after I left the school). Then they charged me with hiding my disability and to try to appear “normal”. I tried this for three long years and right when I was going to give up, something told me that this is ridiculous, I can't hide my disability just like someone can't hide their natural hair color. Then I transferred to another school, which said, “Wow, you're disabled? That's great!” You can imagine my surprise that my seeming obstacle was now seen in a new light. My teachers started showing me how to bring all of myself into a role. I will never forget, getting cast as the Gander in Charlotte’s Web and being convinced that I couldn't speak because The Gander spoke in threes (yes,yes,yes!) One rehearsal my director asked me “What's holding you back? Timidly, I announced my fear of being unintelligible due to my disability. He very frankly told me without hesitation, “I don't see why the Gander can't have Cerebral Palsy. I was floored. That was the moment of my rebirth into theater and I have never looked back.
Yet, the theater community is not always so open to this idea. It's like in order to pretend to be something you're not; you have to first be the character as yourself. I never got this oxymoron; I have to be real to pretend?! Luckily, I have had some very good mentors along the way, Krista Smith and Stephanie Barton-Farcas, showed me how to be a competent disabled actor. With their tutelage I started landing roles. Yet, something was missing. It dawned on me that my mentors represent only two directors with companies out of many. I was still meeting directors who are still closed off about working with disabled actors. Along my journey, I got to meet and work with great talented actors who have disabilities. After seeing how their skills and talent were dismissed so quickly, I knew something had to be done.
In March 2011, I founded Identity Theater Company after being inspired by Nicu's Spoon. One may look at this as a competition or a slap in the face, but it’s not. It's simply a way to open another avenue for differently-abled actors. We need change and to open up our minds and hearts to differently-abled artists. I hope my company will be another beacon of light and hope that the theater community can embrace us all. Personally, I've never gotten a satisfactory question to this; “why can’t Blanche Dubois be blind or in a wheelchair?” No one can tell me, but almost everyone sees this choice as blasphemy and downright wrong. I think it would be fascinating to see this new interpretation done. I'll never forget seeing Buried Child by Nicu Spoon Theater, who cast a deaf actor to play Tilden and he spoke on stage. Although hard to understand at times, this actor broke down barriers and delivered one of the best theatrical performances that I have ever seen. It was riveting, inspiring, and unforgettable. Many people say I'm too liberal, but I hope that I am just pushing boundaries and opening doors. If art does truly imitate life, shouldn't we let our art embody acceptance, respect, and tolerance? So I ask you this, “Why can't we all play together?”