In a video on her website, choreographer and MacArthur Fellow Liz Lerman (IAC 60-62) asks the question, “Who gets to dance?” What follows is a montage of dancers of all shapes, sizes, ages, and ability—some on stage performing classical ballet, some spontaneously dancing in public places, some in wheelchairs or even hospital beds. In one segment, two men in hard hats operate their front-loaders in a joyous dance of spins, lifting their buckets together in perfect synchronization. According to Lerman, the answer is simple: everyone gets to dance.
More and more, the arts community is asking the same question: who decides who gets to create? To dance or act or write? There’s a growing group of artists and organizations looking past the traditional models of performance, acknowledging the creative impulse in all people, and creating new opportunities for artists and audiences alike.
When Michael Arden (Michael Moore, IAC 99, IAA 99-01, IAC St 01) went to an audition for a new Broadway production of “Big River” in 2003, he had never met a deaf person. As part of his audition for the role of Tom Sawyer, he had a scene with the actor playing Huck Finn, Ty Giordano, who is deaf. California-based Deaf West Theatre, where the production originated, brings together deaf and hearing actors to produce American Sign Language adaptations of plays and musicals for deaf and hearing audiences. The result is not just traditional theater with sign language added in: sign language and spoken word are combined to create a new form of expression that Deaf West describes as a “third language.”
“I never would have thought I would share theatre and music with the deaf community,” Arden said. He not only got the part of Tom Sawyer and made his Broadway debut, he began a collaboration that continues to this day. In 2009, Arden returned to Deaf West for a production of “Pippin,” working again with Giordano to co-create the title role. And this fall, Arden directed Deaf West’s production of “Spring Awakening,” which played to critical acclaim and a sold out run in Los Angeles.
“Spring Awakening,” set in late 19th Century Germany, revolves around a group of teens and adults and their inability to communicate in changing times. The power of the script, according to Arden, is that it illustrates many of the cultural divides present in society today. Having both deaf and hearing actors on stage reinforced that message as a concrete reminder of those divides—and also served as an example of what is possible when people collaborate across those divides while acknowledging the value of differing perspectives, on stage and off.
Working with both deaf and hearing actors does have its own set of challenges, but Arden points out that all directors have to keep in mind the individual experiences and challenges of their actors. “It requires tons of trust and communication,” Arden explained, as well as a lot of rehearsal. “When everyone is breathing together, it works.”
While Deaf West and Michael Arden are opening theatre to deaf and hard-of-hearing performers and audiences, they are not alone in their effort to expand creative opportunity to new groups. In Denver Colorado Phamaly Theatre Company was established in 1989 when a group of performers grew frustrated by the lack of opportunities for actors with disabilities. Today, Phamaly produces a full season of plays and musicals using actors with physical, cognitive, or emotional disabilities. They’ve received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and a slew of Denver theater awards for the their productions.
Artistic director Steve Wilson, who has directed many of the productions over the past 14 years, said he has one goal when people come to a Phamaly show: an incredible evening at the theater.
“We love the stories where people come curious to see what a theater company of folks with disabilities is all about, but ten minutes into the show they forget that everyone in the cast has a disability and just really enjoy the play.”
And just as Arden used his actors’ deafness to highlight the themes of “Spring Awakening,” Wilson also looks for creative ways to leverage his actors’ disabilities to deepen the impact for the audience.
“We are able to re-invent any classic because our population turns the prism to show another side of humanity,” Steve said. “Sometimes the disability informs the role. A blind Dorothy in ‘The Wiz’ changes the meaning of the play. A crippled Belle in ‘Disney’s Beauty and the Beast’ opens the play to a new interpretation without changing a line of dialogue or a note of music.”
Wilson acknowledges that there are challenges to consider when casting someone with a disability. Are dressing rooms accessible? Will this person be safe on stage? Most theater companies aren’t willing to go there, but the results are worth it. “Even when the choices are more subtle or the disability isn’t apparent, highlighting this population makes for better art. Because these people are not these people: they are us. Maybe after an accident, maybe after a stroke, or maybe just when we are old and slow and walk with a cane – but us in our inevitable evolution.”