Abilities United

Broadway disAbility Gold

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In February, 2016, I was approached once again from a casting agent looking for help in finding an actress with a disAbility. But this time it was for a role in a Broadway play. To protect the name(s) of the agent and agency I am including just the text:

Hi Larry,

I’m writing because we are casting a Broadway play in 2017 and we are looking for an actress with a mobility disability or who is a leg amputee to play a leading role.  I’d love for you to take a look at a flyer with more information on the project (I’ve attached it here) and would be so grateful if you wouldn’t mind passing it along to anyone you think is right!  Or even better, if you work with groups/theatres that would help spread the word as well!

Thanks in advance for taking a look.

And here is a partial of the flyer she attached.

Broadway? A leading role? A person with a mobility disAbility? Is this for real? Are they serious about wanting a person with a mobility disAbility for a leading role in a Broadway play? That’s huge. Even though I know very little about Broadway I know it is a big deal. What I do know is that when I found out about the 2010 Broadway revival show, “The Miracle Worker” they did not bother to even audition a person with a disAbility for the role of Helen Keller. I made a point of making a big deal of it a few months before when it was announced that they hired then 13 year old actress, Abigail Breslin without considering any person with a disAbility. As we know Helen Keller had multiple disAbilities. She was deaf, blind, and was unable to communicate until her teacher, Anne Sullivan helped her. This is the basis of the play, “The Miracle Worker.” But the producer of the 2010 version of the Broadway show did not even bother to audition a performer with a single disAbility. A blind actress. A deaf actress. Either one would have been great onstage and able to act the part of being blind or visa versa and still be authentically portraying and representing people with a disAbility. After months of backlash from the disAbled community and the press, the producer finally admitted he did not care about the authenticity of “The Miracle Worker”, it was all about getting a named recognized actress to sell tickets. I countered that on social media that it was never going to change if someone doesn’t help performers with a disAbility get work on stage and have the opportunity to become a recognized name. Now, 17 years later, is this Broadway casting notice for an actress with a mobility disAbility for a Tony award producer(s) for real? I was hopeful and a bit excited that maybe things are changing.

I am a paraplegic filmmaker and advocate for those with a disAbility in the film and television industry. So although I am not a talent agent, I do seem to get the requests from talent agencies and casting agencies when they are looking to audition actors with a disAbility in specific disAbility roles. This has been going on for several years and I want to help in any way possible to get more people with a disAbility represented in entertainment. Even if they are not in my entertainment projects! As I have mentioned in previous blog entries and social media posts that I have had to spend an inordinate amount of time advocating for the use of people with a disAbility in the creative roles in entertainment just to prove that my projects are viable by using a person with a disAbility in the feature role of my films, and that I have the Ability to be the director of my projects despite their misconceptions of the Ability of a person with a disAbility – more specific my paraplegia. So I am glad to help when these casting and talent agencies contact me looking for help. They tell me that they find me through a Google search in which my website’s page that merely highlights actors with a disAbility comes up. Often at the top of their search!  I meant for that page to just show potential investors to my company, Abilities United Productions and its individual film projects, as well as the general interests of the website’s visitors, that there are actors with a disAbility! That web page is old and in fact the entire website is old and I am in the process of a major renovation, but for now it still attracts Google searchers and that is a good thing.

Therefore I did pass on the Broadway show casting notice to actresses that I thought would fit the role. I did make an extra effort for one actress that I felt would fit the role perfectly. And for those who know her, know what I am talking about. The wonderfully talented, Teal Sherer who has done television movies and shows, national television commercials, short films and even her own acclaimed webseries called, “My Gimpy Life” that ran for 2 seasons and in 2013 was nominated by the International Academy of Web Television (IAWTV) in 4 categories which it won in 2 of them including Best Actress (Comedy) for Teal. I also posted the casting notice info to some social media outlets in hopes to get a large turnout of actresses with a disAbility in order to show the agency the talent pool is larger than they are led to believe, and that they would select an actress with a disAbility for the role.

 

I did reply to the casting agent informing them of all that I had done in posting the casting opening and telling them all about Teal. I also expressed how pleased I was that they were going to this extent to find a suitable candidate to fill the role. Of course I went on as I usually do when talking about this subject of authentic roles and filling them with authentic actors, what it means to the disAbled community and how it truly helps the entertainment industry to expand the inclusion and visibility to the general audiences to have performers with a disAbility in their programs. Not to mention how this kind of inclusion will help to inspire those who want to get into acting that there is opportunity for people with a disAbility but only if they could see them getting roles in entertainment there on Broadway and in Hollywood. They did reply back that they were excited by my passion for what they were doing and my overall advocacy for more people with a disAbility in creative roles. And then just three or four days later the agent sent another email saying:

Hey Larry,

I just wanted to follow up to let you know that we can now mention that the project is a Broadway revival of GLASS MENAGERIE, and we are looking for the role of LAURA.  We’re actively starting to audition women who fit the description, so please feel free to follow up with your contacts to let them know!

Thanks in advance,

Of course I did let everyone know and updated every social media post with this new information.

A few weeks later I followed up with Teal who told me that she did get to audition. Not in person, but as you can see from the Casting Notice email attachment that the agent sent me they do not need to be in New York and therefore Teal said that they did ask her to submit her resume, headshot materials and a video audition. I know Teal nailed it because she’s that good! But she did not get a call back! If it were me…well, I am bias because I have seen a lot of her work but to be fair I did not see all the applicants for the role. Still I did worry because I have gotten these requests for help in finding performers with a disAbility for a role with a character with a disAbility and they nearly always went with an able bodied actor despite the recommendations or pointing them to places to find performers with a disAbility. In the many conversations I have had with actors with a disAbility over the past two decades, we have concluded that this is just to show that the powers that be – in their entertainment project – did not discriminate. But at least looking for performers with a disAbility is a step in the right direction. Five or ten years ago they would not even audition performers with a disAbility. As I mentioned above with the example of the 2010 Broadway show of “The Miracle Worker.” Well this casting notice for auditions are in 2016 and I did not think too much about it again.

Fast forward a year – to this past April when I saw a post on my sister’s Facebook page about a New York Times article by Neil Genzlinger, in the “Critic’s Notebook” section dated March 24, 2017, making specific commentary on a Broadway show, “The Glass Menagerie”. It reminded me of the correspondences I had with the casting agent, Teal, other actresses and the postings I made on some social media spots over a year ago!

Reading the article I knew this was the same Broadway show that I was contacted about last year. And I was so pleased to find out that they did hire an actress with a disAbility! In fact, this is the very first actress who uses a wheelchair to play a leading role on Broadway!

This is a major victory for all of with a disAbility. Especially those with a disAbility working or trying to work in the entertainment industry. Even if you are not an actor but rather another entertainment creator, a writer, director, producer, filmmaker like yours truly! Because this proves again that we can be in the creative roles within the entertainment field. We deserve to be a part of the entertainment media representing ourselves and as major part of the American society – the 20% of the American population that is severely under-represented in movies and television, and in this case the stage – the Broadway stage! Here I go again advocating – but since you are reading this then you probably know all these talking points so I am preaching to the choir – therefore let me get back on track!

This New York Times article focuses on two controversial issues on this production of “The Glass Menagerie.” This is unfortunate but not surprising. First let me tell you something that is without controversy. The production stars the fantastic and talented, Oscar winning actress, Sally Field in the role of the mother of the disAbled daughter, Laura. But then we quickly find the controversies.

The actress that is portraying Laura is Madison Ferris who has muscular dystrophy. For the record, I do not know Madison and therefore she was not one whom I told the casting agent about the audition. Unless she followed one of my social media posts? Back to the point is that it seems to be too much of a disAbility for some of the leading Broadway critics. According to the article they are criticizing the play on a couple of issues. And this is the first one. According to them there is the very obvious difference in the character of Laura as was written by the beloved playwright, Tennessee Williams, which is as the article’s author describes is merely “a shy girl with a limp”, and the one that is portrayed here by Tony Award Winning director, Sam Gold’s actress with muscular dystrophy – which they feel is taking it too far from the original written play and therefore way out of the norm for their Broadway standards.

Wow! Let me say two things on this first controversy. First, I have stated many times in many forums from the social media posts to business documents for my company and individual film projects, to my basic advocacy for the use of performers with a disAbility to be authentic. One of my main points in a successful film or television program – in this case a Broadway show, and is most often missing in all of them that feature a character with a disAbility is authenticity. Producers, directors, and actors often cite using locations and/or featured or supporting actors from the locations where their stories take place to give it authenticity in their creative projects. And I have said that is what makes my projects different from nearly all other projects that have a character with a disAbility. Authenticity – by using actors with the same or similar disAbility as the character in the project. All of my projects feature a character with paraplegia. The voice is authentic because I wrote it. The vision is authentic because I direct it. And those two aspects are authentic because I am a paraplegic. And the most visible aspect is that which is in front of the camera, the actor whose performance is authentic because I cast actors with the same or similar disAbility, in this case paraplegics – they don’t have to have the exact level of paraplegia as the one I wrote but they can act as one with it – or I adapt some of the action and/or dialogue to make it work. I believe this is what director Sam Gold did in hiring Madison Ferris in the role of Laura in “The Glass Menagerie.” So what if it is not exactly as written by Tennessee Williams in 1944 and is a memory play set in the 1930’s?

While I was contacted by the casting agency to help find an actress with a mobility disAbility I was skeptical but hopeful as it’s been my experience that agencies make the effort to seem inclusive but the director never had the intention of casting a person with a disAbility in the role of character with a disAbility. Some are afraid that the producer and/or the studio will never go with that authentic choice and will think poorly on the director – so they dare not to make that choice because they are afraid of never being hired as a director again therefore making it career suicide. But as I was reading this article in the New York Times commenting on the Broadway show, I found a link to an article in The New York Times Magazine that was wonderfully written by Sasha Weiss which came out before the play’s opening and focuses on the Tony Award winning director Sam Gold along with his directing of “The Glass Menagerie” and sheds some light on the casting for his newest Broadway play. In the article, Ms. Weiss explains that a few days before the dress rehearsal she interviewed Sam Gold who told her that it was he who insisted on a performer with a disAbility for the role of Laura in this Broadway play. Wow! This is great and is going way beyond the entertainment industry’s “Standard Operation Procedures” of auditioning a couple of performers with a disAbility as a token outreach as a way to then justify the casting of an able bodied performer in the role of a disAbled character. Ms. Weiss writes:

“…there had never been an actor in a wheelchair cast in a leading role. Gold decided that to be faithful to Williams’s revolutionary spirit, he would put onstage a person the audience is unused to seeing there. He and Scott Rudin, the show’s producer, began a search throughout the United States and England for actresses with disabilities. They chose Ferris, who at 25 had a range of performing experiences but had never appeared in a professional production.”

Now I know that the search from the casting agency who contacted me was sincere!

And I applaud and thank Sam Gold and Scott Rudin (a film and stage producer) for taking what seems so obvious and making the decision to cast a performer with a disAbility in a role that is written as a character with a disAbility! To do what many, at least in Hollywood would consider career suicide by casting a performer with a disAbility, especially one as Ms. Ferris who has “never appeared in a professional production.” This was a huge risk since there has never been an actress with a mobility disAbility using a wheelchair in a leading role on Broadway! Despite the risk Mr. Gold and Mr. Rudin have now been the first to break the disAbility ceiling. This kind of authentic portrayals of those with a disAbility are the same kind that had broken the “Standard Operating Procedures” during their times when some people were not allowed on the stage to portray themselves. For example, in the early 1900’s when Al Jolson appeared in black face because blacks were not allowed to perform on stage or the screen. Going even further back to when women were banned until 1660 when King Charles II “granted a charter to the Drury Lane company, making it the Kings Own Company, and to prevent the moral outrage to his subjects caused by boys dressing up as females the charter required that all female parts must be played by women. So there it was, in a document which exists to this today, the door to the acting profession was opened to women by no less a hand than that of the King himself.” And thereby making “the first English woman to ‘legally’ appear on the stage in England was one Margaret Hughes, who on 8th December 1660, played ‘Desdemona’ in ‘The Moor of Venice’ (a reworking of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’)” (http://www.stagebeauty.net/th-women.html#doorop).

Interesting that that first legal and authentic portrayal of a woman by a woman was in a play that was a reworking of Shakespeare’s “Othello”, which brings us back to the Broadway’s leading critics and elites’ issue of the reworking of Tennessee William’s character of Laura, a girl with a limp to a woman with muscular dystrophy. They site that Gold’s version does not fit the text exactly with William’s original play. This is a weak criticism. As I mentioned above, it is typical in the entertainment industry for a director to adapt and rework the script to fit the leading actor. How often do remakes happen or a book is adapted and everyone is okay with changes to fit the medium or the times? They often site dramatic license as the escape clause to explain their changes. And honestly that has been the most often sited escape clause for many who hire able bodied to portray and represent a character with a disAbility in movies and television of the past. In this case of Ms. Ferris having more of a degree of a disAbility than a limp you have to make adjustments. This happens all the time when directors have to make adjustments for their actors. Especially leading actors that are the drawing in audiences. Get over it! This is a slightly different interpretation in order to bring an authentic portrayal on Broadway. That should be refreshing rather than a slam. In my opinion, you should slap yourself, shake it off and enjoy this Tony Award winning director’s vision on a classic play fitted for the actress he hired.

Sam Gold said something that really sums it up beautifully.

“I’m not very interested in pretend. I’m interested in putting people onstage. I want people. And I want a world that reflects the real world.”

This quote was in the article from Ms. Weiss who Mr. Genzlinger took from and also included in his article. And I include it as well because that is what I have been advocating for others to do when it comes to including performers with a disAbility as well as the inclusion of writers and directors with a disAbility in Hollywood and Broadway. This will help to “reflect the real world.”

Next comes some of the harshest criticism of the play that was brought on by some on the Broadway chat boards. They say that using Ms. Ferris and her wheelchair is exploitative. I have to respond with the title of Mr. Genzlinger’s article, “A Wheelchair on Broadway Isn’t Exploitation. It’s Progress.” Was it exploitation when Margaret Hughes came on stage in 1660 to be the first woman legally allowed to portray her gender as Desdemona? She went on to have a very long and successful career as an actress. Or when the first blacks were allowed on the stage and in front of the screen to portray their race authentically? Mr. Genzlinger made another great point in his article on this issue:

“Sometimes, what seems a cheesy gimmick or instance of exploitation is really just the front edge of needed change. Some theatergoers were probably outraged the first time a black Juliet was cast against a white Romeo. Did that change how some of Shakespeare’s lines registered and imbue the play with new meanings? Sure. Is race-blind casting now widely accepted and the theater going experience richer for it? Yes.”

He also mentioned the moving forward in television and the use of an actor with cerebral palsy to play a character with cerebral palsy in the new hit sitcom on ABC, “Speechless”. And the upcoming season of “Sesame Street” introducing a new character that has autism. Is this exploitation or finally getting the authentic portrayals and representation of the 20% of Americans who have been excluded from the entertainment media – by so much and for so long?

I have read some of the Broadway critics’ reviews of the play. I was horrified by their comments. The spoke of the physical challenges of Ms. Ferris getting up the stairs and onto the stage in the opening scene that Sam Gold used to introduce the characters. He left the house lights on. The critics said that it was uncomfortable to watch. Took five minutes and to long for them to sit through. But they stayed only to feel it again when Ms. Ferris had gotten out of her wheelchair and was sitting on the floor. This happens in a few scenes. What the critics did not like was the way Madison Ferris had to contort her body to move and to get back in her wheelchair. This is how it is when someone is living with certain mobility disAbilities, namely muscular dystrophy.

I like what Mr. Genzlinger said in his article on this criticism:

“It’s worth contemplating what that means from the audience’s perspective. On those chat boards, some writers have complained that Ms. Ferris isn’t very good. Here’s the thing: We have been conditioned to define good acting in terms of facial expressions, comic timing, physical bits. An actor with a disability, especially one involving muscle control or cognitive impairment, isn’t necessarily going to be able to give the kind of performance we’re used to. Will Ms. Ferris impress someone looking for that kind of performance? Probably not. But she gives the most realistic portrayal of a person with muscular dystrophy that I’ve ever seen.”

Critics and audiences are not used to this kind of performance. But they need to get used to it and they will with more exposure to it. Sam Gold took the leap to make this the first in a leading role on Broadway. I must say that if it were me I would have hired a paraplegic, such as, I don’t know, off the top of my head, Teal Sherer! A paraplegic, depending how high the level of paraplegia, can move in and out of their chair, maybe with some help, up the stairs with some challenges but probably a lot quicker than a performer with the level of muscular dystrophy that Madison Ferris has at the time of the play. That might have relieved some of the “uncomfortable” time that these critics had. And it might be a legitimate reason that they the play only lasted for a month. Maybe not. Either way, this is something they, the critics and audiences need to get over and get used to.

Our society makes up 1 out of 5 Americans have a disAbility and are a part of the fabric of America for a long time. We are so far removed from being put into asylums to not be seen or dealt with in person and have been active participants in American society for decades. Yet we are just barely getting some recognition of being those visible and active people you see in the workplace, recreation hot spots, while shopping or in our homes. It is taking a long time to get some authentic portrayals in the entertainment industry. It takes brave people to help make it happen. Sam Gold is a very brave and courageous Tony Award winning director who at the possible risk of his career brought the first authentic portrayal of a character with a disAbility with an actress with a disAbility in his version of “The Glass Menagerie” to Broadway. ——- And Neil Genzlinger is also brave and courageous by calling out and challenging the “leading Broadway critics” on their petty and self-serving criticism of the play in his New York Times article. In full disclosure I want to add that both have personal connections to the issue of the authentic use of Madison Ferris in the role of Laura. Mr. Genzlinger said in his article:

“My own daughter, who has a serious disability called Rett syndrome, is just three years younger than the 23-year-old Laura.”

And in the article mentioned above about the director, Sam Gold from the New York Times Magazine by Sasha Weiss. She writes:

“Gold and his wife, Amy Herzog, a playwright, have two daughters. The elder, Frances, who is 4, has nemaline myopathy, a muscle disease, and uses a wheelchair. Their younger daughter, Josephine, is 2. Becoming a parent to both daughters, he told me, has brought him into contact with his own fragility. “Your life is in three acts, and that second act is a hard shift to make, toward dependency, community, vulnerability, unconditional love.” Now that he had been pried open, the project of turning the lights off and inviting people into a room to experience their own vulnerability felt more pressing.”

In Hollywood I have reached out to some that have personal connection to people with a disAbility in hopes they would help me bring the issue of authentic portrayals forward as Mr. Gold and Mr. Genzlinger have done here on Broadway and their critics respectively. But I have not been able to get anyone in Hollywood to respond and therefore to help. Perhaps it is because I am not a “name” in Hollywood. Yet. And then again maybe it is as I have mentioned above that too many in Hollywood are scared it will kill their careers if they step outside of what the West Coast Entertainment Industry machine considers is okay to portray and represent. Just because I have not been able to do it does not mean someone else can’t. I mean look at “Speechless.” It is a hit and has been picked up for a second season. And “Sesame Street” adding a character with autism. Not sure if that is a Muppet or a live person so I wonder will it be authentically portrayed? But it does provide a glimpse of hope for those with a disAbility that have been ignored and pushed aside by the entertainment industry. I hope with more television shows and now Broadway shows will accept that those of us with a disAbility are a very large minority that should not be dismissed any longer and that those with a disAbility who have studied and worked in non-professional capacity deserve to be able to portray and represent ourselves as the professional creatives in their entertainment industry.

In one final note, I want to encourage you to visit the People magazine online look at Madison Ferris and her role in “The Glass Menagerie.” It includes a short video and article about her journey in acting, living with muscular dystrophy and to the Broadway stage. The Broadway play has closed. But I hope to see her in more creative roles in the entertainment industry very soon.

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