March 2007 - May 2007: Issue 22

People

David Roche: Performer And Motivational Speaker

Interviewed by Kari Ann Pope

David Roche is an internationally acclaimed performer and speaker who recently appeared in Bonnie Sherr Klein's film "Shameless: The Art of Disability," released by the National Film Board of Canada. David has performed his one-man show, "The Church of 80% Sincerity" all over the world, and continues to do so while also speaking, coaching, and advocating for the community of performers with disabilities. A version of this interview will appear in Breath & Shadow."

Kari:
What sparked this interview today is the film "Shameless," which I saw a while back. But I'm curious to know about your overall experience working in Vancouver, BC, Canada [where "Shameless," was made]. Was it the opportunity to work on "Shameless" that brought you up there, or did you have a prior connection?
David:
I had a prior connection. I actually met the director of "Shameless," Bonnie Klein, in Adelaide, Australia, in the year 2000. So, it was a global connection. Then at various times I was up in Vancouver performing or speaking and Bonnie would invite my wife Marlena and me to visit her. Gradually, we made the connection and developed a strong friendship, which led to Marlena and me buying a home up there. Our application for permanent residency has been approved, but we have to pass some medical exams. So, there's still some bureaucracy to wade through; it's taken a couple of years, and there's still about three or four months to go. That's assuming we pass and that's not always a sure thing, especially with someone like me who's unusual (Laughter).
But, the reason why I'm being welcomed to Canada is that I'm considered a world class performing artist, and as such I get extra points. It says on the immigration website that, "We welcome comedians." There is more of an emphasis and support for the arts in Canada. It's not a perfect world, but it is different.
Kari:
I know that you've been active in the arts and disability or disability culture community here in the US in many ways and many places, so I wanted to get a sense from you about how the arts and disability communities in Vancouver compare to some of the communities in the US.
David:
I'm on the Board of Directors of the Society for Disability Arts and Culture http://www.s4dac.org/ in Vancouver. They've had two KickstART festivals that are run by people with disabilities. I think these are the first examples of disability art festivals that are run of, by and for people with disabilities.
Kari:
When was the first KickstART festival?
David:
2001, I believe. It was a great example of different elements of the community pulling together - political activists, people in government at that time. At that time Vancouver had two city council members who were wheelchair users, and now [since November 2005] Mayor Sam Sullivan, who is a wheelchair user. They are setting a very high standard for accessibility. Also, there is more unity in the disability community of the various sectors of it - artists, activists, political people. That was the model until I got to the Bodies of Work festival in Chicago [http://www.bodiesofwork.org], and I feel that's set a new standard here in the US.
Kari:
You mentioned the unity among different sectors of the disability community in terms of fields - arts, government, activists. What about cross-disability relationships? It seems to me that often here in the US, people are divided along disability lines.
David:
It's true. I should probably speak about the area where I have lots of contacts - craniofacial disorders and facial difference issues. Like, for example, burn survivors; they have a particular, shared experience, usually of having gone through a burn unit, and the emotional experience of having their lives changed in five seconds by an explosion or a fire or an accident of some sort. And often they have insurance money that they have to live off of. These are the factors that tend to occur, so they have a certain kind of niche. Other people have different conditions, but regardless, there is a stage where people are learning about their own conditions and developing advocacy skills and the early stages of unity among individuals get built.
But now in some of the larger organizations, where there used to be differences, people are gathering together and meeting cross-disability. That's kind of aside from the arts, although there is some overlap, and I do consider myself an activist as well as an artist.
While we're on that topic, I think a great breakthrough is the Disabilities Network of New York City http://www.dnnyc.net/, which for the first time is bringing together organizations that deal with multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy, the blind and deaf communities, and others. Groups that formerly had their own fundraising, their own advocacy, are now uniting as a political force around issues that affect many different parts of the disability community. I think that is just one of the most wonderful things to hear in politics, in activism, and to have it happening in New York, where there can be one voice to advocate for accessibility on the subway. (Laughter)
My slogan is, "Think negative, act positive." (Laughter) I also say, "Just because it's hopeless doesn't mean you can give up." (Laughter) I've been a pioneer really for about 15 years, and I'm always doing stuff thinking, "What's the use." But now I look around and I'm seeing that I'm no longer a pioneer. I have lots of colleagues-look at the National Arts and Disability Center, as well as lots of other organizations, artistic and political. Many have started out with these festivals and things and so I feel like, yes, there is hope. Three things this year have really shown that to me. One is the Disabilities Network in New York, the other is Bodies of Work in Chicago, which I believe is an historical accomplishment, and the third is "Shameless," which is from one of the major filmmakers in the world, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). They gave free rein to a disabled director (Bonnie Klein), and it's just an amazing film about the artistic lives of people with disabilities - very open, honest, and straightforward.
Kari:
I noticed that when I was watching it. I'm getting emotional thinking about it, because it was very frank and one of the things that struck me about it is that as part of that openness there was a discussion about making the film. It was sort of like I was watching a documentary that was about being a documentary, if you know what I mean.
David:
Yes, it was very much about the creative experiences of creative people, and about the creative experience of the person doing the creating - the director. Very from the heart in that way.
Kari:
It's interesting, David, when I hear you ask these questions of yourself like, "What's the use?" and you talk about being a pioneer, it's almost as though your work answers that question for someone else.
Earlier you mentioned the breakthrough nature of Bodies of Work in the United States. Is Bodies of Work modeled in any way on KickstART or did the Bodies of Works folks work with the KickstART people at all? It sounds as if the model is very much the same in terms of getting government people involved, and activists, and others.
David:
No, there wasn't a connection that I know of. And even though I felt Bodies of Work had national and international import-it did draw Lynn Manning from Los Angeles and Matt Fraser from England, among others-the building of it was Chicago and Illinois, and there was a group of 23 people who met originally and got it going. I think that the degree of support and collaboration, from the City of Chicago, and from the State of Illinois, and from the rehab community, and from the medical community and from the academic community, was a lot led by people in Disability Studies. Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell would be good examples. Also Carol Gill. All those different elements came together in ways that I think KickstART only foreshadowed.
Kari:
I picked up on the foreshadowing right away, and that's why I was curious as to whether there was a connection. I've been thinking that, if they haven't been collaborating and sharing their information already, then people in Vancouver and people in Chicago ought to talk!
David:
There is an effort for that happening in Canada. There is a Canadian network of presenters of disability art that has met a couple of times. I've been part of it, and that's another exciting development - there's coordination at very initial levels for festivals in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto. Michele Decottignies from Stage Left Productions in Alberta is heading it up. They are already working on a festival for 2007 in Victoria, BC, and they are coordinating with Calgary's Balancing Acts festival. We want to get artists to come to both places and save on transportation. Also place them close enough together in time that we might be able to allow that. It's starting to happen. It's great to talk about this kind of stuff. I get lost in the day-to-day, so it's nice to be able to discuss it.
I'm in a fortunate position in that I don't need a lot of accommodations, and the work that I do is universalized. It's not just about being facially different; it's about being a human being. And I'm funny. (Laughter) So, my appeal is really across all kinds of lines - race, religion, culture, even language. I've had people get what I do who don't speak English. I've had people who speak Polish and people who speak Spanish-French, too-come up to me and say how much they enjoyed the show, even though they really couldn't understand it. I get to travel places as a pioneer and open doors for other people, hopefully. And see things that are happening around the country. Right now I'm thinking of the model in Minneapolis of Interact Theater. They run it as a day program but, what they do is from 10 AM - 4 PM every day. People show up from wherever they're living-in their homes, in their group homes-to work with people from the mainstream-director, choreographer, vocal coach-and they rehearse all day long and come up with these great shows. What a good life that is-you get to be creative all day long! And it's not like they let just anybody in. They'll try people out and if they can't cut it, if they don't have the discipline and the talent, then it's goodbye. They set a pretty high standard. It's a great example of using mainstream coaching and support to build this really great theater company of people with developmental and other disabilities. I get to see all kinds of stuff across the country!
Kari:
How long have you been performing?
David:
I do date it back about 15 years, but when I started I didn't know what I was. Am I a comedian? Am I an educator? Am I a freak? (Laughter) Am I a solo show? Am I a lecturer? Am I motivational? I'm sort of all those things. More like a personality, I guess. (Laughter)
That started in 1991. But as I wandered my way along, I date it from 1996 when I put up my one-man show, The Church of 80% Sincerity, in its original form in San Francisco. I had great success with it, and then I quit my day job. When you quit your day job-and not to say, if you have a day job, you're not an artist-but I've been supporting myself for ten years through thick and thin doing creative activity. I've been coaching, storytelling, performing my show, speaking, acting in ensemble gigs.
Kari:
What kinds of changes have you seen in the arts and disability community or the disability culture community since that time?
David:
I would say that disability arts is coming into the mainstream in some ways. Bill Shannon, the Crutchmaster, is an astounding dancer. His work is starting to get ripped off and used by mainstream artists like Cirque du Soleil and other dance companies. Axis Dance Company has set the bar really high, having pieces choreographed by Bill T. Jones, for example. From what I've seen, it's the emergence of artists with disabilities who are performing at a world level. Also, just the volume of people performing is amazing to me, because I felt isolated in the very beginning and now I don't feel isolated at all.
Kari:
Where do you think the community is headed in terms of the standards of the work or the people it will reach?
David:
I think the standards are getting higher and higher. I am immensely encouraged by that, as well as by the disability networks popping up - in Canada, in California, in New York.
Also, I just signed a book contract with Penguin to write a book based on my show. A major New York publisher sees value in what I do and wants to bring it into a nationally published book!
Kari:
Given all your successes, what got you interested in an arts career to begin with?
David:
I think I've always been interested in the performing arts. But I never could believe or imagine that someone like me could get up on stage. It's like having a talking frog get up on stage! (Laughter) The desire was there, and I always knew that I was funny, but I just had to go through all my personal stuff with my own self-image, etc. But there were two key things for me: meeting Marlena, my true love; and quitting drinking. I feel like I always used alcohol to blunt my hopes and dreams. Once I got that out of the way, then other things could slowly open up. I started taking these comedy classes called the Humor of Recovery, not about trying to tell jokes or be "yuk-yuk," but just telling the truth about your life. I discovered that's my style, and that's what's funny about me-it's my life! It's the easiest thing in the world, in a certain sense. I get up on stage to be myself: "Look at my face." People say, Well, that's not scary, you're just being yourself! But, if you think it's not scary, you try it! (Laughter) It's the hardest thing in the world to be yourself. Especially to do it in a way that's entertaining. Call people up and say, "I'm a disfigured guy, and I'm real funny; you want to hire me?" Yeah, that goes over real well. (Laughter)
Kari:
What have been some of the biggest rewards of doing your work?
David:
For 45 years, I never talked about my face. Marlena and I were lovers for 6 months before I asked her if she wanted to know what happened to my face! Now, through my work, I get to talk about something and deal with something important. What I do onstage is the social model of disability. I act out what it's like to be stared at by hundreds of people. I talk about that, and I bring it back to how "everybody feels disfigured," and I universalize it. It does get layered and complex, but the biggest thing for me is learning, artistically and personally, to be at one with myself. A review in the San Francisco Chronicle from an early run of my show says that, "The interesting thing about Roche's show is that he doesn't transcend his disability; he is at one with his disability." So, there's the message. I've learned to live a lot more. Does that sound too sentimental? (Laughter)
I'm a middle aged guy. I get to tell the same stories over and over again, just like your dad. But I get paid for it, and people give me a standing ovation and tell me how great I am. What a good life! (Laughter) And I get to travel. In December I'm going to New York for 5 days, then Cardiff, Wales, then Liverpool. Who wouldn't feel good about something like that?
Kari:
Have there been any disappointments with it for you?
David:
There is a part of me that's very judgmental. I judge myself all the time. I have always kept my relationships, particularly my relationship with Marlena to be a higher priority than my work. At times I've berated myself: "Oh, if I were more ambitious, then I could do more," or there's a part of me that feels like, "Even though I've benefited from being part of the disability community, working in the disability community is such puny money, and why am I doing that?" When I start asking myself that, then I get anxious and crazy, but then I turn the dial back so that the compass is pointing to the heart. Then I know I'm more in the right place.
Kari:
What are some of your proudest accomplishments?
David:
Wow. I think that people are impressed by certain things, like my performing at the White House, and I always enjoy that because when people meet me they don't assume that I am a performer at all. They act astounded that I would have any kind of public life at all, and then come to find out that I've done all these things, and their eyes roll back in their heads. I get a lot of pleasure out of that! (Laughter) But I think that a general sense of pride that I've come this far and that I'm part of a community of people with whom I have a kind of bond. It's not individual instances. I can tell that people are impressed by what I've done, but for me it's more about being at one with myself and having good relationships.
Kari:
What do you attribute that success to?
David:
My personal qualities of the willingness to take risks, persistence, discipline, talent. But I know lots of talented people who lack ambition, discipline, and persistence. Of course, the other things that people are missing are opportunities and accessibility. Those have all been there for me. I've taken advantage of them, and I enjoy doing so a lot.
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