Interviewed by Paul Kahn
I grew up in Hood River, Oregon, a very small town. When I was in high school, I was very interested in theater. I enjoyed performing and writing. And I was involved in Community Theater. Then I went to college at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington with a major in Theater and an emphasis in Dramaturgy. I was looking at theater history, play analysis and theoretical and critical issues in theater. I took performance classes and was involved in every production I could be involved with. I also took a lot of classes in women's studies and was interested in critical race theory and social justice issues. I was included in every way. I think my professors did a wonderful job -- and this was pre-ADA -- of including me. But I came to realize, partly through my women's studies classes and through my race theory classes, that I tended to get cast in very stereotypical ways. I was a young woman and wanted to play the ingénue once in a while, and I started to notice that my disability was being used in ways that I wasn't always sure I wanted to participate in.
I have a physical disability called sacral agenesis. I was born without a sacrum and my last two vertebrae. I'm short in stature, and I walk with a limp. My body proportions are different from a typical person's.
College I was often cast as "the crazy person," or "the wacky sidekick," or often as a man -- character roles. They were juicy and fun to play, and I really liked them. But I started to realize that disability was in almost every play that we were doing and reading, but nobody was talking about it. I became really interested in issues of disability and representation. So, I started to do some research in the late '80s, but there really wasn't much out there. I was very interested in feminism and theater, and there was stuff coming out about women and theater and race and theater but not about disability.
Yes. I was becoming aware of these identity issues that were very present in theater but that nobody was writing about. There was some analysis of disability in film and television, but they were written mostly from the social science perspective or from historical perspectives, but not really from scholars in my field. I decided when I was done with undergraduate school that I wanted to go to graduate school. I was very interested in become a professor. That choice was made first out of interest but also for some practical issues -- things like health insurance. A lot of kids graduating in my program would go off to New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, wait tables during the day and try to be performers at night. They were living these lifestyles that frankly were not accessible to me. It just wasn't something that I was able or willing to do.
I went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1990. I studied with a feminist theater artist scholar named Jill Dolan. When I got there I became immersed in critical theory and performance, I did some performance work and I was also a teaching assistant for a large Introduction to Theater class. The professor was organizing that course around issues of identity and performance. So, there were some good plays we analyzed from a feminist perspective, or from a critical race perspective, or around issues of class. I brought it to her attention – this was Professor Mary Karen Dahl – that there was disability in every single play that we read and that the character's disability was significant to the plot in some way. And she said, "Well, that's really interesting. I'd love for you to talk about that in a lecture. Why don't you see what you can find out?" That launched this whole area of inquiry for me.
The thing was that my professors were interested and supportive, but they didn't have background or knowledge about disability. I was charting new territory. I was trying to use the theoretical models that I had from gender and race studies and tweaking them and looking at them from the different lens of disability to see how they're similar and how they're different, so that my professors had a way to engage with me. But I became very frustrated, because I felt like the professors had a hard time knowing how to evaluate my work or how to be critical with me. Then later on, when I was getting near the end of my Ph.D., I started to make connections with other scholars and performers around the country who were working on disability art issues. In 1995, I went to a conference at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor called "This/Ability." That was a really life-transforming moment for me, because I'd never been around disabled scholars who were working in the Humanities. There I was surrounded by artists with disabilities, and we were all talking about the same thing.
I got my first job here at Florida State University as an assistant professor in theater studies. Then I started going to Society for Disability Studies conferences. And I was in a five-week National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute on disability studies and the humanities. I met other theater people there. My network grew, and the field took off. The disability studies in the humanities and the theater people were starting to write, and it's been a very exciting time -- from thoughts that I had that I didn't think anybody else was sharing to all of a sudden being in this network of people who had shared experiences and similar perspectives. We could be critical with each other in a loving way but also in a challenging way, because we knew the issues and the literature. We could build on ideas without always having to start at step one and convince people that disability was something that could be looked at critically.
Yes. I taught all the time I was at Madison as a teaching assistant, and I had some of my own classes there. The position at Florida State was my first job. I've been here for 11 years. I'm now an Associate Professor of Theater Studies.
I teach classes in Gender, Race and Performance, Introduction to Theater, Play Analysis and a critical theory class. I also have a class that I invented called Disability and Representation. That's the only class that focuses on disability. But, of course, I infuse disability materials in all of my classes, because disability is everywhere in theater. So, I make it part of my general curriculum.
Sure. You've got everything from Oedipus, who is lame and blind, to A Doll's House with Dr. Rock, who has spinal tuberculosis and his disability is a pivotal detail of the play. Then there's Richard III and A Glass Menagerie. In almost every play you can find a character with a disabling illness or with some sort of physical aberration that is central to the plot. I realized this when I was a performer, because my disability couldn't just be there. It had to be harnessed to make meaning in the play. That's one of the things I look at when I do my analysis. What is the narrative function of the disability? At Florida State we had a play in which one of the actors broke his leg during the run of the show, and he was on crutches. And the director actually rewrote part of the play to explain the broken leg. He just couldn't be a character who used crutches. And, of course, the meaning was that the character was a drug addict and a drunk, and he had fallen down the stairs from being inebriated. And that was the cause of his broken leg in the play. His broken leg was his moral shortcoming. I thought that was funny. Directors tend to think, if there's a character with a disability that's not explained by the plot or harnessed to make meaning in the plot, then it's confusing to the audience. "Why is that character disabled? What does it mean?"
I co-edited an anthology, Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance with Philip Auslander, who's another scholar. [See Opening Stages review]That anthology was the first full-length collection of scholarly articles that bring together performance studies and disability studies. That took about seven years to put together, because we had to introduce performance scholars to disability and disability scholars to performance. We took a very broad view of performance. So, we had theater articles, but we also had performance of everyday life, different performance art projects, some traditional dramatic literature, analyses of plays, Deaf performance, documentary theater and public speaking -- a wide variety of things that could be considered performance. I'm very proud of that book, because in 2006 it won the Association for Theater in Higher Education Award for Outstanding Book in Theater Practice and Pedagogy. It's the first time that an anthology has ever gotten the award. I felt like it was an acknowledgement of the kind of work that went into it, growing the field. I'm really interested in how disability identity intersects with other forms of identity like race and gender. So, I tend to gravitate towards performance works that explore competing issues of identity, where race gets complicated by disability or disability is complicated by gender or sexuality. I've written a lot on that topic.
Lately I've been doing some video work. And I collaborate a lot with Terry Galloway who is Deaf. We've been working on a collection of disability film shorts. They are very vicious parodies of disability issues. We have a parody of The Miracle Worker called Annie Dearest: the Only Way They Learn. We just finished one called Disaster Ability. It's a parody of a corporate training video on how to accommodate your special needs employees in times of disasters, basically how to turn emergency into tragedy in three easy steps. We live in the Gulf area, so we're having to go through emergency preparedness trainings. And they are all ludicrous for people with disabilities. We did a series of storytelling workshops with community people on the issue. Then we did a short documentary, and then we created this parody video. There are a whole bunch of parody videos, and they are going to be coming out this November in a compilation called The Gimp Parade.
I use humor a lot. I've done some studies on what I call "crip humor," which is a kind of a wry perspective on able-bodied-ness, revealing its assumptions about people with disabilities and making them hyperbolic to expose their ludicrousness. They're very politically incorrect, I must admit. But part of the fun of doing them is taking those stereotypes and just exploding them in a way that makes a point, fracturing what you think is normal.
I love teaching. Teaching is like performing. I love theater students. They're exciting, engaged and enthusiastic. And they're very hungry for new perspectives. I just enjoy their energy. I think teaching is a great field to go into.
Go for a Ph.D. in theater and performance or the arts in general. You have to love to write. So, if you think that you want to be a teacher and that's all you want to do, it's not the degree for you. People with Ph.D.s are expected to publish. I've encountered certain students who don't really understand what it is I do as a professor. If you get a Master of Fine Arts, that's a professional training degree in the practical side of art. That would be for the person who wants professional training to be an actor or to teach acting at a university or to teach directing or design. But a Ph.D. is for scholars. I've been able to do performance, but I haven't been able to as much as I want, because I have mostly to publish. The other thing I would tell people who have disabilities is that the academic world can be ruthless. There are certain time-tables in which certain things are expected to be done like getting ready for graduate school, promotion and tenure. And they don't always take into account that, if you have a disability, you may have pain issues or fatigue and need extra time to do things. It's difficult to navigate all the expectations. And while the academic world is very accustomed to making accommodations for students with disabilities, once you become a professor there's not as good a system in place.
Sitting and writing might sound like they are not physically demanding, but actually for my particular disability they are. I have a lot of pain issues associated with sitting. And I know people with different kinds of impairments that might affect their ability to use their hands or use the library. It's definitely something you want to be proactive about and not be the super-crip. I found myself numerous times in situations where I wish I had asked for an accommodation, but I didn't. I'm hoping students coming up who have gone to school with the ADA in place the whole time are more used to asking for accommodations than some of us who didn't. We're now just getting into the academic ranks in numbers. Hopefully we can make some changes so that other people won't be as nervous about asking for accommodations.
We're often asked to juggle so many balls at the same time that it's sometimes difficult to do all the things you need to do. Teaching is only 40 percent of my assignment. I have service to the University, administrative work, and my research. At all times you have to pay attention to all three of those areas, and it can be hard to get any one thing done or to give the time that you want to give them. But a benefit is that your schedule is often very flexible. A complicating factor is that I have two children, and when they came into the mix it made it difficult try to do what I need to do as a parent, pay attention to my job and deal with disability issues all at the same time. It's a continuous challenge. This profession is not known to be as accommodating to parenthood as it could be.
I learn something new every single day from my students. I think I've learned that teaching is more about preparing people to learn, to be lifelong learners and to analyze something critically. Especially in the information age the job of the student is the learn how to use information and evaluate it. Now we're overwhelmed with information, and the task is how to make use of it. A lot of my students can't envision a time when you couldn't look something up on the Internet. But mostly teaching is about getting students to think about what kind of artists they want to be, what they have to say to the world, what they have to contribute, instead of just thinking about applause. And that's exciting, because I get to be with students from freshman year all the way to graduate school, and there's such a tremendous amount of growth in a person in those early adult years. You really get to see students developing their own identities and perspectives and having their world views challenged. It's a privilege to be part of. I love it!
Interviewed by Paul Kahn
I am first and foremost an actor. I like to work in all mediums -- film, television and theatre. I started out doing musicals and can still market myself as a singer. Though I haven't danced professionally in a while, I still move well and have retained my dance vocabulary.
Hmmm, that's a tough one. I loved playing the role of Velma Kelly in a production of Chicago, done in my hometown of Detroit. It was an old-school belter's dream -- no body mic, big beautiful theater, literal footlights, tough and gritty leading lady, Bob Fosse choreography, Kander and Ebb music. It really cemented my desire to go for this acting thing whole hog. Even at that time, however, I knew I wanted to do more than just musicals. I'm always looking to expand my range, because I am at the core a character actor. So, it is the roles that really allow me to "transform" that thrill me. (Though I must say, often a transformation can simply be a seamless shift in point of view, which is fun, too.)
But anyway, that's why I loved playing Ophelia in Theater Breaking Through Barriers' production of Hamlet, done here in New York, where I also doubled as Horatio and Rosencrantz. Tackling this classic Shakespearian ingénue was in its own right an exciting challenge. But to be able to, within the same production, flex other character muscles was an added joy. I would have to include Molly Sweeney in this list of favorite roles, which I performed in Philadelphia last October. To have the chance to explore this subtle heroine's journey through Brian Friel's lyric genius was highly fulfilling. It was often an isolating experience both literally, in the plays monologue structure, and metaphorically and emotionally as the character slips further and further away from a vital reality. Also, being the first vision impaired actor to play the role of this blind woman was gratifying and yet also isolating. There was a poignancy to this experience that will always stay with me.
I received my Bachelor of Fine Arts from Wayne State University in Detroit. It was within an academic setting, but you really learned by doing in this place. In keeping with the old grease paint, hoofer tradition of theater, these folks encouraged us to be triple threats. And many of the professors were veterans of the stage. I went on to receive my MFA in Acting from Rutgers Mason Gross School of the Arts, under the tutelage of Bill Esper and Maggie Flannigan. I mention them by name, as they are the premier teachers of the Meisner technique in New York, and I don't believe either of them is with Rutgers anymore.
I have coached professional actors on a one-on-one basis, helping them to deepen their physical and vocal character work. I've facilitated workshops and classes with Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), a professional, off-Broadway theater company, for potential and current company members. I've taught acting classes to blind and vision impaired actors with varying levels of experience-- adapting the Sanford Meisner Technique and the movement fundamentals of balance, body awareness and interaction to create a common vocabulary between sighted and vision impaired performers. In a more recreational setting, I teach acting and movement to adult persons who are blind, vision impaired, hearing impaired and wheelchair users, focusing on physical fluidity and expressiveness and basics of interactive scene work. I also work as a Teaching Artist. I've taught acting and movement workshops to students in both Philadelphia and New York. Last Spring I worked for CASA-Queens Theater in the Park, an after school program for kids grades 3 to 5. I had to come up with lesson plans and training, which helped guide them to create, write, edit and perform an original musical on a subject of their choosing.
I'm still learning how to teach. I did not get formal training as an educator, though I have a great deal of professional training in specific techniques. The truth is I'm learning as I go. I find I have to take into consideration the needs and experience of who my students are. Then I set about adapting what I know to provide a comprehensive plan of study. Like with acting, I find myself having to listen and respond in the moment to what I am getting from them. It is my belief that you can't teach someone talent. But you can provide them with tools that can help best unlock their intrinsic gifts and abilities. So, I am always in search of how best to provide those tools.
To help someone arrive at something spontaneously, to unlock hidden treasures of the imagination. You know it when you see it -- a stirring in the soul, that electric spark of truth, a genuine creative inspiration. I also love to problem solve, to help craft and dissect moments of human interaction. That's what's so unique about this particular art form-- that it celebrates life in all its glory and grotesqueness. As actors we are afforded the luxury of living moments to their fullest. The actor Terrence Howard said he used to think actors were professional liars, but then he realized they were professional truth tellers. I believe it. We can create something out of nothing simply through the use of the living, breathing actor.
Creating lesson plans. I used to think, especially when it comes to teaching kids, that the most difficult part would be getting them to listen to you and take you seriously. But then I realized that teachers don't simply spout what they themselves have learned; they have to categorize it and present it in such a way that it will be most effective.
You're not going to have third graders do Meisner repetition exercises. And because a lot of what passes for beginner acting training—theater games, trust exercises and the like-- never really did it for me personally, I'm hesitant to fall back on them. That's not to say some of these exercises do not have their place. And it is very important to establish a safe environment, because acting does require taking risks. But too often we can fall prey to subjectivity. How do you know, as the student, that didn't work? Let's take it back to the technique. I do see it as a craft, and like any craft, you develop tools of the trade, practical tools. At the same time you still want to keep it fun and not run the risk of getting too intellectual. So, the challenge is finding the methodology and balance appropriate to each setting.
I don't like when I can't figure out how to solve by doing and end up going all philosophical. Actors, acting students will allow for a lot of talk. I know -- I've done it. It's easier to blab on than to get up and "go there." But it's essential not to let this happen. To impress the importance of "Doing" when there is skepticism is tricky.
I heard a fellow actor say the other day that he felt training was all crap, "They had me carrying a suitcase when I wasn't carrying a suitcase." He must have been referring to physical object work, not really what I teach. But still, I have come up against that kind of resistance. It's not my job to sell the student on why they should be there, or maybe in some cases, it is. I don't know. I don't like having to do it. But at the same time I would like to be able to inspire the student to want to learn.
I'm not someone who walks into a room, thinking: I know, and you don't, so shut up and listen. But at the same time you have to call students out on their BS. This requires me to hone my own listening and reacting skills. If I don't pounce on the instinct and voice it, the moment is gone. Sometimes this means I won't have time to be as diplomatic as I'd like. We will always try to offer up our mediocrity to one another and call it our best. When I can inspire someone to go past that (without crushing their spirit), it's magic. I want to be supportive and nurturing; it's in my nature. But I have no interest in simply letting someone get away with their same old habits. Then I'm not doing my job. By forcing myself to do this with students -- in trust my instincts, act on the impulse, no matter the cost -- I sharpen this ability to do it in my own work.
If I'm going to be completely honest here, I also have to admit to the fear that my vision impairment is going to come into play--with teenagers especially, but also with adult students. I know it shouldn't. I don't believe it has any bearing on my ability to teach. If anything, it makes me more capable in certain aspects. But to deny that some negative perceptions or misgivings may still be out there doesn't seem realistic. The truth is I have to work harder than the next guy in many cases. I'm always adjusting and compensating. It's just a fact. I've memorized entire plays, so as to prompt the students when needed. I am not going to recognize someone instantly in the first few weeks in a class of 23. And in a workshop setting it's even worse, as I don't have the time and can't rely on those quick visual clues. But I don't let this stop me, and I keep finding the alternative route. And I honestly believe that in the end even the most cynical, hardened student could be better off for having me, with all my unique qualities, slugging it out with them.
So, in putting myself "Out There," not just as an actor but also as a teacher is important. It is often challenging: I fail many times, and like I said I'm still learning. But it is a risk well worth the taking. I believe in what I do. I hope to make training more accessible to all artistic voices, and I hope to continue to grow and have something to offer as a teacher. And this I feel can only make me a more vibrant, confident and well-rounded working actor.