Originally Written in 2018 in Dramaturgy at Boston University
A few weeks ago, I did a presentation on John Belluso’s Pyretown, which was the first play I’ve read by a playwright with a disability. It was also my first encounter with the term “person-first language”. Going into this presentation, I knew there was a lot I didn’t know, and a lot that would be counter-productive to our conversations in class if I tried to pretend like I knew a lot about the experiences of people like John, or people with different kinds of disabilities working in the theatre. So when I made mistakes with my use of language, I wasn’t ashamed, but instead was really grateful for the learning opportunity to understand why language is so important and how it is systematically set up for individuals who are privileged. These systems are outdated, and should be overhauled, just like the recent movement to update the universal symbol for accessibility from an image that confines a person in a wheelchair in a static position to one that gives them momentum:
Since that class, I did more research on the Arts Integrity Initiative , the Kennedy Center’s VSA Program, and the Geva Theeatre Center in Rochester, NY, where Pyretown was first developed. I’ve found a bunch of great videos about people with disabilities talking about accessibility, which I’ve linked below. These videos have taught me that listening and watching people with disabilities talk about their own experiences is truly the best way for other communities to learn how to be better allies.
In this video, Joel Dembe talks about how improving accessibility will change American culture to empower everyone:
Denbe echoes John Belluso’s statements that “Disability can happen to anyone.” He emphasizes the importance of improving the perception of people with disabilities in the media, and empowering those with physical disabilities to find outlets like sports and art to gain confidence through independence.
One of my favorite stories from our physical acting teacher Elaine Vaan Hogue is when she speaks of a woman she met on a creative retreat abroad. She met a woman in a wheelchair and wondered how she would be able to do the work of the intense theatrical exercises. But much to Elaine’s surprise, at the beginning of the first exercise this woman flung herself out of her wheelchair and onto the ground, using her upper body to push and pull herself. Much like the image of the character in a wheelchair who prefers to slither like a snake in Belluso’s Traveling Skin, this story reminds me that there is not one image of what a person with a disability looks like, and people in the able-bodied community should be confronted with what makes them uncomfortable so that they can question their perceptions.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how big of a deal it was for John Belluso to write in the 1990’s and early 2000’s about the types of people he wanted to see on stage. Moving forward, I hope that even more types of people are showcased in the theatre, so that the theatre community’s perceptions of people with disabilities opens as more and more awareness is spread in the age of technology. I don’t just want videos on Facebook to help me learn about different communities, I need it to be reflected in art. Something tells me that the theatre community can rise to the necessity.
For more fascinating stories from artists with disabilities and to stay updated on the news of this community, check out the Disability Arts Online blog.