“If you want to be in Theatre, get out; if you need to be in Theatre, figure out a way to make a living at it.” I never forgot these words spoken by Uta Hagen to my 1960s class of first-time students with her. Most of us were working actors (a few with already successful careers) — we all were there to learn from one of the great performers and acting teachers of that period — and over time I realized this statement was not just about financial matters.
People with “disabilities” are often discouraged from pursuing a Theatre career. It took me a long time to learn that there are obvious “visible disabilities,” like being in a wheelchair, but there are also “invisible disabilities” (see below).
Here are some performing artists with visible disabilities who’ve influenced me with their acceptance as people and their creativeness as artists:
- In 1946, I was mesmerized by Harold Russell’s performance in “THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES”— here was a professional actor, who had lost both hands in World War II, who used that fact to help create a believable character of an ordinary soldier who had lost his hands in the war. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, as well as a second Oscar as an inspiration to returning veterans. And as Uta Hagen would later say “It’s hardest to play a character close to yourself.”
- In college in 1956, I witnessed an incredible performance of an actress playing the title role in Garcia Lorca’s powerful “THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA” — later to learn she was legally blind and had memorized the positions of furniture and props.
- Having had the privilege in 1977 of researching, directing and working with a sign-language coach on a production of “JOHNNY BELINDA”, I was very impressed in 1986 with Marlee Matlin’s Oscar-winning performance as a deaf woman in “CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD” — again thinking of Miss Hagen’s comment.
- Christopher Reeve, paralyzed from the neck down, convincingly starred in a remake of “REAR WINDOW” — where the hero was totally paralyzed. See his book “Still Me” or check out the Christopher & Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center website. He is one of my heroes of accepting one’s disability and channeling into creativity!
- For many years, I have been inspired and entertained by actors and actresses and especially dancers whose physical disabilities have required wheelchair mobilization — artists who have accepted and used their “disability” situations to create and perform in new and exciting ways!
(Check online for an amazing variety of dance companies, dance schools, dance therapy, et al who evidence, teach and assist the positive and joyful affirmation of people recycling disability into Art!)
What we’re often not aware of are people with “invisible disabilities,” like diabetes, addiction problems, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And there are sometimes other obstacles to a Theatre career — or to Life — I call these “barriers” — situations where a person has natural talents but is not allowed to express them. In my lifetime, I have seen a variety of Theatre artists stifled or rejected because of race, age, sexual preference, religion, body type, et al.
- My first awareness of a “barrier” was falling in love with ballet in Hollywood films — mainly through the dazzling work of Gene Kelly! But in the 1940s & ’50s “boys” were not allowed to take ballet lessons — it was an art only for girls. So, in secret and alone, I would imitate some of the movements I remembered Kelly doing. Luckily in 1960, I was “discovered” (like Billy Elliot) by a teacher in New Orleans — Gayle Parmelee, who trained me, taught me about commitment, shared her love of dance, and later “kicked me out of the nest” into a New York career! Thanks Gayle!
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a disruption — a rupture — of a person’s being; this “invisible disability” was first diagnosed in soldiers returning from the horrors of World War I in the 1920s —then it was called “shell-shock.” Now it is accepted as an illness, a disorder affecting anyone who has survived violence or trauma, especially childhood trauma. I was finally diagnosed with this illness–this “invisible disability”–four years ago, and worked in PTSD Therapy for almost three years — successfully. But most of my life, my “invisible” PTSD was stifled with active alcoholism and other attempts to escape from the pain and fear and self-worthlessness which are symptoms of this disease. While it often disabled me privately, it was my love of Theatre and Dance that saved my life, gave me sanity and purpose and community. Once processed, the details of my past are no longer important (except perhaps for future character motivations!) and fun things from the past are reclaimed. I now have a very happy private as well as Theatre life!
The reason I share this is to offer hope if you, or someone you care about, have any of these issues. I have enjoyed a very successful career, thanks to the variety of theatrical talents I was born with and nurtured, and thanks to my mentors (especially Ralph & Uta) and the many people who were teachers, fellow artists, students, and audience members. And a special thanks to the example of Bill Wilson, who appeared in a high school production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.
At this point in my amazing, long life (82 this year 2020!), I am thrilled to share that every single trauma I experienced has been recycled. Every single painful, destructive incident in my life has been re-channeled by being there for someone else going through a similar situation — and by processing and sharing with others in my life in Theatre — through acting, dancing, writing, directing, even my puppetry work.
So, my curious reader, if you have a disability or a barrier standing in the path of your career in Theatre, embrace it, get necessary help, see it as a special attribute you have to offer through your artistic gifts. The best thing you have to offer is you. I wish you a happy career and a happy life. I’m sure grateful for mine!
For more about my journey through this, see my Highlight “BK WILDHORSE! — Celebration” and watch the LIABILITIES and Red Ribbons sections of the video.