They are what one of the conference mom aptly and lovingly called "Beautiful Disasters." A new word for me, which I find I like. Theatre, art, and dance helps them find their own niche of creativity and expression, and perhaps more importantly...their place within the school. As a director, I have found drama kids to be some of the greatest kids in the school. Many of them are sure to be future creators in film, writing, and acting. They will one day be the ones the rest of us follow.
In my own theatre, film, and dance experience I have found the freedom to create what I see in my mind, and freedom to be someone mainstream society would generally say I couldn't be. While I participated in drama in high school, I still felt some limits. Those limits were more strong when I wanted to participate in community theatre, and the door was completely closed when I wanted to participate in college theatre. Had I not embraced the belief that one should not pursue acting as a job-job, particularly when one has a disability, I would have majored in theatre and minored in communications. The most frequent reason behind closed doors to theatre and film for me has been that there are no roles for someone with a disability. The play, the film, the sketch, the commercial, the music video...on and on it goes...doesn't call for someone like me. Yet interestingly enough, the Arts is supposed to be known for being the bedrock of expressing one's self.
So, this was the topic I tackled at the thespian conference. I intended to reach students, administrators, directors, and high school teachers by sharing the common benefits of theatre, which theatre-folk already know, and then draw them to the conclusion of how much more enhanced Arts benefits are for the disabled. I was told I would have two workshops with about 25-30 participants. I was asked in a very timely manner to submit a headshot, course description and brief bio to go into the conference catalogue, which I did.
Arriving at the conference, PowerPoint at the ready, handouts for the session copied with my business card stapled to the top...I picked up my goodie bag from the registration desk, took the elevator up to my classroom and set up. I picked up the conference schedule to find my workshop. It wasn't there. I flipped a bit more quickly through the packet to find my name. It also wasn't there. I went to the detailed schedule to find my time slot, correlated it with my room number and found my name....listed as a "special guest" under the heading "Actors with Disabilities," as part of a workshop given by the gentleman that had invited me, who had top billing. The workshop sessions were listed as his. And special guests were his helpers.
There was no headshot, no bio, no course description..in fact, nothing I had sent him in a time-sensitive manner was anywhere to be seen. I felt like I was brought here under false pretenses. It was rude, disheartening, and embarrassing.
The gentleman entered the room and I smiled brightly with my face, not my eyes, and greeted him. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and asked him if we were co-presenting together because I couldn't find my name or workshop. He explained that sometimes things were rewritten to attract more participants, and that as his guest, I would presenting in his name. My eyes snapped and cracked, but I managed a professional demeanor.
We made small talk. It was clear he knew I was not happy. For whatever reason, I decided I was going to ride this out and see where it led. Depending how the workshop played out, the degree to which he participated, and the light in which I might be introduced was going to be the determining factor for what I might choose to do next.
We were having an awkward moment.
Ah....awkward moments: Rolling into auditions when the part did not call for wheelchair talent. Sometimes I landed the role anyway. Sometimes I was questioned for my presence there. Sometimes I was asked to leave. Sometimes I was asked to step aside, and was never gotten back to. Sometimes I was told I was brilliant, but everyone in the room just wished I wasn't disabled. Sometimes I was asked back to do voice training for the girls that did get the role because they couldn't do a Brooklyn accent - I turned them down, of course. And sometimes, however rare, a director got inspired and proposed very minor modifications to the script and I was in.
In college I competed in an international modeling and acting convention in four categories: black and white photo, soap opera, monologue, and.....dance. I rolled in and nearly drowned with the overwhelming sensation of being surrounded by "the beautiful people." There were throngs of beautiful models, very experienced actors, and hawk-eyed casting directors. Whispers of "What's she doing here?" reached my ears a number of times before I reached the elevators up to our hotel rooms. It was extremely intimidating. I remember shaking like a leaf, but faking it like I was making it until I could close my hotel door, plunk down my luggage and allow myself to whimper and cry a little.
At the awards banquet, I took the award for first in black and white photo in the women's category of my age bracket; I was thrilled with this because it was judged by editors from top fashion magazines, including Japan. In soap-opera I took the award for second overall. In monologue I won first overall with a piece I had written. And in dance, which I decided not to compete in at the last minute, I won third overall against all able-bodied dancers. A messenger was sent to my hotel room where the international judging panel, not familiar with adaptive dance, insisted I compete and called me to the floor.
Throughout my entire experience within entertainment, I have been met with extreme doubt. This conference was no different. I was in a disabled actor category, that was not being recognized as viable. In fact, the conversation seemed to center around the fact that it was new - which it isn't. But it was only recently dawning on this guy, so that is why I was a Special Guest. I understood. This was the international modeling and acting competition all over again.
I had six people in the first class which included the gentleman who was listed as presenter. I spoke to them not only like they were a full thirty participants, but I treated them like a full house at Carnegie Hall. The next class had three people in it. Not including the gentleman who was listed as presenter. They turned out to actually have invisible disabilities, and so I immediately tailored the same presentation to apply only to them, involved them completely, and restructured my allotted 50-minutes to be a consultation. Throughout the two workshops, I watched the gentleman who was listed as presenter learn. He learned a lot.
I remained polite and professional throughout the day. The result was being able to be introduced to coordinators, personally ushered around by him. We had an excellent conversation over lunch, and are planning to talk about further involvement in next year's conference where I intend to have my own billing, my own workshops, and possibly performance time to show adaptive theatre in action. Though the words weren't spoken, I felt and accepted his apology.
Does my heart rate still go up when I glance at the conference schedule? Yes. Do I feel duped and screwed over? Yes. Did I teach everyone, including him and myself some valuable lessons? Yes. Will this situation ever happen to me again?
Although I have stepped away from theatre for the last three years, theatre did not let go of me - particularly directing. Nor have I let go of film. I can't pass up a costume shop. I know the theatre suppliers in the city by name. I practically back my car up to the sidewalk outside of the university theatre building when they have a props and costume clearance sale. There is an entire walk-in closet in my house full and loaded with costumes, wigs, shoes, and props I have bought over the years. There is a complete set of heavy theatre curtains and curtain-legs sitting in plastic tubs in my attic. I still have my theatre make-up case.
I intend to keep working at it by whatever method possible. I love to communicate, write, create, perform, and express. So my options are pretty open. These days, I am adding the backbone of structure and credibility to my projects and goals through studying and teaching feminism. And these days, I'm no longer interested in fear, self-sabotage, or looking in from the outside. Some day, in some way...whether through performing, directing, writing, research, or teaching...or a fabulous combination of all of the above...I will get the message across.
We're the fringe. And that's okay. We are the Beautiful Disasters. I like that. I like that a lot.