In a small, fluorescent-lit rehearsal studio in Midtown Manhattan one rainy Wednesday, four passionate actors discussed the word “disabled.”
“I wish we would just take the word disabled and make it something else,” said performer Gabe Fazio, one of the company of actors with Christiane Noll, Carey Cox and David Burtka set to perform the playground-fight-turned-existential-dramedy God of Carnage at Theatre Row this week with Theater Breaking through Barriers (TBTB), the city’s only professional Off-Broadway theatrical organization dedicated to advancing disabled artists, welcoming audiences of people with disabilities and altering the misperceptions surrounding disability.
“It’s the world that disables us,” explained Gabe. “Disabled is an awful word because it automatically implies a ‘less-than’ — a disabled computer means it doesn’t work anymore.” Castmate Carey Cox said that the conversation was ongoing and multifaceted, adding: “Some people say ‘differently-abled’, though that can be controversial too, because there’s this idea that disability shouldn’t be a bad thing — and by using ‘differently-abled’, in getting away from the word disabled and trying to make it something cuter or softer — and that’s acknowledging that we think disability is a bad thing. There have been a few different movements.”
This kind of conversation is possible, even amid a rapid-fire rehearsal period for the first New York revival of playwright Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award winning 2009 production, because of TBTB’s mission to create a working environment where accessibility and inclusivity are at the forefront. “As a producer, you want to make sure all of your artists feel comfortable and feel that they’re taken care of, and to make sure the actors have whatever they need to do their best work,” said TBTB Artistic Director and God of Carnage director Nicholas Viselli.
The company’s production of Carnage reflects TBTB’s commitment to producing plays by and for disabled artists, while ensuring that disabled artists are given the opportunity to perform in works that have no specific disability storyline, he added. “We’ve done a lot of plays that dealt with disability as a central theme and I think it’s important for us to be able to do work where disability isn’t the main thing, or where it’s not even mentioned at all,” said Nick. “The ultimate goal is to normalize disability, and to create a situation where it’s not hidden but it’s not central to the play.” The production will feature robust audio and visual descriptions to provide an accessible viewing experience for all audiences.
For the actors in God of Carnage, being part of a company that understands disability without tokenizing it was a significant milestone. “I just want to do the work. I don’t want to be performative and be like, ‘Oh, look at how important we are by doing this piece with these people,’” said Christiane. “We all have disabilities in one way or another — some you can see and some you can’t.” David added: “It’s so nice that there is an artistic outlet to show that there’s no difference between someone who has a disability and someone who doesn’t. I think we’ve gotten to this place in our world where Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate and LGBTQIA and trans rights have a place in the conversation, but no one says anything about people who have disabilities. Where’s that in the picture? That’s our new frontier and where we need to go.”
TBTB has been at the front line of that frontier since 1979, when the company was founded by the late Ike Schambelan as Theater by the Blind. “When TBTB started in 1979, it was a rarity,” said Nick, who joined the company as an actor in 1997. “I had seen the company’s work as early as 1988 in a production of Unexpected Guests — and I was so blown away by the quality of the work. To see a group of artists, many of whom were blind and low vision, playing sighted characters was quite wonderful. Normally you’ll see sighted actors playing blind, but how often do you get to see blind actors actually playing sighted characters?”
He was asked to join one of the company’s play readings in 1997. “They invited me into their circle, and I loved it,” said Nick. TBTB became an officially designated Off-Broadway company in 2004, and in 2008, decided to rebrand to Theater Breaking Through Barriers as a means of expanding their commitment to inclusivity. “One of the big issues that the company always dealt with was this idea of stigmatizing disability and discriminating against people with disabilities,” said Nick. “And to us it was like, ‘We’re Theater By The Blind — that something we’re combating, but aren’t we, in a way discriminating by saying we only work with blind and low-sight actors?’ Even though that wasn’t really true, but that’s what the name implied.” TBTB decided to rebrand as a company dedicated to working with artists of all abilities. “It was a game changer for us,” said Nick. “It opened the floodgates and allowed so many other artists to now feel that they could work here.”
Ike ran TBTB while battling cancer until 2014, when he enlisted Nick, already involved with much of the behind-the-scenes production, to take over. “He said, ‘If you don’t run the company, then it’ll die with me,’” said Nick. “And I thought, ‘We can’t allow that to happen.’ I will be very honest with you — I never planned or wanted to be an artistic director — but I didn’t want this company to end.”
Under Nick’s stewardship, the company has continued to expand their artistic reach, working with such notable playwrights as Bekah Brunstetter and Samuel D Hunter (whose work is frequently featured at neighboring Off-Broadway houses Signature Theatre and Playwrights Horizons). “It’s allowed writers to now write for actors who are disabled,” said Nick. “There’s always this fear as a writer that they don’t want to screw up — and we tell them, ‘just tell your story.’ Don’t worry so much about getting it right — just write a good story with really good characters that may or may not be played by a person with a disability, and you’ll be doing it right.”
It’s a sentiment that the cast of God of Carnage shared as they discussed the significant steps the entertainment community needs to take to become a truly disability-inclusive industry. “I don’t know if I would be an actor if I was a hearing person,” said Gabe who has navigated the world of film, theater and TV as a performer with hearing loss. “Working with TBTB I get to be a part of a movement — this is something I’ve never seen before as far as accessibility for people who have disabilities.”
MORE off-Broadway news
“The reality in our world is that 25% of the people in this country are people with disabilities,” said Nick. “We’re the third largest country in the world. So our makers have just go to think bigger and zoom out.”
“We need more disabled stars,” agreed Carey. “We need there to be more disabled people who are household names. We need more disabled writers. We need disabled producers, disabled directors. We need disabled people in every part of the process.” She emphasized that productions like TBTB’s God of Carnage were important in moving away from the “inspiration porn” and immediate stigmatization that too often accompanies disability representation in media.
“I used to think, ‘Oh, I’m a funny person who’s interested in science, who’s a visual artist, and what not,’” said Carey. “And then as soon as I started walking with the cane, it’s like all of those other things became so secondary and the first thing that people would see was the cane,” she added. “My fiance is also disabled. He’s been disabled his whole life. So we have slightly different perspectives and we talk about visibility a lot, but then we both just get exhausted. We’re like, I would just love to not be a disabled person for a second to just be somebody who loves bingeing 90210 or who has other interests. Being disabled sometimes eclipses who the person really is — it’s nice to be able to remind people that every disabled person you see is a whole, complete person.”
God of Carnage opens April 27 at Theatre Row and runs through May 20.