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5 Theatres You Need to Know: NYC Companies Showcasing Artists with Disabilities

Date: Jan 21, 2019

Where to see shows that value accessibility on both sides of the footlights


According to the most recent statistics, more than 40 million Americans have a disability, and 948,208 are residents of NYC. That's about 11.2% of our city's population.

As a disabled New Yorker interested in theatre, I'm not just concerned about accessibility as an audience member, I also want to see my peers represented on stage. Happily, our city is home to multiple professional companies that put artists with disabilities in the spotlight, allowing them to play a wide range of characters both with -- and without -- disabilities.


1. New York Deaf Theatre

New York Deaf Theatre (NYDT) was founded in 1979 by a group of Deaf actors and theatre artists who wanted to present plays in American Sign Language (ASL). It's the oldest company of its kind in New York, and the third oldest Deaf theatre in the U.S. In 2018, the troupe became an anchor partner at Tribeca's Flea Theater, where it mounts shows that are accessible to both audiences who can hear and those who are Deaf or hard of hearing by using a combination of ASL, spoken English and English captioning. NYDT usually adapts preexisting works -- recent productions include Jordan Harrison's Maple & Vine, Patrick Barlow's The 39 Steps and short plays by David Ives. But the company has also developed original plays by Deaf dramatists through its Sam Edwards New Play Reading Series.

What's next? NYDT's next production, a mounting of the interactive play Every Brilliant Thing, runs April 27 to May 5 at the Flea.



2. Theater Breaking Through Barriers

Founded in 1979 as Theater by the Blind, Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB) changed its name and expanded its focus in 2008 to include artists with any type of disability, not just vision impairment. Today the company serves as a creative hub for the community, shattering misconceptions about what performers with disabilities are capable of and what types of characters they can play. While the troupe initially focused on classics (Shakespeare, Brecht, Sophocles), in recent years it has commissioned new works by lauded playwrights such as Tony winners John Guare and David Henry Hwang, and MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellow Samuel D. Hunter.

What's next? From May 25 to June 29, TBTB will present the world premiere of the politically charged drama Public Servant by Emmy-nominated This Is Us writer Bekah Brunstetter at the Clurman Theatre. It's the second installment in a trilogy, which kicks off with The Cake at Manhattan Theatre Club next month.



3. EPIC Players

A "neuro-inclusive" company, EPIC was founded in 2016 to give artists with developmental disabilities, such as autism and Down syndrome, an opportunity to work with their nondisabled peers. Like New York Deaf Theatre, EPIC is an anchor partner at Tribeca's Flea Theater where the troupe has presented shows for young audiences (You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, The Little Prince) and productions for grown-ups (The Tempest, Dog Sees God). In addition to two annual mainstage offerings, the troupe hosts acting classes as well as workshops of devised pieces that address the challenges of living with developmental disabilities.

What's next? EPIC has a busy lineup, including a storytelling performance in February, a cabaret in April and a full production of Little Shop of Horrors in June.


4. The Apothetae

Performer and playwright Gregg Mozgala, who has cerebral palsy, founded The Apothetae in 2012 to create new pieces that not only give artists with disabilities a chance to work, but also explore the "disabled experience." Over the years, the company has appeared at lauded institutions including BAM, Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Lark. In 2018, a play it commissioned, Mike Lew's seriocomic riff on Richard IIITeenage Dick, had its world premiere courtesy of Ma-Yi Theater Company and the Public Theater, starring Mozgala in the lead.

What's next? Last month, Mozgala was announced as an advisory company member of the National Disability Theatre, a soon-to-debut regional troupe, and he's also a busy actor for hire (Cost of Living, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire). So at the moment, The Apothetae doesn't have any upcoming productions. However, its The Apothetae and Lark Initiative, which includes a playwriting fellowship for dramatists with disabilities, is ongoing. Plus, Teenage Dick is being mounted regionally.



5. Theatre for All at Queens Theatre
14 United Nations Avenue South in Corona, Queens

In the fall of 2018, the Queens Theatre helped launch a free training program for early-career actors with disabilities called the Theatre for All Initiative (TFA). For its inaugural cohort, approximately 25 performers (including me) received intensive training in various disciplines and participated in a showcase for industry professionals. Instructors included Emmy nominee Vincent D'Onofrio as well as teachers with disabilities, and the ever-busy Gregg Mozgala served as an advisor. TFA also mounted a separate evening of short plays focused on characters with disabilities. 

What's next? TFA received more than 170 submissions for its presentation but only produced nine, so the hope is that a new round of playlets will be performed this spring.

Check out other 5 Theatres You Need to Know roundups: Asian-American companies, theatres in northwestern Queens and Latinx companies.


Alejandra Ospina is a New York City-based writer, performer and cultural accessibility provider, whose work includes audio description and closed captioning. Follow her at @superaleja_. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

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Top image: Shannon DeVido and Gregg Mozgala in 
Teenage Dick at the Public Theater. Photo by Carol Rosegg.