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Gregg Mozgala stars in Teenage Dick
Two years ago, when I first interviewed Gregg Mozgala, a performer with cerebral palsy, he said he was typically called in to audition just a few times annually. But he noted an encouraging milestone: 2016 was the first year that he had been acting professionally when he had two auditions in one week. However, when we recently spoke about his latest project, Teenage Dick at the Public Theater, he admitted with a laugh, "That was the last time that ever happened."
While there are a handful of New York City theatre companies that make it their mission to employ actors with disabilities -- including New York Deaf Theatre, Theater Breaking Through Barriers and Mozgala's own The Apothetae -- change in the industry at large remains painfully slow. That's why Mozgala has forged a nontraditional path to find work, and it's been paying off.
He won a Lucille Lortel Award for his performance as John, a character with cerebral palsy, in Martyna Majok's Pulitzer Prize-winning Cost of Living, which ran at Manhattan Theatre Club last summer. Mozgala knew Majok socially and she invited him to do the role at Ensemble Studio Theatre when the show was just a one act. He stayed with the project through four years of development as Majok expanded it into a full-length play. "It's a great piece of art that is an authentic depiction of the disabled experience," Mozgala says. "Now that play will provide, hopefully, more opportunities for disabled actors."
Earlier this month, Mozgala wrapped up his run in Caryl Churchill's Light Shining in Buckinghamshire at New York Theatre Workshop. He played a disillusioned soldier named Briggs, a character not written specifically for an actor with a disability. He says his casting only happened because "it was a conscious choice by NYTW and director Rachel Chavkin to be radically accessible and radically inclusive." Still, hiring disabled actors for non-disabled roles is not something Mozgala is seeing happening on a "grand scale" within the theatre community.
Which is why he continues to make his own opportunities, the latest being the title role in Teenage Dick, a seriocomic riff on Richard III written by Mike Lew. Mozgala commissioned and developed the show through his theatre company The Apothetae, and it's receiving its world premiere courtesy of Ma-Yi Theater Company in association with the Public Theater.
In Teenage Dick, Mozgala plays Richard, a scheming student discontent with his high-school status. He sets his sights on becoming class president and aims to destroy the ruling jock and maybe even get a girlfriend in the process.
Mozgala has long been obsessed with the character of Richard III. "With the exception of Ahab, he's probably the most famous disabled character in Western literature," he says. With Teenage Dick, he wanted a piece that would explore the journey of a disabled teen into adulthood. "I don't think the wounds of adolescence ever go away," Mozgala says. "Especially from my own perspective, I remember very clearly when I realized I would never outgrow this. That bad skin might go away, braces on your teeth might disappear, hopefully things will get better. But I'm going to be disabled my whole life. And I don't know how to deal with it. How do I enter the adult world with this?"
The law requires institutional support and services for disabled children, but much of that drops away when they reach 21, a phenomenon commonly referred to as "falling off the cliff." Mozgala pictures young Richard as facing such a precipice: "It's like all the issues of adolescence and puberty, but then this other layer of actually being different, of actually having a visible, physical difference and dealing with everything that comes with that."
Teenage Dick specifies casting an additional disabled actor for the role of Barbara "Buck" Buckingham, Richard's classmate, who is both his friend and foil. Shannon DeVido, a comedian and actor who uses a wheelchair, plays Buck, and she's hilarious as she calls out Richard's misbehavior and challenges his self-perceptions.
Mozgala says the play allows for "a disabled man and a disabled woman who have different disabilities and different world views to hash it out within the context of a play." Their characters are "sexually empowered," and he felt it was important that "disabled sexuality was also present" since it's rarely portrayed on stage. In other words, they're true-to-life teenagers with libidos.
Beyond it being entertaining and enlightening, Teenage Dick serves Mozgala's larger goal: increasing opportunities for disabled performers. "This is an incredibly representative cast," he says. "It's ethnically diverse and gender diverse and ability diverse. If I'm not modeling for the other organizations or institutions that I want to work with, then I'm failing in my mission." He also has some advice for theatres that claim to value diversity. "If you are not being inclusive of disabled actors, then you are remiss. Let me help you with that."
To read about a student's experience at Teenage Dick, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Nicole Serratore is a freelance theatre journalist and critic. She is the Broadway editor of Exeunt magazine's ExeuntNYC.com, and has also written for The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Stage and American Theatre magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @mildlybitter. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Shannon DeVido and Gregg Mozgala in Teenage Dick. Photos by Carol Rosegg.
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