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Shining a Spotlight on Artists with Disabilities at Under the Radar

By: Gerard Raymond
Date: Jan 02, 2020

The latest edition of The Public Theater's performance festival is more inclusive than ever


The Public Theater's annual Under the Radar festival has always been about breaking boundaries by highlighting cutting-edge artists from around the globe. For its 16th edition, which runs January 8 to 19 at The Public and a smattering of partner venues, it's breaking down barriers, too, with three shows that feature artists with disabilities.

"When we said, 'We want to bring the best,' we started wondering, were we really making that possible?" explains Shanta Thake, The Public's senior director of artistic programs. "We recognize that theatre has not been readily accessible for performers or audiences that have disabilities. We have kept people out for our own convenience—even the way our buildings are structured. We are excited with this festival to break down the barriers for entry for them."

That's key for writer-performer Ryan J. Haddad, who has cerebral palsy and uses a walker for mobility. "I certainly lead with my disability," says Haddad, whose musical memoir Falling for Make Believe runs at Joe's Pub January 8 to 17. "For me, it is something that is completely visible, and it affects the way I walk into a room—assuming the room is even accessible for me to walk into."

In 2017, Haddad made his Under the Radar debut with the autobiographical comedy Hi, Are You Single?, about his adventures as a horny young gay man with cerebral palsy. He says that breakthrough performance helped him segue to the screen, notably his recurring role as "witty, tough asshole" Andrew Cashman on Netflix's The Politician. "I'm aware that the door has opened for me for television work because of years of stepping on the stage and putting myself at the center of my work," he says. "To be part of this iteration of Under the Radar, which features so many different manifestations of disability in a way that is so vibrant and deeply artistic and rich, is something I don't take lightly."

Falling for Make Believe is an evening of songs and stories about how, as a theatre-obsessed child, Haddad goaded his family into putting on productions at their local community center. "They poured so much time and energy into the shows—not that they were even remotely professional or good!" he admits. "Not everyone has that experience of a deeply loving, biological family, but I do, and I celebrate them in this work." Although the show doesn't focus on his cerebral palsy, just by being on stage, Haddad illustrates how necessary representation is. "It's very exciting when somebody says, 'I felt your experience mirrored in mine'" he says. "To be able to do that both ways—for people who are disabled and for those who are not—that's a very powerful feeling. And it is also one of the major reasons why I do the work that I do."

Australia's Back to Back Theatre is an ensemble of artists with developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome and autism. Since 1988, the company has won international acclaim for its perspective-expanding productions, notably Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, which ran at 2013's Under the Radar. The troupe's new piece, The Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes, which runs at The Public January 8 to 19, is structured as a public meeting where five performers engage in a freewheeling and frank discussion about a variety of topics, including the historical mistreatment of neurodiverse people and the rise of artificial intelligence. Cast member Scott Price, an actor and activist on the autism spectrum, says the company developed the work collaboratively over three years, and that they were drawn to news stories about how artificial intelligence could eventually make everyone feel "less-abled" in some way. As Back to Back's artistic director Bruce Gladwin explained in a recent interview: "The conceit of the piece is that hopefully the audience are thinking that this is purely a work about people with intellectual disabilities, but it's turned on them by going, 'No, this is about you, this is about all of us and the future and what's going to happen.'"

British theatre-maker Jess Thom, who has Tourette syndrome, is upending stereotypes by starring in Samuel Beckett's stream-of-consciousness monologue Not I, which runs at the BRIC in Brooklyn January 10 to 19. Her neurological condition causes a variety of physical and verbal tics, including repeating the words "biscuit" and "hedgehog" randomly, which inspired her to co-found the organization Touretteshero in 2010 and co-create the autobiographical comedy Backstage in Biscuit Land. For her follow-up show, she decided to work with a well-known text in order to "challenge ideas about who gets to perform these roles."

Thom was introduced to Not I by her longtime friend Matthew Pountney several years before they launched Touretteshero. "At the time my tics were changing," she recalls. "I found the play fascinating and confusing and intriguing. I really recognized the person as a disabled character. There are lines in that play that relate deeply to my experience." Thom points out that the jumbled and disjointed phrases used by the protagonist, who's seemingly having "some sort of massive brain event," come naturally to her. "The idea of losing physical and mental control is something that I understand on a very deep level," she says.

In order accommodate her disability, as well as to offer relaxed performances where neurodiverse audiences would be welcome, small adjustments had to be made to the staging. Happily, the Beckett estate, infamous for imposing strict fidelity to the author's precise stage directions, was supportive. "We really demonstrate that we can make work accessible for the audience and the performer in a way that doesn't reduce the theatricality of the experience," Thom says. "I think that when we are thinking of having to write amazing parts for disabled performers, it's useful to know that they are there within the existing canon; we can only claim them and understand them from these differing perspectives."

All three aforementioned productions are providing various accommodations for audiences with disabilities as well. Falling for Make Believe will have open captioning; The Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes will have supertitles; and all Not I performances will not only be relaxed, but will be American Sign Language interpreted. There will also be a free panel led by Thom's Touretteshero colleague Pountey and other disability activists before the January 12 performance of Not I for artists and audiences who want to learn more about making theatre accessible, on stage and in the house.

These initiatives fit with The Public's mission to be a theatre of, by and for all people. "Theatre offers the opportunity to be in a diverse group of people," says Thake. "These artists have much to offer to our community in this conversation about where we are in the world together."


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for select Under the Radar events. Log in and search for Under the Radar.

Gerard Raymond is an arts journalist based in New York City.

A scene from Back to Back Theatre's The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, part of The Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Gerard Raymond is a Sri Lanka-born arts journalist based in New York City who's a member of the Drama Desk and the American Theatre Critics Association.