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Athena Stevens on Box-Ticking & Narrative Control

Equity in the Arts
Athena Stevens sitting in her wheelchair, smiling with her arms thrown into the air.

This post is the third in our blog series A Place of Exposure, curated in collaboration with The Apothetae, which takes its name from the first article written about The Apothetae and Lark collaboration in 2015. We've launched this series in honor of the 2020 round of our Playwriting Fellowship for a Deaf/Disabled writer, which coincides with the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Both the Fellowship and series are dedicated to uplifting the multiplicity of voices and experiences of Deaf/Disabled communities. These are the perspectives of people who have worked to create or support new plays, and re-appropriate existing plays, in order to present the experiences of Disabled communities as part of our cultural landscape. By providing a platform to explore these varied and complex experiences, we aim to highlight the fact the 'Disability Community' is a series of communities, with a series of histories and a series of stories - just beginning to be told.

In this post, inaugural Apothetae and Lark Playwriting Fellow Tim J. Lord interviews playwright and actor Athena Stevens, an American ex-pat living in London, about what it means to create your own work from the ground-up and the ways in which she is working to reshape the conversations and perceptions around disability in theater. Athena’s play
Schism ran at the Finborough Theatre in 2016 then transferred to the Park Theatre in 2018. For her work on the play, Athena was nominated for an Olivier Award, making her the first person with a disability nominated for the award. Read their conversation below, and be sure to check out the rest of the series as well!

TIM J. LORD: Hello again, Athena! So you’re an American living in the UK. How did that come about? And how has being an ex-pat shaped your work?

ATHENA STEVENS: In 2005 I was lucky enough to start working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, first in college. Then, when I graduated I couldn’t wait to leave North Carolina and head straight to London. By that point I was gagging to be somewhere that considered the arts ”work” and not a fun thing to do while you get a pre-med degree. Dominic Cooke, who had just been named the next director of the Royal Court, invited me into his rehearsal rooms. I owe a lot to that first group of people I met at the RSC who saw I had talent but needed to be in a place I could grow.

I think being an immigrant forces you to question everything. Both in terms of where you came from and the strange land you’ve decided to put roots down in. It frees you to be true to yourself, because you see there is no one ”right” way to live your life. You have to be open and you learn to be thankful for all the things you thought would always be there. Right now I’m waiting for a jar of Vlassic dill pickles from home for my birthday. We don’t have anything like them here, and at the moment, this is where my head goes when I’m looking for things to look forward to while on lockdown. 

TJL: Tell us a bit about your play Schism.

AS: Schism is about the emotional mind games that every relationship can fall prey to. I set out to write a very precise, two-handed relational drama in which one of the characters happened to be disabled but it was not the main focus of the relationship. The play takes place over 20 years over seven key scenes of the relationship, and we see people grow dependent and ultimately destroy each other. I was really interested in the idea of when a dream becomes an unrealistic fantasy and this is something that is echoed throughout the play.

TJL: You acted in it as well and had to fight to control the narrative that was being told in the press, yes?

AS: I really struggled as a writer and a performer who happened to have a disability to get professionals to see me as simply a writer and performer. Every press release in the beginning labeled me as a ”disabled writer” which is something I don’t want to identify with and I don’t identify with. I am a writer who happened to have a disability. We don’t call Tennessee Williams a gay writer and I have found in my own career that box-ticking usually backfires. Over and over again I was told by press people ”but a writer with cerebral palsy makes a good story.” However, the interviews that came forth from the BBC and ultimately the Olivier Nominations committee absolutely were willing to let this go and just see me as an artist.

I think those of us that are working with disabilities have to take an active hand and curate our careers. There are actions we can take that will force the mainstream to notice us. We have to be proactive in making that happen more so than a David Hare. To curate your career wisely I think is the difference between being seen as a legitimate artist to being seen as a box to tick.

TJL: Do you feel like other theaters there are really considering what it means to be “accessible?”

AS: I think London is suffering from the misapprehension that accessibility in theater is something that only applies to the front of house. I saw Company with Rosalie Craig and Patti Lupone and it was so bloody boring! The music was great, the talent was impeccable but I sat through an entire two hours of a show that was hailed all over the West End as being progressive and I didn’t see anyone who looked like me. In a cast of 12+ and in a society where one person in five considers themselves disabled, this is a statistical problem.

On a more basic level, there are hardly any wheelchair accessible rehearsal spaces in central London, and zero that are affordable. I was so frustrated that my company ended up opening one of our own as soon as we found a space. You can go on and on about the industry's liberal values, and “wanting to include,” but the blunt truth is, the infrastructure isn’t there. Until producers and funders are willing to plunk cash down and renovate these buildings, rather than go on about how ‘we hope to do it someday,’ you aren’t really making any investments in “accessibility.”

TJL: What are some ways you have been working to change and/or shape that conversation?

AS: Within the past six months I understudied for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in the West End and very quickly opened my play Scrounger thereafter. So I was in full-time rehearsals by day with my creative team that I work with regularly, and in a high budget production at night. It became really clear in that time that the more mainstream/commercial part of the industry really does want to be more inclusive, but they are often terrified. They would know something didn’t look right, but dance around being direct. They would decide the production design needed to be on a raised stage, then realize they had an actor with a disability, so decided to add a lift to the backstage area rather than reconsider maybe now is not the *best* production to have an elevated stage for. In the end, I think a lot of people in the room were starting to see a fifty year old play in which the disabled character had one line and was continuously called a spastic really wasn’t going to showcase the talents of someone with a disability very well.

You have to be fearless in creating good work, and commercial pressures can often overshadow imagination. You feel it in the room; but in all honesty, I’m really starting to feel it in the stalls.

In contrast, I would come in to work on
Scrounger with my team and we were so strong in collaboration because there was a sense of fun, and also, no ability to rest on our laurels with each other. I would be given an absurd prop that was difficult for me to manage and everyone knew it and would go ”what’s the problem,” with a glint in their eye. Our director, Lily, would just have tears of laughter rolling down her face at some of our offers. At one point, when I tried on the fifth long sleeved, ankle-length dress, I turned to the designer and went, ”Are you trying to make me look like a sister-wife?”

Disability has to be incorporated into a production at every level. It’s going to affect the layout of the dressing rooms, it’s going to affect the stage design, the props you use, who you get in the room to be cast, the conversations about character. I now go into the theaters regularly and tell them off for introducing yet another scheme to ”train disabled talent.” Actually, there’s already plenty of world class talent out there from people who happen to be disabled. Where are the schemes and programs investing in the mainstream artists to teach them how to incorporate sign language into their productions, or what you need to consider if you are a designer with a cast member in a wheelchair,  or how to challenge an actor who is neuro-divergent when you pride yourself as a director who is ”intellectual?" Why are those of us with disabilities always having to be ‘trained?’

TJL: I’m curious to hear about your experience working at Shakespeare’s Globe, where you are working in a space designed to be inaccessible (because of its fidelity to the original Globe), and where you were adapting a feminist response to Marlowe’s Faust. There’s a lot of different conversations that must have occurred. Have you felt heard in your work with the folks there?

AS: So I’ve been working at the Globe as an Associate Artist for a year and a half now, and I still can’t believe it. In January and February of this year I directed and dramaturged a festival of 20 plays, all written, performed, and about women called Notes to the Forgotten Shewolves. In 2019, my own play Recompense was staged as a feminist response to Marlowe’s Faust. I’ve also directed community groups in a day-long festival where every Shakespearean sonnet was read (which, to this day, is one of the most wild and yet loving things I’ve ever witnessed), and I sit on their creative advisory board.

I am keenly aware, when I walk into the building of Shakespeare’s Globe, I’m working in a theater which, when it was built, didn’t have to adhere to disability compliance laws because of what it was. I’ve had some very frank conversations with Michelle Terry, Neil Constable, and the rest of the team when I have to work in either of the Globe’s spaces which are ongoing. How do you direct in THE wooden ’O’ when you can’t get to any of the seats? Can a director only work from the Yard where the groundlings stood? The smaller indoor theater, the Sam Wanamaker, has a rule that most of the light has to come from natural sources, i.e., candlelight. For the record, putting an actor with cerebral palsy on a wooden stage holding a candle didn’t strike anyone as a great idea. So then we went to the archivist and asked what else was used throughout history to cast light. Can we use crushed pearl, bioluminescent mushrooms? What can I hold that is natural that will cast the same light as a candle and not risk fire?

There’s a bust of Sam Wanamaker I sometimes pass by when I have to take an oddly circumlocutious route to get somewhere that’s just up a flight of stairs for everyone else. On a chaotic day, when lifts aren’t working or tech is going way too long, I’ll sometimes rush past, wagging my finger at Sam and think, ”I’m angry at you, Sam. Why did you make this place so hard for people like us?” And then I go into the production office or back stage where the people are so warm and not only have massive talent themselves but see my talent first, way before they see a box to tick, and I think, yeah, this is what Sam really wanted. He probably never saw an artist like me coming into mainstream theater. The people here have welcomed me even when the conditions aren’t perfect, and we all know that. That shows courage on their part, and I can meet them there, even when the building isn’t what it should be.
When you choose to love something despite its flaws, you know you’re entering a relationship that’s always going to need grace.​

TJL: Gregg [Mozgala] & I have been chatting about this question of, ”What is a ’disability play?’ Is there even any such thing as that?” I feel like it’s an issue play that theaters can trot out to say, ”Look how ’diverse’ we are!” What’s your take on that, as I know that you fight to be identified as a writer who just happens to have a disability?

AS: Sigh. 

For fuck's sake...

A ”disability play” is a crap play theaters will trot out in a self righteous manner for kudos while at the same time patting themselves on the back about how progressive they are while gleaning images and reviews they can collect and submit for their next funding application.

Sorry, did I type that out loud? My fingers just move without me meaning them to… Brain injury ya know :-)

For this question, I always go back and look at the opening of
An Octoroon or Arinze Kene’s Misty. Actually I look at writers of colour a lot when I’m looking for guidance for setting boundaries for my own writing. Both writers are so aware of the pressure to write a "black play," or fit into other people’s classification of being a “black writer.” They are more interested in writing something great, screw all the preconceptions.

I think for those of us who are disabled, there’s an added complication. Some people are proud of their disabilities, it’s how their genes are or how they formed in the womb. That’s really cool. But some of us have been made disabled by other people’s faults. Someone was drunk driving or was malevolent or wasn’t doing their job.  I’m one of those people. It affects my responses when I’m called a ”disabled artist” or someone calls my plays ”disability plays.” To me that’s over the line. Someone else’s actions took away my independence, changed the judgments everyone makes when they meet me, and basically made me a second class citizen. That’s all fine. I have grace enough to look past that. But that person and their actions should not have the power to determine the first adjective used when describing me or my work. He doesn’t get to have that kind of power over my work. No way. 

TJL: I’ve become fascinated with the concept of building a “disability aesthetic,” in which we celebrate and use our differences to create something that is genuinely new and transformative for all audience members regardless of their abledness. I think, for instance, of a production of Into the Woods at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2014, where director Amanda Dehnert cast Howie Seago as the Wolf. Howie is deaf and he performed his songs in sign, and there was a—I’ll call him a companion actor—who sang the lyrics. They functioned as a unit, moving together, like a plural version of a singular performer, and yet Howie was always front and center giving this outstanding performance while they found ways for the singer to melt into the background. It was this beautiful, cool, dynamic element to the play. Do you consider that kind of thing at all when you’re writing?

AS: Yeah, so after the Olivier nomination there was a huge amount of pressure on me both as a writer/performer and as a feminist spokesperson for WEP [the Women’s Equality Party, a political party of which Stevens was a founding member] to write a Fleabag. That ended up being Scrounger, but as I sat down a year ago to write it I was struck by the fact I really didn’t want to write a solo show. First, I wasn’t sure I had the physical prowess to do 85 minutes nonstop, but I’m also just sick of the fall back of, ”oh, you don’t fit into this industry easily… do a solo show!” Acting is listening, as Alan Rickman says. And how is a solo show integration? So I came up with this idea of the play having a PA [personal assistant] just as many disabled people need in life. They would do all the scene changes, play all the other characters, and run around doing all the technical cues while I just sat there.

I know when I’m sitting down to write, I’m helping establish a canon. We don’t have a set of tried and true classics that have been written by individuals with disabilities. I want to write work that has a strong enough story to last because its portrayal of the human condition transcends disability. That means I have to use disability to push the form forward, not just for the sake of ticking a box. I use disability a lot to raise the stakes of a situation. I play a lot with making the audience very uncomfortable with themselves by forcing them to question ”can this actor pull this off without killing themselves?”

We are still at a point where mainstream audiences are very uncomfortable seeing us in the spotlight. That won’t be forever, I don’t think. But now… let’s use that discomfort to not only tell a great story, but fuck with the audience’s preconceived notions as well. Any performer considers their body to be their instrument. Any writer considers their experience to be theirs. We are writing for unique bodies and using voices which have been systematically silenced for all of history. Our addition has to push the collective form of drama forward- as any new voice will.

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