On Directing and Disability
This post is the fifth in our blog series A Place of Exposure, curated in partnership with The Apothetae, which takes its name from the first article written about The Apothetae and Lark collaboration in 2015. We 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 stories - just beginning to be told.
In this post, Brian Balcom (TEENAGE DICK, Theater Wit) and Evan T Cummings (EMILY DRIVER'S GREAT RACE THROUGH TIME AND SPACE!, Upcoming: Queen's Theater) discuss the opportunities and challenges of working as a director in a field in that is currently reckoning with topics of accessibility and representation. Their conversation is available to read or watch below. And be sure to check out the rest of the series as well - links to all posts are featured at the bottom of this page!
BRIAN BALCOM & EVAN T CUMMINGS
EVAN T CUMMINGS: I feel like I certainly knew you for a short time when we both were at Carnegie Mellon.
BRIAN BALCOM: We also met for, was it two years?
EC: Yeah I think it was about two years, and then I kind of feel pretty dumb that we haven’t reconnected after all this while.
BB: Man, I am so out of touch with most all of my classmates because I stayed in the Midwest, and everyone either went to New York or LA and I lost contact with a lot of people. So that’s sort of the way it seems to work unfortunately. It’s good to, after all these years later, to get reconnected.
EC: I feel like. Did you have that sense when you were going through graduation and your last year there, your first year out in the world, that it was the diaspora to LA and to NY and then everyone else was just somewhere else, kind of unmoored?
BB: I don’t know how you felt when you were there, but yes, everyone was either New York or LA because our school set up those two showcases in either New York or LA, and everyone, I think one of the actors in my class decided to move Chicago, and everyone thought that they were out of their minds for not going to one of the coasts, especially as an actor. I don’t think people paid as much, not attention, but I don’t think it was quite as surprising or out of the ordinary for a director to not go to one of the coasts, but definitely for that actor it was, “Why would you want to go to Chicago? Why wouldn’t you want to go to New York or LA?” What was it like for your class?
EC: I feel like a lot of my colleagues made a choice independent of maybe what was their expected career, what they were aiming for, that kind of thing. But for me it never really was a question. I grew up in New York state. My family is in Rochester, and has been for decades, if not going on a century going back, and there’s some wonderful theater growing up there. But New York was theater. New York was the city life that I expected. I mean, honestly to a point, I thought access and accessibility in a city, and specifically in New York, would be a little more possible with public transit and that kind of thing. And we can have a conversation about transportation and that kind of thing that I’m sure would last hours.
BB: Yeah I’m a little surprised to hear you say that you thought New York would be a little easier as far as transit goes, having been to New York. I assume you’re talking mostly about the bus system and not the subway.
EC: The thing that I’ve discovered is New York is both the best and the worst of transportation and getting to the place you want to go. It’s the best because there are so many options, and it’s the worst because that doesn’t extend to accessibility. As whole, so many fewer subway stations and the buses that you can guarantee the ramp will fold out and that kind of thing.
BB: Because I was looking at -- New York didn’t even cross my mind as an option after I graduated just because, I had been there before, just because of the accessibility issues in the subway system and also the cost of living in general. I knew that if I moved to New York, I would need a building with an elevator that would be within a few blocks of an accessible subway station, and that building would, like I said would be an elevator building, might have a doorman building. I just assumed, without really taking a close look into it, I just assumed it would be, the accessibility issue would be cost prohibitive rather than physically. Because I knew buildings existed that I could live in, but I didn’t think they would be something that I would be able to afford as a newly graduated theater artist. How did you find that?
EC: That is true. All that is absolutely true. It was super difficult to find the right place, or a place that could even work. It was the price point when, even in finding something, it’s looking at the more active areas of the city and places that do have four or five different possibilities for subway stations in case three out of five of either don’t have elevators, or are broken down, that kind of thing. It was, it actually took a lot of time and pre-planning for me to get here. It was nearly two years after I graduated from Carnegie that I got down here, and a big reason for that was I was figuring out what kind of, maybe, funding sources or other rental supports, different resources that are outside of the theater world might actually be able to make it possible for me to afford a rent that is bumped up pretty high. And here and there, there were things I was able to qualify for, but it really was kind of looking at all of those likely hindrances, and that sense of impossibility, and seeing if I could turn it into possibility through whatever method possible. And there’s a reason that I’m right now talking to you from the apartment I’ve been in almost a dozen years now. When you find something that mostly works, you make it continue to work. Moving would be a silly thing to do unless there was really an option and that it made sense. Doing it the first time was a pretty big hurdle.
BB: Finding a living space that works for you and me and anyone else with mobility impairments/issues, things like that, that’s one thing but what about working, like rehearsal space, things like that. Cause I know, even in the Midwest, when I graduated, I moved back to Minneapolis and now I’m in Chicago, but even in Chicago there are several theaters that I know I wanted to work with and started to build relationships with only to discover that their main rehearsal space is completely inaccessible. It’s on the second floor of a building but it doesn’t have an elevator, or it’s on the first floor, but the restrooms are in the basement, or something like that. Then it becomes a weird conversation within yourself of, “Well, what do I do now? Do I continue to build this relationship with this theater whose work I do like, whose mission does align with mine? And hopefully they might be willing to come up, or fundraise an extra few thousand of dollars to rent a different accessible space so we can work together, or is it worth that conversation in the first place? Do I just shrug my shoulders and try to find, not necessarily cut ties completely, but do I put my efforts somewhere else?” Even in Chicago, rehearsal space accessibility is spotty. What is it like in New York?
EC: Yeah. Accessibility is the consistent constant question. The constant uncertainty. To a degree, if you’re working on something or with a company or with colleagues that know you and you’ve built work together, there’s that understanding or that expectation that I’m a member of the creative team, therefore we need to find accessible rehearsal spaces and that kind of thing. There’s a theater company that I’ve been a member of and a colleague with a number of people over the course of the last maybe 10 years, and there are times that even some of my closest friends within that theater company they’re putting together the books, and they’re figuring out where a space is going to be rented for a reading, and if it’s in a place that is less expensive to rent that for the day, for the week, whatever it might be, and it requires setting up a ramp to get in in one step or two, a small company with not a lot of financial resources, I’m at certain points taking one for the team kind of thing. And it’s like, alright yeah we have a ramp, and it’s a little bit more of a headache for me to get into the space, and to coordinate how we make that access happen, but if that’s what we can afford, then I want to do the work. It’s always really just about wanting to do the work, yet sometimes I feel like I wish it didn’t have to be, didn’t always have to be the conversation that gets tied in with just getting in somewhere and doing the work.
BB: I think you’re onto something there because when you said you want to do the work, that made me think of something that I think, probably the… I don’t know if it’s a foolproof way to go, but it might be the best way to go about this situation is just convincing this theater that there is no one else who can do this show but you. And so if you want the show to succeed, this is what needs to be done, and accessible space needs to be found so we can create this thing together with my vision and your resources and your support and all of the things that a producing theater company brings to the table to a director and vice versa, that this partnership is invaluable. I think it might just be the situation where if you can make that happen, if you can get a company to agree that this is the way forward with the show. There is no other way forward with the show but this partnership, then hopefully people will find ways to make it work. I guess you have to go in, gang busters, headstrong, extremely confident, set up all these meetings, and then you get into the Catch-22 of “Oh yeah, let me know when you have a show, and we can have that conversation and we’ll come see it” and it’s, “well that’s what I’m doing talking to you.”
EC: Yeah, I love the “let me know when you have a show” version of it. And that’s independent of Disability in any way. It’s the director conundrum. An actor can go in, they can present their tools, their talents, their specific product which is their body, their voice, how they interpret and can offer a character. We can do readings, we can have meetings with playwrights, we can write these, what feels like endless, applications for different fellowships and things where we’re writing up an artistic statement and often a production essay where you say how you would direct a particular play but it’s only within the three or four plays that they put up on the list and that kind of thing. And that’s not to say that being able to articulate the kinds of perspectives and choices that are the nuts and bolts of the craft of the director, that there’s not some value to that. But it really is the only way that anybody’s come up with of assessing directorial talent. And then the other way is, “let me come see something that you’re doing.” Certainly the freelance life, if you’re not also thinking about the things that you can do that aren’t somebody calling you up and saying, “we want you to do this thing at our theater for this budget.” If you’re not thinking about it and building your own work, then you really are waiting for the phone to ring. But getting something that actually is a representation of all of the skill, all of the tool box, all of the perspective and distinct voice of me as a director or you as a director is damn hard. And I feel like there is an expectation that is something that is steadily going on for anybody who wants to take the next step and it’s hard to figure out what that first step is.
BB: Speaking of how to figure out what that first step is, how did you -- I don’t know if I ever asked you this -- but how did you get interested in directing specifically? Because I started out as an actor, as a performer back when I was seven, eight, well earlier than that because I just wanted attention and that was a very easy way to get it. I was an actor before my injury. My disability was acquired when I was 13 years old. That’s when I was injured. I continued performing in school.
EC: You’re going hear a chuckle over the line, and it was not about you being injured, but it was about you being injured at 13 because that’s when I had my injury as well.
BB: Hey! 13!
EC: Seriously. We have eerily similar backgrounds, you know?
BB: Well, then we were probably looking around at the same time and thinking, where is the place for me in theater?
EC: Yeah, I think that’s right.
BB: Because I don’t recall any roles being written, I was 13 years old, I wasn’t on the hunt; I wasn’t reading the dailies of the New York Times and keeping up with what was going on, but it didn’t feel like either characters were being written for actors with disabilities or that people were casting actors with disabilities in roles that didn’t call for it, and the things I was seeing on TV at the time were always the very special episode of where the protagonist meets someone with a disability, and through that relationship they are somehow built into a better person because they now have empathy” or something like that. And those roles really didn’t interest me very much, or there just wasn’t any opportunity on live stages. I figure that if I wanted to continue with theater, I needed to find a different outlet. So I started directing one acts and assistant directing things, and I went to Carnegie for their pre-college program, and there was a directing class there that I took and that was great.
EC: We both did that. Was that with Jed [Allen Harris]?
BB: Oh yeah that was with Jed. You did the summer program too?
EC: I did the summer program as well. The first thing I ever--
BB: Are we the same person?
EC: It’s possible. I think there are a few things that are different, but by-and-large we are the same person. No, I guess when were those first little directing workshops and exploring that kind of thing? When did that happen for you?
BB: Oh that was in high school. I think high school was the first opportunity anyone ever gave students to do directing, either assistant directing the big musicals every year in high school or there was a one act festival that students wrote for and directed. So that was the first opportunity that I had to actually try my hand at directing. I guess I thought “yeah this is… I can do this. I can be good at this, and it keeps me involved in the process in a similar way as a director,” or at least my thought at the time. It kept me in the game, and it seemed a more feasible path at the time.
EC: I don’t know that I was looking for a more feasible path. Maybe I should have been. I feel like I held onto the acting bug or even the acting possible acting pursuit maybe a little longer than you did. You know, same kind of thing. Starting in community musical theater, you’d do your Oliver’s and you’d do your, what else did we do? Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat and on and on. And I suppose I could look at the possibility that the turning point was all the way back just a year post-injury for me which was Geva Theatre wonderful, certainly up until COVID still running full-season, incredible regional LORT theater up in Rochester, they had just built out a program which they were calling their Summer Academy which was for I think 13 to 18 year olds which was essentially built from the ground up as a conservatory-style training but for 6 weeks for students and young people that were in or lived in Rochester over the summer time. And I participated in that for two years straight. The first around when I was 14 and the next when I was around 15. To a certain degree, the guy that created that program is a wonderful actor, director, and associate artist up there. His name is Skip Greer and he was the one that auditioned me for that program as a young person who had started using a wheelchair and had had a major change in the physicality of his life just a few months before, and he really was an incredible kind of just somebody who believes that theater and creative arts is a lifesaver and is something that can change people’s lives whether you are audience whether you are participating, whether you are leading in the field, and so he gave me a real open-minded, open-hearted talk when I was nervous about even considering finding out if I could act again.
BB: It seems like, as far as the outlook goes on performers, actors on tv, film, and theater, for for people with disabilities, it seems we either were born way too early, or injured way too early. It seems like the path now, like society at large, people seem ready to be open to these stories and this… It seems like within the last 10 or 15 years, audiences and producers are much more open to and writers too, to creating stories with, for, and by artists with disabilities. We’re seeing that across all entertainment formats.
EC: That’s interesting. Do you think if you could place yourself back in the visibility of artists with disabilities, actors with disabilities, if that was what it is now, that you might have continued to pursue the acting side of things rather than a directing side?
BB: I think I probably would have tried.
EC: Wow. Cool.
BB: I would have at least auditioned for BFA programs. I would have at least, cause you know how important it is to see yourself on stage and go, “That. That’s what I want to be. That is possible for me. I see that. And that is something that is tangible and achievable.” That’s clear with any sort of minority group is representation equals participation. And vice versa. It’s cyclical. I think I absolutely would have at least gave it a go because I loved being on stage. I loved that, performing and living within a character and having fun with my friends. I think I absolutely would have given it a shot. I don’t know how successful I would have been, but what do you think?
EC: Honestly, I don’t think I would have. I don’t think I would have. I think, and honestly I did apply to CMU in musical theater and directing. I didn’t get in Musical Theater, but I did get into I think Boston Conservatory’s acting program, and NYU.
BB: At that point, you believed there was a place for you in performance?
EC: No, I think I was being kind of naive. If I could place my mind back into that time, I think I might have had some talent to be an actor, but I don’t know that I would have had the drive and the wherewithal to figure out how to make the industry shift for me and see me. I so much more thought that my brain and perspective after pursuing it and during and after training as a director that I figured out that that’s where my brain lies. And honestly, and this is even more recent in the past few years, to a degree as a writer as well. I’ve been exploring the playwright side of my artistry over the last couple of years, and I think some of that is kind of recognizing really what a tough battle it is for actors who try to make this their lives because a lack of curiosity and tunnel vision perspective from people in this greater part of the industry that aren’t kind of imaginative enough to see that that representation and inclusion and that the storytelling that is reflective of who we all are is not going to be appealing to audiences. I think that’s such a lack of curiosity and imagination. But then again, were not yet the artistic directors or the producers or the people with quite the clout to make those choices and be the visible representations of that.
BB: So now that, as you say, the industry has shifted or is maybe starting to shift, and you’re talking about clout and things like that, do you as a director feel any responsibility or obligation to give actors with disabilities now the opportunities that you didn’t have? Do you feel that there is an onus on you to specifically promote either stories or performers with disabilities?
EC: Yes, but honestly in a broader sense, my perspective that I’ve had in my directing voice and the specific uniqueness of how I look at production and that kind of thing, I want to tell underrepresented stories, and certainly that can fall in categories of Disability, but it also feels to me a lot broader than that. And I think that it’s an interesting thing because there was a stretch of time when I first got to New York and the first couple of years, you’re trying to find your community, you’re trying to find the collaborators that are going to be the people that think similar to the way you do or have different kind of interest in certain styles of theater or different kinds of approaches to building work, and for a number of years I was specifically and consciously not pursuing or exploring opportunities that had anything to do with Disability. To a degree it’s the kind of thing that’s like, so I did choose directing. I do recognize my artistic voice and my greatest talent or understanding is as a director from that perspective, and so it should be obvious. I can direct a play that has nothing to do with Disability. I can direct some of these incredible stories that you say are starting to find their way on stage that do reflect on that kind of inclusion and variety of stories.
BB: I mean I understand the desire to not feel like you are pigeon-holed as the Disabled director who does Disabled theater right and tells Disabled stories because we want to be called upon or thought of as a director who is versatile, who can tell different stories of different genres. I understand that.
EC: But we also want to get work.
BB: Yes. We also want work. For me, I do feel a bit of an obligation to, well I don’t know if I feel an obligation to, but I specifically find joy in offering those opportunities, so if I can find the story, if I can find something that allows me to do that, I will pursue that as hard as I can, but I don’t necessarily feel obligated to I guess. I think the... I’ve been discovering that I think I can create more opportunity in those areas as an administrator than I can as a director.
EC: Oh interesting.
BB: I’m working at a theater in Chicago as their access coordinator, and part of that not only is providing access services to patrons, but also we are creating opportunities for artists as well. We’re offering classes and we got some scholarships underwritten by donors to provide free tuition to those classes for artists with disabilities, creating commissions for a new play by a writer with a disability for a Disabled protagonist in the story, so there are things like that that I’m finding, that I’m hoping are better at planting the seeds for the future than just finding one opportunity in one play for one artist to hopefully encourage the -- it sounds so cliche but -- encourage the next generation to give those people the tools and then on the flip side, giving them something to see on stage that says, "Yes I am part of this conversation." I guess now that I’m thinking out loud, it’s kind of two handed: one you have got to have something on stage for people to feel included and then you have to give them the tools to be able to get to that point.
EC: I say, our responsibility is to do the job of a director which is to acknowledge the points and the parts and the perspective of the story you are trying to tell. And if the story, if the perspective on say Hamlet, is the physicality or sensory experience of this prince of Denmark, is important to how I’m telling that story, then you find the ways to acknowledge it and shape it. But on the other hand, I would hope that it, there are limits in that you find where is the limit of handholding or making an experience of seeing a particular body on stage palatable, understandable rather than the element of the story that you’re trying to tell. Making a little bit of sense there?
BB: Hopefully, like you said, we’ll get to a point -- oh man, maybe even within our our lifetimes, Evan -- where it won’t be an issue.
EC: I would think that things are as you say, things are continuing to move in that direction. And not something we’ve talked about or acknowledged on this call so far, but I do wonder how a post pandemic theater world is going to be looking at some of these things and considering, you talk about the expense and figuring out logistics of a life in New York. You and I both have had experiences of working or pursuing work regionally, our restricted and restrained budgets over the next five, ten years, or the sad possibility that only the strongest and most cash on hand theaters at the moment are going to be able to produce in the near future, does that mean that things like -- I know things that we’ve both considered about the expense of putting us up in housing at a regional theater. Are some of those resources going to go on a backburner because of this new era we’re going to be living in?
BB: You’re certainly right. With the budgets scaled back, with people potentially being cautious about coming into a theater again, I think the extra costs, you’re absolutely right, the extra costs to find accessible housing for an out-of-town director, or find accessible rehearsal space for a director or a performer with a mobility disability may unfortunately be one of the first things to go. But at the same time, I could direct as many virtual productions from my home as I could.
EC: It’s such a double-edged sword isn’t it. It’s been such a strange moment. Sorry, go ahead Brian, I didn’t mean to interrupt there.
BB: No I think that first we’ve gotta figure out in general how theater is going to move forward. In the past few weeks I’ve watched a few virtual readings, and I don’t think that we’ve figured it out yet. How to make that format live and engaging.
EC: I agree.
BB: This isn’t a slight to them to the readings I saw because they are doing it for the first time right now. This is all new to everyone. But I think that doing virtual video conference theater requires a different kind of performing and a different kind of directing that we need to figure out. Because it doesn’t feel live. It doesn’t feel engaging. And part of that is because you don’t have a scene partner in front of you. The interaction is different. One of the readings I saw relied a lot on sexual tension, and both sexual tension and violent tension that they did not figure out how to create through a screen. So how do you find ways to...? Is it the case that “we’ve tried and tried and tried and we can’t figure it out?” We can’t figure out how to replicate that virtually, so we have to write different stores to match the format we’re using, or is there some sort of key that we’re able to unlock in this live/virtual format that will enable those kinds of moments to affect us in the same way as being live on stage? But I think as far as moving forward, I don’t know. I honestly don’t know how this is going to shape up. I mean, theaters are already announcing their seasons and they’re already having to reschedule their fall performances and push back. I honestly don’t know. How are you attacking the coming season as far as finding work? As far as making work, as far as working with theaters or self producing? What is your approach in this weird wacky, upside down backwards world we’re currently in?
EC: Yeah it’s really tough because as you say it almost requires of each of us as artists to see the future or at least guess at the future of how all of this is going to come back together, and none of us know what that is going to look like. I feel like I’m doing the only things that are in my control. I’m doing a lot of reading, and I’m doing a lot of writing. The reading is, I’m sure you have buckets and buckets of plays, either old plays or for me, so many new plays. A lot of my concentration and my joy in directing comes from developing new plays with writers. Those plays that people sent me a year and a half ago that we just didn’t get back together to discuss and therefore I didn’t read just getting at that and continuing to find collaborators that are in my world and are telling interesting stories and stories that I would really want to grab onto and use my voice to share. But to a degree, I also am finding all the specific and particular stories, some of which pop up into my head, so I’m really more exploring a thing that I can control which is a playwright side of me and putting things down on paper because that’s... the director works in space and works collaboratively and the playwright does eventually, but I’m kind of exploring the hills and valleys of what that means to have a voice on that side of things and also just trying to stay connected. Trying not to have this be the reason that an occasional collaborator of mine somebody that I’ve known for a decade is going to suddenly drift away from being in the circle of people I like to create work with or that I am talking to on a semi-regular basis. Trying to recognize the ways in which I don’t have to be one of these people that is creating a new set of programming online and doing it every single week. Giving permission to not be the one that has been the most productive in this period because to be honest, for a couple of weeks I both was believed by my doctor to have had the COVID virus, thankfully in a very, very mild symptom version compared to much of the horrible nature of what’s going on out there, but also just navigating life in a small New York apartment as a wheelchair user. I hope the very next step is that we continue to find some success in this field and continue to tell the stories that are both important to us and that offer some representation and some sense of the world as it is, and I think that it includes Disability, and I think that includes everything that we are going to be once the doors open again and people can to gather.
BB: Cheers, man.
EC: Cheers to you.