Exploring Disability Aesthetic Through Community
This post is the second in a blog series curated in collaboration with The Apothetae, entitled A Place of Exposure, which takes its name from the first ever 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 this 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 that 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, Artistic Director of The Apothetae Gregg Mozgala and inaugural Apothetae and Lark Playwriting Fellow Tim J. Lord got together for a Zoom call to reflect on Tim's time as our first Fellow, how the program connected him to the Disabled Community, and how those connections influenced his work. Read their conversation below, and be sure to check out Gregg's introduction post from last month as well!
GREGG MOZGALA: As the inaugural Apothetae and Lark Playwriting Fellow, can you talk a little about your experience with the community aspect of the residency? The connections made at The Lark, and what impact that had?
TIM J. LORD: So, I was at that first convening in 2015, and it was one of the first times I had actually ever been, I think, in a room with that many Disabled people, let alone disabled theater makers. And it was so, I don’t know, it was so exciting. So often, that community has been siloed off into doing their own thing in their own way, you just don’t really think about who might be out there if you’re not in those companies, if you’re not already part of that community, you’re not seeing all those people on a regular basis. So it was instantly this amazing moment to recognize that I was part of something bigger.
Because, as a person with a disability, you often feel like on your own. I always thought of myself as alone among people who have two functional hands. And then at that very first convening I met David Harrel, who has the same congenital amputation that I have, but it’s on his opposite hand. So, together we make a functioning pair. *Laughter* That was cool. Like, hey, we’re teammates.
I also realized I had often distanced myself from the Disability community because I thought, well I’m not that disabled and so I shouldn’t be taking anything from anyone else. And I worried, will people accept me? But then the second I showed up for that convening in 2017, right after you’d announced the Fellowship, I just felt so welcomed, and that it was not an issue at all. People were just like, you are here, we are so excited for you, and we’re so excited for the work you’re gonna do, and thank you, thank you for being one of us and for—I don’t know—taking on this thing. It felt like a responsibility. Maybe not quite like, say, Frodo taking the ring to Mordor but. *Laughter* —Sorry, I’m rereading Lord of the Rings right now.
But, I’ve realized, looking at the plays I’ve been working on since getting the Fellowship, and looking at the plays I was writing before that, I feel like there has been something about my existence as a person with a disability that has always been there in my plays. Even if I wasn’t writing characters who specifically had some sort of identifiable disability, a lot of my characters are these outsiders who are trying to get by in a world that is “normal.” And they’re always coming at things sideways. And I feel like that is very much what my experience as a Disabled person has been. It’s been there in my writing all along.
GM: I don't think you're alone in that tension and that negotiation with your own identity. Do you feel like this Fellowship allowed you to investigate your identity as a Disabled individual and a writer in a new way?
TJL: It’s given me a focus and it’s given me a very specific mission. Before, my idea behind writing was, “Oh, I feel like I have an interesting story to tell!” You know? Like so many people. But there’s something about connecting with this specific part of my identity, and with discovering this community around it, that’s actually given me more of a mission to, I don’t know, to be thoughtful about these things? And to create stories and characters that are more tied in to this identity. In fact, I look at Mellie, who’s the main character in On Every Link a Heart Does Dangle—
GM: Which is the play that you ended up writing for the Fellowship.
TJL: Yes, and I wrote that character specifically to have a disability that limited her mobility. Jessy Yates got to play the part for me at the Kennedy Center a couple summers ago, and Madison Ferris did it with us at The Lark. And, when it comes to my central characters, I have always struggled to make them both active and really interesting. I feel like other writers have this problem too, you know: Your secondary characters are the funny, quirky ones so, they’re easy to write; but then the central characters are like, ‘Ah I don’t know… they just gotta do things. It’s boring.’ But with Mellie, I was just… I adore her. And there was something about writing this specific character with this specific physical disability, and working with these two specific women, that… Mellie is one of my all time favorite central characters. I understood her and I loved writing her scenes and I was able to make her active—to allow her to drive the story, while keeping her a really fascinating individual.
GM: Can you talk a little bit about the story of Every Link? The inspiration for that and the arc of the trilogy?
TJL: On Every Link basically started as a desire to create an adaptation of Oedipus. And when I first sat down to do that I thought, oh this’ll be really simple because I know Oedipus so well and I can quickly reset it into my world, which is a contemporary Southern Illinois. But when I sat down to write it, I quickly realized that Oedipus has been adapted so many times that to tackle it in a traditional way was uninteresting to me. I actually wrote a few scenes where Ode was a character in the play – in my world the Oedipus character is named Ode. And I looked at those and I thought, “This guy is not interesting to me. I don’t have anything to add to this story of this guy.”
Meanwhile, I had also been writing Mellie and scenes between her and her sister. So, I started thinking, “What would this play be like if she was the main character?” And then I thought, “What if I just push Ode offstage completely and he, just, never appears in the play?” And that’s what I did and so, in the play, he’s this leader who is completely absent in a time of massive crisis, and it’s up to this young woman with this disability to go on this journey and figure out how to save her town. So that’s how the creation of Every Link began.
I first created the world of Every Link with another play I wrote a number of years back called Down in the Face of God. That play began as an adaptation of The Bacchae. As I was doing research on The Bacchae that’s when I first discovered there was actually a Thebes, Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi. So, I created this vision of this American town with a polytheistic religion I created this whole history of the town, a whole mythology and origin story of how the town was created by the gods, and there’s all sorts of religious rites and prayers and prophecies. And as I was working on that play, I thought, “I have created a whole world here and I wanna live in it! I wanna do more with it.”
So I quickly realized I wanted to do a big three generational thing, with Down in the Face of God as number three chronologically. The middle play is On Every Link a Heart Does Dangle; or Owed, and Mellie is the mother of the central character in Down in the Face of God. So that leaves me with one play left to write which is, I think it’s gonna be called, I Never Cared for You; or, Lies. And that will center on Ode’s father.
GM: It’s so fascinating how things are cyclical, and that these stories endure. We’re having this conversation because we were together at Round House Theatre recently but had to separate because of the plague.
TJL: I had a thought about “plague” yesterday because people have been saying, “I can’t wait to see what stories come out of our current plague.” And I was like, “I already wrote this story! oh my god I already wrote this play!” I didn’t realize it, it was weirdly prescient.
GM: What really interests me about your work and these plays in particular, is centering Disability in a new way, where Disability was always present. Oedipus is one of the most famous Disabled characters in literature. It’s not just his eventual blindness. As a child, he was left on a mountainside with his ankles pinned. He bared the scars from that his entire life. His name literally translates to “swollen foot” and some say it’s the knowledge gained from that experience that allowed him to answer the riddle of the sphinx. I think a lot about how community doesn't just happen. It takes work. One way we can manifest community is to write plays. To tell our stories.
TJL: And, because of the exposure that came with the Fellowship, one of the things that’s happened, that I was just not prepared for, is all the people from the community who have reached out to me in various ways just to say, hey, I’m so excited about this, how’s it going, I can’t wait to see what you do , can you tell me more about this particular Fellowship. It’s not something I was really prepared for, but it has been one of the more exciting, rewarding moments. Because the Fellowship has been a way to help foster that community we’ve been lacking. Or, I think of Ali Stroker winning the Tony last year and how exciting and empowering that was. And how it also raised important questions like, ‘Why did she have to be backstage’. So the conversation goes on, but it’s great that there are more touchstones available for people from the disability community to help us say, I can do this.
GM: Also, I can bring my full humanity and experience to my work.
TJL: What’s the phrase that you use? It’s all about using our disability as part of the art—
GM: Disability aesthetic?
TJL: Yes! A Disability aesthetic, like actually including that as a means of imagining different ways to do what we’re doing, to create things that are interesting and exciting for anybody, even though it’s based on a very specific experience of Disability.
GM: Yea. Hearing you talk earlier about making that link between how your experience having a limb difference affected your work but not putting it together until you had to name it, I think that is a perfect example of Disability Aesthetic. And Madison Ferris, who was in Every Link and also on Broadway in Sam Gold’s revival of The Glass Menagerie, I remember the first time she moved in that play almost bringing me to tears. I had never seen anyone, ever, move on stage like that before. It was so different yet so human at the same time. And that’s what’s so fucking cool about theater as an art form as it relates to Disability. Because, we’re used to attention, usually negative or adversarial attention. But you put a frame around something, and automatically something gets spectacularized.
TJL: Right, because so often, even with my particular disability, when I meet people and they recognize that I have this left hand that kind of looks like a foot, the first thing they want to do is not look at it. Little kids of course don’t have that problem, they’re like oh my god what is wrong with that guy’s hand, they want to talk about it. And usually the parents are like no no no don’t do that, that’s not nice. And I always try to say, , ”No, let’s talk about this, let’s accept this”. So I’ll introduce my hand to the kid and talk about the various quirks that come along with it. And the kid’s like, “oh that’s cool” and then they’re fine, they’re good with it. And I feel like that’s one of the transformative things that theater can do. Because you’re asking someone to look at this person — you are expected to look at that person and all of their differences. And there is an opportunity there to create these moments where people are just accepting of the difference and not feeling like they can’t talk about it or that they can’t acknowledge it.
GM: Our bodies — in both our cases we have visible, physical disabilities — create such anxiety in people. And we have been conditioned to take care of people in that regard, to try and dismiss it, disassociate from it. But theater is only truly successful when you bring a full, human experience to the stage. And we’re asking people (audiences), we’re saying look at me for two hours.
TJL: Or three if it’s my play.
GM: And why shy away from that? Why not lean into that anxiety or be the thing that people fear? Why not show them that, and like, really disrupt the form, because we are, ourselves, forms disrupted.
TJM: Oh I like that.
GM: Yea! Which, again, is totally normal. Natural. You could say nature never makes a mistake. So why, if it is natural human variance, shouldn’t our stages be a container? You know, “can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?” It can certainly hold a body with physical or neuro differences. I really think it’s a failure of imagination.
TJL: God, you know, this just – I had almost completely forgotten about this until now, probably because we’re talking about disability and you just quoted Shakespeare – but I just remembered this: I had a class in high school, where the teacher brought in an actor who had, I believe, CP, it affected his ability to talk and he had a harder time controlling his limbs. And he performed several of the major soliloquies from Hamlet. And it was so… at first I had this moment of like, is this okay? Like is this guy, should I be watching this? Like even I, I’m having this experience too, right? But then, I let it go, and just got swept away by his performance—it was so visceral, just stunning stuff, and now, of course, I’m thinking: Who was that guy?
Like is he still around? Is he still acting? I wanna get him on stage!
GM: That’s really cool. And again, seeing it, the full spectrum of humanity. Just show us integrated in family groups, in relationships, in the daily struggle for our lives. Our lack of representation in the fictional world is a kind of social annihilation.
TJL: I’ve heard that argued, you know it’s like, ‘there’s nothing in the text of Hamlet that says Hamlet has a disability.’ And my response is , ‘yea but most days of my life I don’t go around talking about my disability.’
TJL: Right? Like I don’t just walk up to a stranger on the street and say, ‘Hi! Look at my left hand!’ You know? I’m sure it’s the same with you, right? You don’t talk about it, you just live with it. And especially when you’re seeing a play, it’s not a complete record of that person’s life, you’re seeing an edited version. You’re seeing a day or a few moments from that person’s life. So, it seems entirely possible to me that you could cast any play with an actor with a disability, where it’s not specifically required for them to be Disabled — where it’s not a play like Cost of Living which requires you to cast two actors with disabilities. So like, why the hell not.
GM: So, this is the question that was coming up in the rehearsal room at Round House, the definition of a “Disability Play.” I don’t know what that means. I don’t even know how to define that. And I was just curious, if you thought Every Link is a Disability Play merely because it contains a Disabled actor? How would you define that? Or do we even need to?
TJL: It was funny because, when I first got the Fellowship, I sat down and I was talking with you and Lloyd [Lark Director of Artistic Programs], sketching out an idea of what these two years might look like, and about a couple of plays that were on my mind. I had this thought that I had to write some sort of Disability Play, like I had to step up and become the next John Belluso. But, I remember pitching you guys on my early thinkings of what Every Link would be, and you both quickly just dialed in and said, ‘That one! Write that one!’ And I was like, okay but it’s not gonna be a “Disability Play.” It’s not gonna be Oedipus just with a pronounced disability or whatever. It’s gonna be my version which is this big, fantastic and epic journey play.
GM: What was your perception of a Disability Play before this experience?
TJL: I think my perception of what that meant was that it was more of an issue-based play. — the kind of play where there’s a thing that is in the news, or a broader cultural conversation that is being dealt with, and the characters are figuring out how to navigate through that thing. And a lot of those plays, I don’t particularly care for them. And I definitely don’t write those kinds of plays. My plays usually involve a bit of magical realism, and the language is more on the poetic end—it isn’t quite the world that we live in. And so I did have this concern that I was not going to be doing the right thing. But now, as I ask… is there such thing as a “Disability Play?” I don’t know that there is. There are some people who would say, well, it has to be about those traditional stories, I’m quoting you again here, what is it like the, the Disability story has to be about overcoming obstacles or dying with dignity.
GM: Right, being a font of inspiration.
TJL: Being a font of inspiration, like that… if that’s a Disability play then fuck it I do not want to write that play. I would much rather just write what I write and fold my particular disability experience into those plays.
GM: Can you talk about what the year of being solely a writer allowed you to do?
TJL: It was this incredible thing. And I had the great fortune of landing two fellowships at the same time. I had gotten a Jerome Fellowship with the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, and I’d been living there maybe a month when you called to tell me I’d gotten the Apothetae Fellowship, and… like, the Jerome Fellowship is a good amount of money but it was not going to be enough to live on, and then suddenly The Apothetae Fellowship arrived and I looked at my finances for the coming year and I realized, I can just be a writer for this year. I can just focus on writing. And that is just so invaluable.
I knew that in theory, but I didn’t understand it in practice until I was actually in it. Which is to say that when you’ve got your day job, for me anyways, I could maybe look at the calendar and say, I’m working non-stop for these coming couple weeks, and then I’ve got these two days to write. And then I would get to those two days and maybe I would have a bad day. And then it’s another week or two before you’re writing again. I could never get momentum going. Even if you have a good day, you write and then you stop. Whereas, when I had the Apothetae Fellowship, no matter what kind of day I had, when I start again the next day I’m not starting from zero. So you can have a bad day and it’s like, cool, I’m just gonna scrap this day. I’m gonna go for a bike ride and I’ll start again tomorrow. I was able to practice my craft in a consistent way, because I wasn’t worried about where the money was coming from.
In addition to that, the support that comes from a place like The Lark, I felt like a rockstar. You know, when I walk in there people are like, “oh my god, welcome back, we’re so glad to see you.” It’s just, that kind of, knowing you have that kind of support system in place, it just makes it easier to do what you do, because you know that people care. That’s the hardest part, when you’re on your own writing a play and you’re not getting any response from the world, you’re just like, “Nobody cares. I could just stop writing tomorrow and nobody would ever know or care. They wouldn’t ask what happened to me.” But I don’t feel that way when I have a community like The Lark behind me.
GM: And by my count you worked on at least four plays during your Fellowship . You wrote an entirely new play, Every Link, and then were further developing existing plays. Also, you have a play that is going to be produced at Round House which has nothing to do with Disability at all, We Declare You a Terrorist, which was part of The Lark’s Project on Tyranny during your Fellowship year.
TJL: I was able to do a lot, yeah. So with We Declare You a Terrorist, I wrote the first draft back when George W. Bush was president, and it was basically in cold storage, but it was on my mind because I feel like it is speaking to our political and cultural moment again. So when I first met Ryan Rilette [Producing Artistic Director, Round House Theatre] and he said, “Send me some plays,” I sent him We Declare You a Terrorist. And so, this past fall I sat down with him and his artistic team, and they said, hey we really like this play, we feel like it could use some more work, I said I agree. And then he said, can I give you some money to rewrite it? Which was perfect because the Fellowship had just ended a month or two prior, so it was like oh good! More money to keep me writing.
And I was able to do this – and I’m not just saying this – but because of those two years with the fellowship, I was able to spend so much time focusing on my craft, and that made it possible for me to pick up this play that was, at that point, ten years old, and just drop right back into it. And very quickly break it down in terms of what needed to be done to make this a tighter, funnier, and just all around better play. And then, a few months later I got the word that they were going to produce it in their 2021 season.
GM: Nice. That’s amazing, man. That’s so awesome, congratulations.
TJL: Thank you.
GM: So, we just launched the second round of this Fellowship which is super exciting. We’re keeping the conversation going, keeping that sense of community growing, and so, I guess I’d be curious to know, what is something you would like to impart to the next Fellow?
TJL: A. Write what you want to write. *Laughter* I was thinking about this in terms of the work I’ve done with the 52nd Street Project. When they bring on writers to write plays for the kids to perform in, they say very specifically to us, “Don’t write a play for kids. Write a play that you would just write.” And I think this is similar to our discussion of a Disability play. I think you should write the play that you want to write. You have been chosen for this, not for some theoretical play that people want in the world. You have been chosen for this because of the work that you have submitted, and for the writer that you are, not the writer that the world wants you to be.
And then also, as much as possible, just find a way to put yourself in that position where you can focus on the writing as much as possible. When I got the fellowship I definitely had this thought where I realized, it’s a great amount of money but still, it would have been hard to be in New York and still write full time with only the fellowship to support me. So if you can – this is maybe not the best advice. *Laughter* Leave New York! Maybe don’t publish this. *Laughter*
GM: No, I think what you’re saying is valuable! It is a national program, the only one of its kind. New York is a cultural center but it’s not the center of the universe. There’s good theater happening everywhere, there are dedicated people in the cultural sector everywhere. So, can you talk more about that?
TJL: I lived in New York for 11 years and there’s a lot that I love about it. But I do often wonder about the stranglehold it has on the kind of theater that gets made nationally. Especially in, and I don’t mean necessarily now in this crisis moment, but especially in these days where, I want to see more stories from other places. What are the stories that are happening elsewhere, the different communities, the different ways those communities express themselves? I would love to see New York importing more stories than it is exporting because, if you were just seeing theater in New York you might feel like, only this kind of play is getting done. Whereas, I feel like there’s so much more variety out there. I lived in New York for 11 years and I have still never written a play set in New York City. All my plays are still, I’m from the Midwest, and almost all my plays are set in the Midwest. And I think that’s something, when we’re thinking about ways of expanding conversation, I think that’s important.
GM: I think that’s right on. I hadn’t thought about that but I think you’re absolutely right. It’s a big country with a multiplicity of voices.
TJL: Maybe this is me being overly optimistic but, I feel like the thing that makes theater, theater, is the fact that it is about dialogue, that’s the primary mode of the play, and if you’re seeing that play you’re seeing actually human beings on a stage, speaking to one another, and you as the audience are the third person in the conversation. I feel like there’s something about that that actually teaches empathy. Maybe not teaches it —it models empathy though. If we can create moments where we can exist together in real dialogue then it’s, I don’t know… My hope is that stage dialogue allows moments for real dialogue in the world beyond.
GM: You’re so smart Tim Lord!
TJL: Oh please.