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A Place of Exposure: Introduction

Equity in the Arts
Gregg Mozgala sits between two traffic cones, each holding up a sign that reads "Special Needs Parking"

This piece, by The Apothetae Artistic Director Gregg Mozgala, is the first in our new blog series, A Place of Exposure. The title of this series gets its name from the first ever article written about The Apothetae and Lark collaboration following the first Apothetae and Lark national convening, to discuss issues at the nexus of Disability & Theatre in 2015. ​"Apothetae" is an Ancient Spartan term  which referred to a chasm into which deformed and disabled infants who didn’t adhere to the Spartan worldview were thrown. It roughly translates to “the place of exposure,” and is  referenced in John Belluso's play The Rules of Charity. As this series is dedicated to uplifting the work of people who have supported plays that create new or re-appropriate existing Disabled narratives, we find it fitting.

The Apothetae and The Lark have curated this series to celebrate the opening of the 2020 round of our Playwriting Fellowship for a Deaf/Disabled writer, the centerpiece of a broad Apothetae and Lark Initiative, designed to provide a significant platform of support for Deaf/Disabled Artists, and to address the profound underrepresentation and oppressive misrepresentation of people with disabilities that persists throughout our cultural media. The Fellowship is a critical component in The Lark’s acclaimed portfolio of fellowships, designed to engage a diverse community of extraordinary playwrights—at various places in their careers—who represent, collectively, a contemporary national vision. We believe that targeted support to playwrights from underrepresented backgrounds is essential to a culture of equity, access, and inclusion, and a national theater that represents the vibrancy of our collective cultural voices.

We are thrilled to be opening applications again this year for The Apothetae and Lark Playwriting Fellowship, especially as 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This fellowship, the only one of its kind, is dedicated to uplifting the multiplicity of voices and experiences of Deaf/Disabled communities.

I have always had a great affinity for the monsters and the freaks. Most likely because for so long I felt like one. Ok, I still do. I was recently watching the SHOWTIME series, Penny Dreadful. Frankenstein's Monster is a main character, and in the third episode of the first season, another character says to the monster:

"Luckily, there is a place where the malformed find grace. Where the hideous can be beautiful. Where strangeness is not shunned, but celebrated. This place is the Theatre."

I believe Theater offers one of the greatest venues for perceptions about Disability to change. Among other things, it provides visibility, creates community, and serves as a place of inclusion and a forum for ideas.

Equality is not a given, however. It is a work in progress. I think the work being created with equity, inclusion, and multiculturalism in mind, is the most exciting and daring happening today. I want to add to that work and conversation.

Through the launch of this series, the 2020 Fellowship, and our Apothetae and Lark Initiative, we aim to show that the Disabled Community, and the experiences of these communities, are incredibly varied and complex. I believe the very things that make Disability hard to codify and define are the same things that makes it inherently dramatic in nature. And what could be more worthy of active exploration than who and what we are?  

I am the third of four children raised by a first-generation Italian mother with strong Catholic beliefs and a father who spent twenty plus years in the United States Navy. I was born with a disability, and yet, for decades I have been conditioned to adopt a mantra of:

“My Disability does not define me.”

I take issue with this statement because, honestly, how could it not? At the same time, Disability does not consume my life. Most of our lives are taken up with love, and loss, and work, and sex, and family and the day to day struggle for our lives — just like anyone else.

We are an incredibly rich and diverse community with many stories to tell.

So why aren’t we telling them?

Currently, I can think of three pervasive, entrenched narratives when it comes to stories about the “Disabled Experience:”

Overcoming Adversity
Being An Inspiration/Inspirational
Death with Dignity

One of the most common refrains I hear from the Disability Community in relation to our lack of visibility in the cultural mainstream is based on recent statistics and something along the lines of: "Did you know that people with disabilities make up 20% of the population but only 12% of characters on TV? And that 80% of those characters are played by able-bodied actors?" Take for instance this article that appeared in the LA Times, which quotes statistics gathered by the Ruderman Studio-Wide Roundtable on Disability in Beverly Hills in 2016. The headline read: 
“Disabled Actors And Advocates Plead To Hollywood: 'Give Us A Chance, Please!'"

While there are people and organizations across the country dedicated to this work and progress has been made over recent years where we are seeing the inclusion of disabled actors in projects and productions that feature disabled characters, etc., the progress is not happening fast enough. Why should we continue to wait for people to “give us a chance” when we could and should be taking on the responsibility of creating those opportunities for ourselves? It is not the Hollywood studios or the Television networks’ or the various streaming platforms’ job to make the work for us. To date they haven’t. Which leads me to believe that they won’t. At the end of the day, we need to write the plays. We need to generate the material, so that we can be cast in the material. Advocate for the production of the material so we can be represented, truthfully, on our stages. But in order to do that, we first need the content. We need to organize, develop the talent that is within our community, and write the plays.

It is my firm belief that the creation of new works and the re-appropriation of existing works would help frame our experience in a historical context while simultaneously creating new mythologies. It would perhaps, finally allow us to take ownership of our personal and collective identity.

I’ve never known of a problem that was ever solved by merely complaining about it. Believe me, I’ve tried. And to quote
a character of John Patrick Shanley’s: “You’ve got to be brave for yourself in this world, because nobody else is going to do it for you and nobody else cares.”

In so many aspects of our culture and society, whether it be the Theatre, mass media, politics or public health, I am constantly reminded, by action or lack of action, that the great majority [sic Nobody] seems to care about or even consider Disability. It is a bitter pill. I can't get used to the taste, or having to constantly remind myself that, Nobody is going to care until we make them care. Until we, as a community, show them how. This is the work.

Shakespeare once said: “If it ain’t on the pageth, It ain’t on the stageth.”

We talk a lot about lack of representation and opportunity. I know what the problems are. We all 
know what the problems are. What I still am not hearing are solutions. It’s obvious to me that we have work to do. The difficult work of actually engaging members of disparate communities, engaging decision makers at larger institutions and organizations to have serious discussions about content generation, about training and professional development for actors, writers, technicians, stage managers, dramaturgs, and administrators from within our communities.

Scholarship. Advocacy. Activism. These are absolutely necessary, but my vocation is the Theatre. I am an actor who has become an artistic director out of necessity. I am trying to be a leader. Most days I don’t know what I’m doing. I do know that true leaders don’t make followers, they make other leaders. I have said a lot over the years through my work and my art, but I don't want to speak for my community. I want to inspire others, the next generation and the generation after that, to speak for themselves.   

This series, the Initiative, and the Fellowship are a place to start. To continue to find community through artistic practice, because I know that The 'Disability Community' is a series of communities, with a series of histories and a series of stories - just beginning to be told.

More from this series: