A Place of Exposure: Theatre, Disability, and The Apothetae
In Ancient Sparta, The Apothetae – which translates to “the place of exposure” – was a chasm into which deformed and disabled infants were thrown. For this ancient people, the idea was clear enough: on the stage of Spartan life, the disabled would not have a story to tell. Thousands of years later, the term resurfaced in the late John Belluso's RULES OF CHARITY, and now actor Gregg Mozgala – who appeared in the play in 2007 – has co-opted the Greek word as the name for his theatre company. This time, however, The Apothetae is determined to bring positive exposure to the disabled theatrical community. This May, after a convening co-hosted by The Apothetae & The Lark, this lucky Lark Apprentice had an opportunity to sit down with Mozgala & The Lark's Lloyd Suh and learn a little bit more about theatre, disability, and The Apothetae.
The Exploration & Illumination of the Disabled Experience
Founded in 2012, The Apothetae’s mission is straightforward and simple: to produce new plays and existing plays that explore and illuminate the "Disabled Experience". Mozgala, who has Cerebral Palsy, recognized a dearth of theatrical material that dealt with disability in a compelling and satisfactory way, and vowed to make a change. Immediately after forming the company, Mozgala commissioned four new plays to tackle this issue, including THE PENALTY by Clay McLeod Thompson, an adaptation of a 1920 Lon Chaney film, which was produced in Dixon Place in 2013. To date, Apothetae-commissioned plays have been read or performed at The Kennedy Center, Ensemble Studio Theatre, The Lark, The Public, Dixon Place, Ma-Yi, and with the Shakespeare Society. More recently, The Apothetae also commissioned playwright Mike Lew to write TEENAGE DICK, an adaptation of Shakespeares’ RICHARD III set in high school, which was presented this May as a part of the Rita Goldberg Playwrights’ Workshop Series.
However, while generating new works is certainly a step in the right direction, Mozgala recognized that a broader conversation was needed – both within the disabled community and without – in order to tackle the larger issue with disabled representation in theatre. And so, he approached The Lark’s Lloyd Suh. Suh recognized an opportunity for The Lark “to provide the space for individual artists and organizations to connect with each other towards a longer-term goal of creating a greater consciousness”, and so Mozgala’s proposal offered a natural fit. The two organized a convening – made possible thanks to a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's New York Theater Program administered by the New York Foundation for the Arts – which took place in The Lark’s BareBones Studio on May 14th.
This convening was an attempt to congregate stakeholders, and to provide a space for those stakeholders to talk about the issues regarding the current disabled experience in theatre. It was not framed as a summit during which major decisions would be made, but a foundational conversation that would hopefully provide the fodder for many more. Although only about fifteen people were initially expected to attend, when the day of the convening arrived more than forty artists, administrators, educators, and everyone in between had shown up from different pockets of the country to discuss disability and theatre. And discuss they did.
One issue that was fervently explored was the idea that disability should be included in conversations about diversity in theatre. “A lot of theatres talk about reflecting the world around them – disability has been a part of our world since humans were in it”, said Mozgala, “Disability is an incredibly integrated minority that crosses race, gender, ethnicity and status”. In this vein, one immediate goal of The Apothetae is to have disabled actors cast in disabled roles. Currently, there is a trope of able-bodied actors playing disabled roles –Bradley Cooper’s rendition of Joseph Merrick in the ELEPHANT MAN is just one recent example – and various attendees of the convening voiced concern over the fact that most major institutions simply aren’t making an effort to work with disabled artists.
Another topic to emerge during the convening revolved around the hesitancy of disabled artists to identify as such, which contributes to the community’s historic lack a collective voice in the theatrical world. “It’s tough to grapple with your difference and limitations. There’s a denial and a tension with identification both personally and professionally”, said Mozgala. “By doing that, you’re disavowing a huge part of where your strength and resiliency comes from.” By providing a voice, and attempting to create a united front, Gregg and The Apothetae hope to provide a community for disabled artists to work together to create positive change in the field.
One other major concern that was expressed during the convening dealt with the fact that disabled artists often times do not have access to the quality of training that able-bodied artists do. This isn’t to say that no opportunities exist – The Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Apprentice Program offers four scholarships for Apprentices with disabilities – however, by and large these types of opportunities in the field are few and far between. Said Mozgala, “In order to develop talent at a higher level we need to form relationships with institutions working at a higher level, or artists –actors, writers, etc. – who are emerging, established, or major players in the theatrical field. This needs the space to be developed and we are a risk-averse industry. The disabled community, in order to make this work on a consistent level, needs space to experiment.”
The Experimental Model
This idea of experimentation is something Mozgala believes is key to the development of a successful disabled theatre. “The experimental model is a good model for the disabled community – we don’t need to jump to Off-Broadway and Broadway. We can release ourselves from the pressure of having to be commercially viable, and figure out how to make good work over and over and over again.” And this is the ultimate goal – to make consistently good work. Mozgala wants disabled theatre artists to be respected as theatre artists. He talks passionately about a day when disabled actors are lambasted for missing marks, not praised for the courage to appear onstage.
So what’s next for The Apothetae? “We’re going to meet again”, said Suh, “Part of the conversation was talking about where the gaps in the conversation lay. What might a second convening look like? We’re currently strategizing about the best way to deepen the conversation and widen the net, and be really strategic about how to take the energy and urgency from everyone in that room and translate it into tangible next steps.” Beyond another meeting, The Apothetae is also seeking more visibility and exposure – “shining light into the dark places”, in the words of Mozgala. “People need to feel empowered and have agency that their voice in the field exists and can and will be heard. But it’s not going to be heard unless we make some noise.” And making noise is exactly what The Apothetae intends to do.