Friday, November 11, 2011

In Twin Cities, Center of the Margins festival at Mixed Blood Theatre spotlights people with disabilities

From The Twin Cities Daily Planet:

Mixed Blood continues its inaugural Radical Hospitality season with Center of the Margins festival, a trio of plays that are either about people with disabilities or feature actors with disabilities.

The festival, which runs November 11-27, includes the world premiere of Ken LaZebnik’s On the Spectrum, about autism, Gruesome Playground Injuries, a love story by Pulitzer-nominated playwright Rajiv Joseph featuring two deaf actresses, and My Secret Language of Wishes, by Cori Thomas.

As with all the shows at Mixed Blood this season, the festival offers free tickets on a first-come, first serve basis (by giving contact information online or at the door) or guaranteed tickets by paying $15 dollars in advance. (People with disabilities can make complimentary guaranteed reservations by calling the box office or emailing

Playwright Ken LaZebnik, who was commissioned by Mixed Blood to write On the Spectrum, says it is the third play he’s written about autism—he also wrote Theory of Mind and Vistibular Sense. The subject is a personal one for him, since he has four nieces and nephews who fall at various ranges “on the spectrum.”

Theory of Mind premiered at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, and was later produced and toured by Mixed Blood. It sparked an online discussion about autism as a civil rights issue, LaZebnik says, and about whether autism is a disability or difference. Mixed Blood’s artistic director Jack Reuler was very intrigued about the discussion, and about a year and a half ago asked LaZebnik to write a play using that issue as the starting point, according LaZebnik.

To develop On the Spectrum, LaZebnik tried to engage and hear the voices of the online community, in addition to drawing from his personal experience with his nieces and nephews.

In the play, a young man who has autism but is high-functioning develops a romance with a woman who is very much based on one of the women from the online forum: an activist whose stance is “this is my world, you deal with it. I’m different but this is who I am,” LaZebnik says.

Part of the play involves an online chat between the two characters, and it’s staged so that the two characters are going about their daily lives while their dialogue is projected as supertitles, according to LaZebnik.

LaZebnik hopes that his play isn’t didactic, but raises a question while being a human piece. It’s a romance between two characters, and “it should not be taken as a propaganda piece one way or another,” he says.

My Secret Language of Wishes by Cori Thomas has had four productions, but Thomas says the production at Mixed Blood “feels like it’s a premiere” because it’s the first time she’s been involved in the whole process.

Thomas got the idea for the play when she was walking through Times Square in New York. She observed two young women: an African-American and a white woman. The white woman was holding the black woman’s hand, and helping her walk. “She was quite disabled,” Thomas says of the African-American woman. “I was surprised to see them alone. There was something about them that I found compelling.” Thomas almost followed them, because she was curious about where they were going. “There was something unusual about a white woman taking care of a black woman,” Thomas says.

The play centers on a 17-year-old African American woman with cerebral palsy, and the custody battle over her between a young white woman, her caretaker, and an older, black woman who has money and is of the same race. Aside from her experience in Times Square, Thomas was also inspired by a custody battle she went through when she was going through a divorce, and her daughter was six. Thomas was an actress, and her husband argued that she couldn’t provide for the child because she didn’t have a stable job, so she gave up acting.

The script deals with the idea of parenthood issues of race, class, and disability, Thomas says. In most of her work, Thomas writes about people of different races and backgrounds. “I don’t write a play about all white people or all black people,” she says. “I break down certain walls.”

Finally, Aditi Kapil directs Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph, who was nominated for a Pulitzer for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Kapil says that the play wasn’t her first choice for the festival. In early talks about Center of the Margins, Kapil wanted to do a show with Alexandria Wailes and Nic Zapko, two deaf performers she believes are brilliant and don’t work enough. Her idea was to do a show entirely in ASL, and searched for the right two-woman play that would showcase them.

“I went on the hunt for two-woman scripts,” Kapil says, “but I couldn’t find the perfect fit. A lot of two-woman shows are mother-daughter plays.” That wouldn’t work, she says, because the actresses are near the same age.

Then she remembered Joseph’s play, which was originally written for a man and a woman, but somehow it seemed a perfect fit for the actresses’ energies as performers. “I felt casting two women really enhanced the themes of the play in amazing ways,” Kapil says. Basically, the play is about two people who are best friends but also in love, though it never works out, Kapil says.

She contacted the playwright, and told him that it would require three tiny script tweaks, and changing one character from Doug to Dag. “You’d think it would be a really difficulty to change one of the characters, but in the moment we are in right now, we had to do virtually no script changes.” Aside from changing one of the character names from “Doug” to “Dag,” they also removed a reference to male genitalia, removed a song, and changed one reference to a character being a boy, according to Kapil. Joseph was very supportive of the script changes, she says.

While there are a handful of deaf theaters that do work that cast deaf actors in plays about people who are not deaf, usually the productions imply that the characters played by deaf actors are not deaf. For instance, Deaf West’s production of Big River, about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, didn’t imply the two boys were deaf, they were just telling the story through deaf theater.

In Gruesome Playground Injuries, the deaf actresses don’t pretend to be hearing. “It’s rare what we are doing,” Kapil says. “We’re prioritizing the deaf experience of the play, which is virtually silent.” Apart from a harp score that plays between the scenes, the play doesn’t have any sound during the scenes.

When asked if casting deaf actresses in a play not written for deaf actresses is similar to the idea of color blind casting, Kapil says that is. “There are these amazing artists that just don’t work enough,” she says. “These are two of the best actresses I know. I want to work with them all the time. They just don’t work as much as they should. Theaters don’t know how to make use of them, because of lack of imagination…these amazing voices are absent from the cultural dialogue.”

Kapil hopes that more theaters would think more creatively about using deaf actors, including not just using them in plays that are about the deaf experience. “I don’t see why any time we see a deaf performer we just hear about their experiences being deaf,” she says.

Kapil likens it to her own experience as a multicultural writer. She’s not necessarily interested in telling the story of her identity all the time. “Any time I get offered a commission where I’m told 'we want you to write about your own experience,' that’s not enough of a hook…there’s a lot more complex stuff I have to say,” she says.