Friday, June 19, 2009

Anti-type casting

I see a lot of theater - or more than most people in this country do. I try to see at least one or two plays a month. (Usually, I go to very little theaters, which I think are the best and of which there are dozens in the Los Angeles area - a real gift.) I’m also very interested in how disabled people are dealt with in plays and in the theater.
In the first half of this year, I got the treat of being able to indulge both of these interests in a most intriguing way. I saw two productions which were fascinating mirror reflections of each other.
The first play, which I saw in January, was Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, in which three of the four characters were portrayed by disabled actors (including Ann Stocking, who I have worked with and who, all the more with her short stature, was a ferocious Martha). Albee did not write disabled characters and probably did not have disabled actors in mind, but this Blue Zone production in North Hollywood did more than prove the new company’s mission statement point - that disabled actors should be seen and treated in the same way as non-disabled actors. I would argue that the disabled actors made the play better, in that the disabilities echoed the insular and confined world that the play depicts. (I had seen a production several years ago with able-bodied actors, as well as, of course, the movie.)
Then, in early April, I went to the University of Redlands to see the theater department’s production of Mike Ervin’s The History of Bowling, directed by Victoria Ann Lewis, with whom I have also worked. Ervin’s play is a hilarious, almost absurdist examination of disability and features two disabled characters, but this production featured all able-bodied actors. Ms. Lewis was frustrated that there were no disabled students available, but I found that not only did the play still pack its powerful wallop; the actors playing the disabled characters were notably more effective in their roles.
There are those who fervently argue that only disabled actors should play disabled characters, but, after seeing these two productions, I’m not so sure. Even more fascinating is that Blue Zone’s first production, last year, was The History of Bowling, which I saw and which, of course, featured disabled actors playing the disabled characters. The kicker is that, as good as this production was, Woolf was even more effective and powerful.
After all, what does it mean "to act?"

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