Identity Theater Company is a group of differently-abled artists devoted to exploring and challenging issues of the human condition. We strive to present work that cultivates understanding, promotes tolerance, and engages its participants in meaningful discussions.
Why can’t we all play together? by Nicholas Linnehan
Let’s face it; working in theater is hard, if not almost impossible at times. But to an actor with a disability, the odds are even more stacked against you. A disabled actor often finds himself being considered for a very small number of roles. Unfortunately, many directors don’t want to take a risk by hiring an actor who is more different than the rest. How do I know this? Well I’m a disabled artist trying to break stereotypes.
Theater was, and probably will always be, my greatest passion in life. It offers a kind of creative freedom that is very liberating, especially when you have physical limitations. I never quite understood the notion of type casting because playing and creating a character is rooted in pretending so why can’t we pretend that a character has a disability as part of them? I’ve been told things like, “unless we do Of Mice and Men, you don’t stand a chance! (I was told this by a professor, which after I left the school). Then they charged me with hiding my disability and to try to appear “normal”. I tried this for three long years and right when I was going to give up, something told me that this is ridiculous, I can’t hide my disability just like someone can’t hide their natural hair color. Then I transferred to another school, which said, “Wow, you’re disabled? That’s great!” You can imagine my surprise that my seeming obstacle was now seen in a new light. My teachers started showing me how to bring all of myself into a role. I will never forget, getting cast as the Gander in Charlotte’s Web and being convinced that I couldn’t speak because The Gander spoke in threes (yes,yes,yes!) One rehearsal my director asked me “What’s holding you back? Timidly, I announced my fear of being unintelligible due to my disability. He very frankly told me without hesitation, “I don’t see why the Gander can’t have Cerebral Palsy. I was floored. That was the moment of my rebirth into theater and I have never looked back.
Yet, the theater community is not always so open to this idea. It’s like in order to pretend to be something you’re not; you have to first be the character as yourself. I never got this oxymoron; I have to be real to pretend?! Luckily, I have had some very good mentors along the way, Krista Smith and Stephanie Barton-Farcas, showed me how to be a competent disabled actor. With their tutelage I started landing roles. Yet, something was missing. It dawned on me that my mentors represent only two directors with companies out of many. I was still meeting directors who are still closed off about working with disabled actors. Along my journey, I got to meet and work with great talented actors who have disabilities. After seeing how their skills and talent were dismissed so quickly, I knew something had to be done.
In March 2011, I founded Identity Theater Company after being inspired by Nicu’s Spoon. One may look at this as a competition or a slap in the face, but it’s not. It’s simply a way to open another avenue for differently-abled actors. We need change and to open up our minds and hearts to differently-abled artists. I hope my company will be another beacon of light and hope that the theater community can embrace us all. Personally, I’ve never gotten a satisfactory question to this; “why can’t Blanche Dubois be blind or in a wheelchair?” No one can tell me, but almost everyone sees this choice as blasphemy and downright wrong. I think it would be fascinating to see this new interpretation done. I’ll never forget seeing Buried Child by Nicu Spoon Theater, who cast a deaf actor to play Tilden and he spoke on stage. Although hard to understand at times, this actor broke down barriers and delivered one of the best theatrical performances that I have ever seen. It was riveting, inspiring, and unforgettable. Many people say I’m too liberal, but I hope that I am just pushing boundaries and opening doors. If art does truly imitate life, shouldn’t we let our art embody acceptance, respect, and tolerance? So I ask you this, “Why can’t we all play together?”