BWW Interviews: John Wooten & Cast of HANDICAPPED PEOPLE IN THEIR FORMAL ATTIRE at Premiere Stages
As Producing Artistic Director of Premiere Stages, John Wooten has stayed true to his commitment to support emerging playwrights by bringing new works to the audiences at Kean University. Staged readings can eventually become fully produced shows for Play Festival winners such as Kathryn Grant, the author behind HANDICAPPED PEOPLE IN THEIR FORMAL ATTIRE.
About the play: Set in 1968, Premiere Stages 2012 Play Festival winner takes place at a black tie fundraiser for people with disabilities. The evening's honoree is Agnes Sheehan, a woman with cerebral palsy, who is escorted by her non-disabled sister, Theresa. The siblings make the most of the celebration until unforeseen events force them to examine how fragile the bond is between them. Infused with humor, this moving story explores the true meaning of sacrifice.
In the middle of a busy rehearsal period, the director and cast took time to answer a few questions for BWW.
What made Premiere Stages choose this piece when it was in the play festival?
John Wooten: The play fits the mission of the Festival. Like previous Festival winners, the play addresses important issues that challenge an audience to think about what affects and shapes us as a culture. I am intrigued by characters who refuse to yield to labels and limitations, those who have the courage to make a difference. Kathryn's work resonates with our audience. We produced her play The Good Counselor in 2010 which played to full houses and critical acclaim. The reading of the play in March was extremely well received.
The Play Festival and new play development is the heart of Premiere Stages. I am exceptionally proud of our writers. The past three plays produced through the Play Festival process have all been honored by the American Theatre Critics Association, including Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods, which just won the Primus Prize.
There are both actors with and without disabilities in the cast. Was there a conscience decision to use actors with disabilities in the show prior to auditions?
John Wooten: I was really hoping to and am pleased that we have actors with disabilities in the cast who I think serve the piece and Kathryn's message exceptionally well.
Lori Hammel (Theresa) you have worked on Broadway (Mamma Mia) National Tours, Regional Theatre and television. Has working on this particular show caused you to look at disabilities in a different way?
Lori Hammel: I definitely feel like I have learned a lot by being in the cast and getting a different point of view on what it is to be an actor with a disability. As actors, we all have roles that we would like to be seen for by the casting community. I feel as though I have a sense of how actors with disabilities have an even harder time in having casting look beyond what may seem like an easy way to be typecast. I have a lot of respect for the actors in our show who are finding ways to be seen from different points of view on what they can bring to productions.
How has your overall experience been working with Premiere Stages?
Lori Hammel: Working with Premiere Stages has been wonderful. I had heard that the program is dedicated to the playwright and it is really exciting to see how supportive the production team is on bringing Kathryn's play to light. Everyone has been so professional and supportive and it feels very collaborative. I am so enjoying having the opportunity to work with our director, John Wooten. He is definitely an actor's director in that he is open to what the actor brings to the role. It has been a great experience.
John McGinty (Raymond) - you have appeared in the Drama Desk nominated Fetes de la Nuit in New York as well as National tours and regional theaters. Can you talk about how the time period of this piece (the 60s) affect the actors working on the show when it was not such a 'PC' time in our history?
John McGinty: While the selective use of terms has been around for ages - employed for various reasons including propaganda - the latest utility (political correctness) was born when 'drunk' was replaced by 'alcoholic' in the 1960s closely followed by 'disabled' as the new term for 'crippled'. Once I read the script, I first thought, oh my goodness, this is pretty insulting to me - especially as a deaf person. So, it was quite a challenge to defeat myself and say that having a disability is okay in the past. It was like I am working backward.
Also, the title of the play is very interesting and bold because the word "handicapped" is politically correct in the 60s, but today, it is hard for me to accept the word "handicap" because it makes me feel like I have limitations. Since I was born, I never considered myself who has a handicap and it is tough for people out there to understand this. I do also think the word, "handicap" for today is not PC because it shows a negative effect on who I am today.
Tell us how you relate to the subject matter of this play.
John McGinty: As a deaf person, right now, I never consider myself as having a disability. I am just a young man who can do anything, but hear. But as Raymond, it is significant for him to emphasize that he has a disability and what is ironic is that Raymond in the show is an "ivy-league" young man and he can dance just like everyone else which shows that he can do anything, but hear. The only thing I do look in a different way is how he communicates.
There are some similarities between Raymond and myself. For instance, we do have an obstacle in communicating with other people. We both can lip reads and can speak at least. In addition, Raymond use SEE (Signing Exact English) and today, I use ASL (American Sign LAnguage). ASL was never introduced till in the 1970s. ASL (American Sign Language) words are also used with English grammar and word order plus, in some systems such as Signing Exact English ("SEE"), invented or modified signs for English inflections such as "-ing" and function words such as "the". These forms of signing, generically called Manually CodEd English (MCE), are not ASL, but manually coded forms of English. See Manually CodEd English for more information on these and other non-vocal language systems.SEE and similar language codes are often used to teach English, its structure, grammar and syntax, to native ASL speakers. In addition, many hearing people, interpreters, and Deaf people when signing to a hearing person use what is commonly called Pidgin Sign English (PSE), or 'Contact Sign', a blend of English and ASL grammar and syntax using sign vocabulary. PSE can range from very English-like PSE (more like sign-supportEd English) to a very ASL-like PSE, which uses mostly ASL grammar and words, but may not use the finer ASL grammatical points.
I think this play will be a great exposure to the audience because it is play where the characters are created who happens to have disabilities and the play is not ABOUT people with disabilities.
Ed Setrakian (Monsignor Cooke) as a veteran actor in many shows on Broadway(Salome with Al Pacino), Off-Broadway, film and TV, what has your experience been like working at Premiere Stages on a show dealing with disabilities?
Ed Setrakian: After a 10 day rehearsal period, the disabilities of the actors in the play just seem to fade from my consciousness. Working on this play here at Premiere Stages has been a constructive and richly creative experience. I am immensely impressed by the Artistic Director John Wooten and his fine staff as to how smoothly the rehearsal procedure has progressed. And the Kean University facility couldn't be better. The play was originally developed at The Actors Studio, first as a reading and then as a workshop production. Director Wooten, working with playwright Kathryn Grant, has lifted the material by several levels. And the production team is doing great work.
David Harrell (Eddie), I see you've worked at La Mama, The Actors Studio as well as numerous regional theaters and television, but also involved with this piece in other incarnations. For those reading this and have not seen the play, can you share about yourself as well as thoughts on the play?
David Harrell: I have been with this show for a while now, I did a reading and workshop production at The Actors Studio in NY and a reading here at Premiere Stages in the Spring. As an actor with a disability, it is great to have a role in which the character has a disability but that disability is not the defining characteristic of the character. Eddie is called an alter boy, a good assistant, a worry wort! His prosthetic is only mentioned once. We see a man who has a job and who is trying to handle the circumstances of the play to the best of his ability. The disability is there but it is not the focus on him. Yes, the play is called "Handicapped" People in their Formal Attire so the disability is more prevalent within the world of this play than perhaps it would be in another play. For a long time I used to say that if I am in a play I would give the audience five minutes to notice my hand but it would be my job as an actor to be doing something so much more interesting they would forget about my hand. I've rethought that of late, now I don't want them to forget my hand or disability but I'd like it to become part of the background, part of the tapestry of the character. Disability plays an important role in this play but I hope we are able to allow the audience to connect to the people who live in this play. Disability should not be forgotten but hopefully the audience will see a play about two sisters and the power of community.
How do you feel times have changed in 2012 with respect to opinions and thoughts around people with disabilities?
David Harrell: Certainly, some things have changed in respect to opinions and thoughts about people with disabilities but there is still a long way to go in terms of access and inclusion. Take the accessibility of the NYC subway system for example. I'm sure there are many people who see the word "handicapped" and don't think twice about it possibly being outdated and not preferred language. I hope this play will create dialogue and discussion about disability and language. And in terms of actors with disabilities, we have seen some improvement but still we don't see disability represented in much of our theatre, film, or television. Premiere Stages made very strong efforts to audition actors with disabilities and to me that is where it starts. We have to start with the producers and casting directors bringing us into the room. The next step is encouraging them to bring us in the room when the play isn't about disability.
John McGinty: Perhaps the greatest challenges lie ahead. Technological advances are changing the way deaf people communicate, and the way they congregate. For instance, in 1960s, Raymond uses pencil and pad in order to communicate with other people. Today, I sometimes use my phone when I order things, even at Starbucks. Also, in 1960s, deaf people came together in big groups at deaf social clubs. Today, those clubs are disappearing as deaf people gather in homes to watch closed-captioned televisions with their hearing friends, call each other on TTY phones, and even "hear" with the help of advanced devices like the cochlear implant. Also, bottom line, today, from my perspective, I consider people with disability just like everyone else. We all are just different, that is.
Kathryn Grant (Playwright) is an award-winning playwright with productions performed at The Actors Studio, Penguin Repertory Theater, the John Houseman Studio Theater and Provincetown Repertory Theater. Handicapped People in Their Formal Attire was read at the American Renaissance Theater and received a workshop production at The Actors Studio. Ms. Grant holds a Doctorate from Drew University and she teaches writing and acting at St. Francis College and Drew University.
Handicapped People in Their Formal Attire runs July 12 through the 29th, Thursday and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $30 Standard / $20 Standard / $15 Student & patrons with disabilities and can be purchased online at http://www.kean.edu/premierestages or by calling 908-737-SHOW (7469).