Part 3: Making Theatre Spaces Safe and Accessible
You've registered as a criminal justice major at UMass Boston, but there's this really cute girl in your theatre history class. Theatre appeals to you, especially because it gives you a chance to tell stories and to play. You start talking to that cute girl and she watches from the wings as you take on the (almost) titular role in The Importance of Being Earnest in the theatre department's production. You love the chance to be physically funny as the iconic character. You make her laugh.
You and she are both theatre majors and finally calling each other boyfriend and girlfriend. Upon graduating, you land a spot in the acting MFA program at the University of Florida. Things are going pretty well. To top it all off, you get cast in your dream role, Seaweed Stubbs in Hairspray, at Priscilla Beach Theatre. You'll be spending the summer dancing and making people laugh in a charming little barn by the beach in Plymouth. And the best part? Your girlfriend will also be in the cast, playing Lorraine.
Now this dream gets a little unconventional.
There's no stage manager tied to the production at the moment. For tech week, an 'interim stage manager' has appeared, in the form of the sixteen year old daughter of a member of the staff. Things are down to the wire, as they tend to be in summer stock, and, in an attempt to amplify the final button on the finale, another cast member quickly suggests a lift you can try with the actor playing Penny Pingleton. The choreographer approves of the idea. But everyone is trying to get this final detail completed. There's no time.
What happens next changes everything:
A miscalculated and rushed attempt at the lift results in a fall that will see an understudy take over your role as you recuperate in an intensive care unit for two weeks, and then in rehabilitation for a subsequent three and a half months. Thankfully, University of Florida has agreed to defer your attendance in their program so you can take time to heal. The doctors do not know how much movement capability you will regain. For the time being, you've accepted that running and dancing may not be in the cards for you anytime soon, and you navigate in a motorized chair because of your paraplegia and spinal stenosis.
After introducing myself to the smiling couple squeezed together in the narrow confines of my computer screen, I ask a question to which I already know the answer. "Was this avoidable?"
Jacques Matellus and Kelsey Ferdinand do not miss a beat. "Absolutely."
"We were rushing to get everything done and this was at the end of a very long day," Matellus narrates. "(The production manager) told everyone not to call 9-1-1 yet because he wanted to check what the procedure was with (the theatre's owners) first. So he called them before he called for the ambulance."
The couple explains how this rehearsal process differed from the more formal processes they are used to in UMass Boston's theatre department. Ferdinand shares how some of her favorite rehearsals have been when Angie Jepson is brought in to stage moments of violence, intimacy, or stunts with the cast. "I know there's less funding (at PBT)," she goes on, "but it just seems like in non-Equity theatre, anything goes-- there's no ground plan in place. But if you want to produce six or eight major musicals a year with tricks, and stunts, and lots of actors, you need to invest in doing it safely."
Ferdinand recounts her own complicated path through the rest of the show. She felt that the owners of the theatre avoided interacting with her, and that little consideration was paid to the impact Matellus' injury had on him or the rest of the cast. The actors at Priscilla Beach are all housed together in a cluster of houses on the campus, so through the rehearsal process, they get to know each other very well. They had watched a friend injure himself very seriously. His girlfriend was in the cast. Many in the cast felt guilt over their own culpability in the lift going awry. "I don't want to say that we needed time to grieve," Ferdinand reasons, "but there was no consideration for how (the theatre) addressed the incident."
Matellus seems to grapple with the new moniker people may attach to him for the rest of his life. In a matter of seconds, he went from being an 'actor' to being a 'disabled actor'. While he affirms that he feels comfortable using that word, how does he see himself fitting under the far-reaching umbrella of 'disabled', which attempts to encapsulate those on the Autism spectrum, the Deaf community, the Blind community, and any other number of disparate groups? "I always prided myself on being a strong mover, and I used my full body to help me play a scene. But now, I don't want to look at my limitations as an obstacle. I want to see what I can achieve despite this barrier and how it makes me use my voice or my face more to tell a story."
He makes it clear that this even-handed, positive outlook on life is not the way he felt about his injuries for a long time. "It's okay to be sad. Not just at first. You never have to be over it. And you should be able to talk openly about that."
He admits that sometimes, seeing old videos of his performances or of him dancing can make him feel a little sad and resentful toward his disability. While he doesn't get out and about as much, he is keeping engaged, watching films with an analytical eye. When Ferdinand choreographed a show at UMass Boston, the school took extra precautions to ensure Matellus felt comfortable in the audience and had access to his chair should he need it. The theatre department also made space for Matellus to share about his experience with students and faculty. He was able to talk about how his relationship with theatre has changed and how it has, in some ways, improved. "When I go for an audition, I don't want people to think of me as a black man in a wheelchair. It's enough that I'm already black so some people don't want to cast me."
Rarely a day can pass without someone sending him a video of Ali Stroker, a wheelchair user who won the Tony Award for best supporting actress this past year for her turn in Oklahoma!. Her performance is exciting-- just a few years ago, Stroker became the first wheelchair user in a Broadway show when she appeared in Deaf West's Spring Awakening, and her performance as Ado Annie made her the first wheelchair user to ever win a Tony Award. Slowly but surely, the theatre is making space for actors with disabilities. New Repertory Theatre recently hosted Anita Hollander, an actor-comedienne-singer-advocate-amputee from Chicago in a one woman show called Still Standing. Later this year, Gregg Mozgala, an actor from D.C. with cerebral palsy, will come to Boston in Teenage Dick, a retelling of Shakespeare's Richard III. In a more local example, Matthew Zahnzinger recently played several roles in Wheelock Family Theatre's Willy Wonka despite his two broken feet, which called for modified choreography to accommodate his wheelchair.
Despite this progress, how many theatre spaces in Boston have you been in which would prohibit an actor who uses a wheelchair from performing there? Even if they can easily access the performance space, how easy would it be to navigate backstage? Get to the dressing rooms? Could that artist ever stage manage a show in that space? Could they even see a show in that space? These are the questions I hope we are asking ourselves this decade.
Elbert Joseph, who goes by EJ, lends a unique perspective to how Boston has shifted itself to accommodate actors and audiences in theatrical spaces. He tosses his head back and laughs, flashing a wide, toothy grin when I ask him what he hopes will change for Boston theaters in the future. "Why does everyone always ask me that?" he signs in response. The answer? As a Deaf, gay, Black/ Caribbean American theatre artist, EJ advocates for himself and for others tirelessly. He does not allow any part of his identity to stand independent from his collaborations and speaks up when he feels his collaborators are not on the same page.
To put it simply, he shakes his head. "We are not there yet." He explains how Boston still has issues with making performances accessible to all audience members, and how many companies are therefore not even ready to engage with performers, designers, technicians, or other artists who require accommodations. While this decade has brought a few disability narratives to the stage, many of the groups presenting those stories did not make the necessary adjustments that might allow disabled, Deaf, Blind, or Autistic artists to have a hand in their own narratives.
He acknowledges that, while Boston still has some catching up to do, no city has became a perfect haven of accessibility. "I heard Chicago and New York are starting to upgrade their accessibility, however there are (artists who) aren't aware of it. There are still problems. Like example: One of my colleagues went to see a show. A hearing actor spotted her and gave her a dirty look the whole time because the hearing actor thought she was recording but she wasn't, she was reading subtitles via phone." So a big part of the battle for accessibility, he reasons, is helping artists and administrators understand why it matters and needs to be prioritized.
He pointed me to an open letter that he published through New England Theatre Geek in 2017 addressing these issues more in depth. While some companies have breached conversations about working with him, he feels frustrated that very few have read his perspective, or if they have, seem to be unwilling to respond to it.
Read that letter here.
Ultimately, all three actors I spoke with seem optimistic for the possibilities in their futures. Matellus plans to take the time he needs to heal before returning to school. His primary focus right now is figuring out how to be independent- how to dress himself and perform his daily routine. Ferdinand is preparing to graduate from UMass Boston, and EJ has plenty of coals in the fire, preparing to appear in and direct other shows this season.
What do they hope theatre artists can learn from their experiences?
Ferdinand summarizes, "Safety standards need to be raised. Too many people are getting by with the bare minimum, and it's almost like you're not even a human if you're non-Equity." She reiterates how their lives would be different now if the lift had been staged more delicately, and emphasizes the importance of leaving space for actors to say 'no'.
Matellus adds another succinct request; "People need to stop saying 'You'll be doing backflips before you know it!'." He laughs, "I'm not ever doing any backflips."
A representative from Priscilla Beach Theatre was contacted for comment on the contents of this article. At this time, they have not responded.
Ready to read more? Check out:
EJ's full letter to the Boston theatre community here.
Read about disability as an advantage in 'American Theatre Magazine' here.
Check out this great book by Monona Rossol about industry safety standards and how to actually keep artists safe here.