Jill Summerville, Phd
- OnStage Ohio Columnist
Once while I was taking questions after a conference presentation about how gimp actors (like myself) can sucessfully play romantic leads, someone said, “You seem like you like to stir up trouble. Why do you always perform in such conventional places?” I certainly do like to stir up trouble onstage...or at least create unexpected juxtapositions. However, a gimp looking for an accessible found space is less like Mary Lennox stumbling into a secret garden than she's like Isabella Linton walking into Wuthering Heights; it wasn't designed for her pleasure, and she'll have to navigate it as best she can. I recently had the honor of performing the first dance piece to appear at The Old Yellow Cab Building in Dayton, OH. No stage had a ramp, and no contractor could decide how to safely build one. I sucessfully performed in the garage, but I refused celebratory drinks because it was hard to fit my wheelchair into the bathrooms. These difficulties notwithstanding, Tara Moore, Jaime Ferguson, and my beloved Rachael Redolfi took excellent care of me. Still, gimps don't regularly perform in found spaces, or in any spaces at all. As of 2015, only 1% of the characters on TVhad a disability, and most of those characters weren't played by disabled actors (“Number of TV Characters With Disabilities Drops; Fewer Roles Go To Disabled Actors”). Their presence isn't yet considered conventional, which is why it's important that they be able to make use of unconventional performance spaces. With that in mind, here's a list of considerations for anyone, gimpy or otherwise, who wants to perform in a found space:
You won't get a lot of rehearsal time or a designated rehearsal space.
There's a reason found spaces aren't called, “created spaces.” They weren't originally created to be ideal for the practice of your art. I'd never decry the fragility of an artist's confidence; I sweated through even the thickest shirts during the several weeks I had to spend not rehearsing so painters and fine artists could display their work in the gallery. Though it's undesireable, there are ways to troubleshoot a limited rehearsal schedule: ask for photos and blueprints of your performance space, have backup plans for both blocking and narrative and emotional throughlines, use a mock up space that's smaller than your actual performance area, and prepare to improvise during the performance if necessary. I had to change performance spaces four times due to accessibility concerns, and I had to re-choreograph the narrative several times for each space. If you genuinely feel the integrity of your piece is being compromised, of course, justified protest is warranted.
Remember that the workers you encounter may not be artists, and the artists you encounter may not practice YOUR art.
The Old Yellow Cab Building, for example, is used for art exhibits, small concerts, and (occasionally) burlesque shows. Its stage shows, then, are of the sort where the allowance for lateral movement is most important. There's little need to create depth onstage, break up the sightline, or choreograph several smooth entrances and exits. My dance piece required all of those elements. If you're a performer working in a stage space, the people around you will have a shorthand for describing all the problems that concern you. (If you don't believe me, try telling a theatre joke to an engineer.) The fine artists of The Yellow Cab have a shorthand too...but only for their own genre of art. I provided materials I knew would be necessary even if I wasn't specifically asked for them. Whenever I was told I had plenty of light or plenty of stage space or the ability to definitely not collide with an audience member/bystander headed toward another exhibit, I always said, “Okay...Now is all that still true if I'm moving?” If the answer was negative or ambivalent, I built possible improvisations into the existing choreography.
Work within the confines of the space, but be aware of moments when it's designed against you.
The theorist, Michel Foucault, calls the theatre a heterotopia, a place where truths about the real world can be accepted, contested, or inverted. The willing suspension of disbelief wouldn't be of such abiding fascination if actors and audience members didn't mutually agree presenting incontestable truths wasn't in the best interest of the theatre. In the case of a found space, though, every choice about how a performer is presented might not be deliberate. This particularly affects minority performers. Once my co-performer, Nic Ruley, and I had to cancel a performance at a fringe festival, because the space would have been inaccessible to members of the disability advocacy groups to whom I had reached out. If we had staged it, the play, which was never intended to be about disability, would suddenly have been addressing problematic real world truths about disability in a nonproductive way.
Remember, you're very lucky!
Even if you were hoping to be off-Broadway and you're...Oh, I don't know...in a warehouse-turned- rehearsal space in Columbus, OH (Cough, cough), you are still surrounded by people who are as passionate about making your voice heard as you are. That is extraordinarily lucky! Enjoy it.
If you're disabled though, take a minute to use the bathroom at home first.