Often diversity onstage doesn't mean Inclusion. Diversity usually entails having more than one "token" person of color in the ensemble. That is usually good enough for producers. This is hardly "good enough" and clearly doesn't represent what the world looks like. Where's the inclusion? I'm talking about people with disabilities. Why the hell aren't they represented in shows? Oh and here's the ridiculous part, if there is a "disabled" character, that role usually goes to an "able-bodied" actor. Seriously stupidest thing ever.
Marc Acito, the writer of Broadway's Allegiance, is changing all of that. His newest show, Bastard Jones, currently playing at The Cell, boasts not only a freaking diverse cast of actors but is also inclusive. My mind was blown. Not one, but two actors with "disabilities". Alie B Gorrie is legally blind, and Evan Ruggiero is missing a leg due to bone cancer. These guys freaking killed it. No one in the audience thought "oh that's weird" or "why is a dude with one leg playing the title role?". Inclusion works people and so does diversity. The artistic team Marc Acito (writer/director) and Joe Barros (choreographer) as well as cast members Evan Ruggiero and Alie B Gorrie, answered some of my questions about the process of creating Bastard Jones and they've totally squashed the myth of what disabled means.
Marc, as a writer, do you feel it is important to develop shows that are diverse and inclusive? Is it necessary in this day and age to specify in your dramaturgy that certain characters are ethnically and physically diverse?
Marc - The death of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by policemen for selling cigarettes on the street, changed what I choose to write. Since then, every project I’ve begun has diversity and inclusion built into it. This commitment manifests either literally or non-literally. BASTARD JONES uses the non-literal approach: the characters are all non-disabled white people, but the actors aren’t. I take the literal approach with historic stories about real people, so I choose stories about the intersection of people with differences, like my upcoming play THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE (AND OTHER SONGS) about the relationship between Marian Anderson and Albert Einstein.
Marc and Joe, not only was your show diverse but it was also inclusive. Something, to be perfectly honest, I have never seen before. Your show reflects the world I see in all its imperfections. Can you talk about the casting process and did you have something in mind prior to your auditions? Or did everything just fall into place organically?
Marc - My mandate for the whole team—onstage and off—was that it looked like America. The USA is 63% white, 16% Latino, 13% Black and 5% Asian. Yet the biggest minority is the 19% of Americans who have a disability. And we managed to reflect those demographics even though we couldn’t afford a casting director. We simply didn’t give up looking. Putting the puzzle together was made easier because all roles were open to all people so long as they could sing them and climb the stairs on the two-story set. Two candidates for a role played by a 6’3 black man were a 65-year-old woman and a man who is a little person.
Joe - Marc wanted the show to look like our country. He had ideas of what he wanted in each of the actor tracks, but he led with love, ultimately. Half of his process was about finding actors with balls, experience, and charisma - and the other half was about listening to the universe to create an ensemble that would truly elevate the already great material to mean even more. Our team understood that in telling this story we would not hide anything - making the audience always aware of the pure authenticity of our outstanding company.
Joe, your choreography not only featured Evan Ruggiero as a tapper and dancer, but it was almost like a big "fuck you" to society by utilizing his "peg leg" in the choreography. What inspired you? What were some of the challenges if any working with an actor missing a leg and Alie B. Gorrie who is legally blind?
Joe - After Evan was cast, I experimented with the many ways that he can tell stories with his body. Evan wears a peg leg in the show so I went into a studio with him (and my associate Katie Pettit) and we collaboratively learned how Evan moves. We learned Evan’s strengths, and we set out to find movement that played into his super powers. The peg represents strength, not weakness, and has various chameleonic45 forms: a peg for dancing, a sword for fighting, a microphone, a guitar, and more. I kept asking myself, “What can Evan do with one leg and a peg that is so much more interesting than what I can do with two legs?” In the end, when Evan dances audiences are hypnotized by the grace and effortlessness of his infectious, physical storytelling. His commitment and talent are boundless.
After Evan was cast in Bastard Jones (and before we began rehearsals), I asked him to be in a reading of a new musical called Pretty to the Bone for my theatre company, New York Theatre Barn. Evan played the role of a teenager whose family is deeply affected by his sister’s eating disorder. Evan was perfect for the role: solid actor, rock star tenor voice, and plays guitar.
I found no incredible challenges from any of the actors, especially Evan and Alie, because I approached the process with this philosophy: limitation is creation. I always see Evan and Alie merely as actors in the troupe, never as compromised. They only made our ensemble stronger and inspired us to work even harder.
As a director and choreographer, you are both "behind the table". Do you have any advice to actors of color and actors with disabilities that want to pursue this profession?
Marc - Audition for roles that are “wrong” for you. While it’s up to us decision-makers to change the rules, actors can help by insisting they be seen. The biggest systemic problem I see is that minority actors don’t have the opportunities to develop their craft. For instance, how can an Asian musical theater actor grow if all they do are The King and I and Miss Saigon?
Joe - The future of entertainment is outside of the box--like you. Continue to own, love, and present the most authentic version of you. We/them/us are telling stories (old and new) that need you and your talent.
What’s the next step for Bastard Jones?
Marc - We’re going to grow the show a bit by remounting it in a larger venue. I’m excited to add even more diversity to the team.
Evan and Allie, the one thing I loved about this show was that there was absolutely no commentary about your "disabilities". I fucking hate that word by the way, because you both are clearly not disabled. You guys rocked this show. Can you talk about some of the challenges of being an actor that is labeled "disabled"? What are your thoughts on shows that clearly lack inclusion? Also, what was the audition process like for you both?
Evan - I appreciate you feeling that way about the word disability and I would have to agree with you.
For me, I don't want any accommodations as a "disabled" actor. But one of the challenges of being labeled as a disabled actor is walking into the audition room and feeling like you need to justify yourself or win someone over. When in fact, you don't. The day I learned this was the day I started working as a professional actor. And it took some time. At first I was self conscious about my prosthetic leg and timid, and I felt the need to tell people I was auditioning for what had happened to me. But, you are enough. And you don't owe anyone an explanation. I think the biggest thing that goes through a casting directors head is "Can this person with one leg do what I'm asking? Can they dance? Can they run?" There's always so many questions, but the short answer is yes. Actors with disabilities don't want to be thrown a bone because they're different, or because there's a role that's called for an actor with a disability. They want to be treated the exact same way an actor without a disability would be treated. And that's what Bastard Jones does. You have a story about a guy who on paper has two legs. Tom Jones is not an amputee, but in our story he is. And it works! That is what inclusion is about.
The audition process for Bastard Jones was hands down one of my favorite auditions. I met Marc via email where he told me about the show and asked if I'd be interested to come in for a work session/audition. I went in later that week and in the first two minutes I voluntarily took my pants off and Marc asked me to run up and down the stairs in my peg-leg. This is a sex farce, you know... I sang some Led Zeppelin and played my guitar, then I sang a very legit and classic aria, completely opposite end of the spectrum for a rock musical. I danced a little and then continued to read four different scenes. After two hours of that Marc came right out and offered me the part, and it's been the greatest ride ever since.
Allie - Being visually impaired/having low vision can be tricky to navigate in audition situations. Because I am not completely blind, many people do not know I have a disability when I walk into an audition room. However, sometimes my eyes will move involuntarily (nystagmus). Some casting directors will ask about it, others will not know what to do with it. It can be frustrating because I have been told in auditions that I have exactly what they are looking for…but "there is something off about my focus.” On stage, my teeny eye movements aren’t as noticeable, and that’s something you can’t always explain or help people understand in a tiny audition room.
I am so happy to live in NYC right now, because I feel like the theatre community is really starting to put inclusion at the forefront. Yes, there is still loads of work to be done…but this community is waking up. I wept when I saw the revival of Spring Awakening last year, because of the way disability was used onstage as a catalyst for change in the theatre community. I personally love shows LIKE BASTARD JONES that aren’t written specifically for actors with disabilities…because casting actors with disabilities gives certain characters super-powers in a way. I think when you cast actors with disabilities in typical roles, you get to add on layers and explore the character through a different lens…and that is so exciting for me.
The audition process for this show was exciting and a little unpredictable. I knew Marc Acito from a previous workshop, and I was hoping to work with him again. AND the audition breakdown for this show was so exciting to read…what a joy to see a notice specifically seeking so much casting diversity. Like the breakdown said I prepared a rock song and a classic, legit musical theatre song and hoped for the best. Marc was so welcoming in the room. He encouraged me to do what I loved to do and not worry about my sight or my focus. I got to sit in a chair and sing a song and simply enjoy sharing the story…it felt like time stopped! The callback was a little crazier, I had to prepare a rock song, the legit song a Shakespeare monologue… and I had to be prepared to have a When Harry Met Sally-esque orgasm. SO I left that callback thinking… well that was fun, but I have no clue how to feel because I just did so many different things in the course of 25 minutes! But the gift of this audition process was that I felt empowered as an actor with a disability… I didn’t have to explain or try to check my low vision at the door.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions you run into as an actor?
Evan - I think that actors with disabilities are fully capable of playing any role regardless of whether or not the part calls for a disabled actor. There are a handful of current shows where able bodied actors are portraying characters who are disabled. There are plenty of willing and able actors who could be given that opportunity.
Allie - I don’t want my disability to overshadow the training and work that I put into my craft as an actor. I have spent my entire life training to pursue this career on a professional level, and I don’t want low vision to be a deterrent in any way.
Any words of advice to other actors with disabilities that are pursuing this profession?
Allie - DO IT ANYWAY. It can be tricky, and people may not always “get you”…do it anyway. Train, train, train. You will hear more “no’s” and be faced with more confusion than you will be embraced for all that you are…keep going. Create your own work. Be nice and cherish the directors, choreographers, casting directors, and teachers that inspire you and “get you". Write. DO IT ANYWAY.
Bastard Jones is running till July 15th. Go see this awesome diverse and inclusive show! http://www.thecelltheatre.org/events/2017/6/17/bastard-jonesPhotos: Carol Rosegg