At a staff meeting the other day, someone asked what we were going to do about seating for handicapped people in our new productions. Randy Dipner immediately said, “they are not handicapped people.” Well, then, seating for people suffering from disabilities. “They are not suffering,” he snapped. “OK,” we said.
Randy Dipner helps us find money and grow audiences at THEATREWORKS. He is also a senior partner of Meeting the Challenge, an organization which provides information on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Together with Windstar Studios, he and his company have helped make possible the world premiere of a new play in our theater, created by one of the most distinguished artists in our country. And Randy was right to jump on us in the staff meeting.
The exchange speaks directly to the casual and uninformed ways we often speak about the largest minority group in our county. 54 million Americans—nearly one in six of us—are people with disabilities. Disability crosses every boundary of race, sex, age, and religion and could happen to any one of us at any time. And yet, as a group, people with disabilities hardly seem to figure on the map of our town, and when we do speak of them we do so in clichéd terms—they are the handicapped, they are the suffering ones. They are set apart. They are not us.
There is a history of disability in theatre—a very distorted one. On stage, the disabled generally have been presented either as villains or victims: Richard III or Tiny Tim. The disabled have been occasions for horror, for sympathy, and for inspiration. What we have had very little of are actual people.
All that is about to dramatically change with our new production of Invisible Voices, the new documentary theater play created by Ping Chong and his company. Ping Chong has an internationally acclaimed history of making plays about groups that go unrecognized and unseen in our communities—he calls this series Undesirable Elements. Invisible Voices began with Ping receiving extensive applications from over 30 people with disabilities, interviewing about 20 of them who live in our town, or very near it. From these interviews he selected six people: Sandy Lahmann, Billy Allen, Kelly Tobin, Kevin Pettit, Rebecca Shields, and Rick Modderman. You will meet them all when they appear on stage telling their own stories in Invisible Voices. Not surprisingly, each one has a unique history and a very personal style, as well as a particular disability. You will get to know them in rather the same way you get to know George Gibbs, Emily Webb, Mrs. Soames, and Simon Stimson in Our Town. Like the citizens of Grover’s Corners, not one of them is famous. They live here, work here, play here, get up in the morning, and go to sleep at night like the rest of us do. They are not villains, not victims, not saints—they are people with disabilities.
Like Wilder’s play, Invisible Voices is a radical experiment in theatrical simplicity. You won’t see any black eye patches, hooks, peg legs or the usual theatrical paraphernalia of the handicapped on our stage this time. No one is going to rise up out of a wheelchair and walk into the dawn. You won’t see any twisted minds in any twisted bodies. You will meet a group of very distinct people who collectively share some of the same societal challenges. And I’m betting you will leave the theater with a very different idea of what it means to have a disability. Very quietly and very directly a wall will come down.
There are only eight performances of Invisible Voices, but I’m happy to say the project will have a longer life. Both the play and the process leading up to its production will be filmed and included as part of a DVD documentary commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. So, just as the Stage Manager says he’s going to put a copy of Our Town into the time capsule that will be sealed into the cornerstone of the new bank building in Grover’s Corners, so Invisible Voices will be wrapped and sealed so it can be seen by future generations anywhere. That’s yet another bonus of this wonderful project of, by and for our town.