By Jon Carpenter
Seven years ago the character “Stevie” on the show Malcolm in the Middle was one of the very first television characters who used a wheelchair and was actually part of the jokes. Then came “Jimmy” on South Park, who has muscular dystrophy but still wants to be a stand-up comic. And of course, the irrepressible John Callahan, with his bold, politically incorrect cartoons, has been around for decades. England’s Natasha Wood, however, may be the one to bring down the no-jokes-about disability barrier for all time.
Wood, a 30-something Brit, co-wrote, produced, and stars in her own one-woman play — Rolling Laughter — that premiered in Los Angeles this spring, moved on to London and Edinburgh during the summer, and is bound for New York City in 2008. Using a power wheelchair, she glides across the stage, re-enacting scenes from her unusual personal life, which leaves the audience both laughing and crying. I had the good fortune to catch her show at the El Portal Theater in North Hollywood, and later had an opportunity to chat with her.
JC: Wow! Your show was hysterical. But you made me cry too, so I’m going to hold that against you.
NW: This is all quite new to me. It’s all really quite exciting. It’s just developed, and I just did my first radio thing three or four weeks ago. It only started six weeks ago. Fire away — you can ask me anything.
JC: At the beginning of your show you said that you’ve had spinal muscular atrophy from birth. What exactly is SMA?
NW: It’s a rare genetic neuromuscular disorder. Most people know spina bifida, or muscular dystrophy, and SMA is in the dystrophy family, but it’s a weakness of muscles. The curvature of the spine is just the cherry on top.
JC: You’ve said you never really knew about the details of SMA while growing up.
NW: I knew very little about the details of my disability and SMA. Not for any fear, but because I just didn’t care. I just didn’t have any time, I was too busy doing what I did, which was being cheeky when I was a kid.
I hope it came across in the play that my childhood was just regular, and non-regular because it was a crazy house. We had a very funny, quirky family. My dad was full of fun and jokes and laughter, and my mum was full of determination and drive, she would have us all up and out of bed and out the door in three-and-a-half minutes flat for school. It was just an energy. My mum reminds me of one of those spinning tops. I know that’s where I get it from. And so it was a childhood that just didn’t include discussing disability.
We had two disabled kids in the family and an older brother, and we spent the first 12 or 15 years driving back and forth from the middle of England to London, in and out of hospitals, trying calipers, leg braces, body braces, trying to keep the back straight. I went to a regular elementary school, and I was the only one in a wheelchair. I never came home crying from being teased. So talking about disabilities wasn’t shied upon — I’m sure Mum and Dad lay in bed on many an evening thinking about it, and I’m sure there must have been times of sadness, but they were busy running their own business.
And when I wasn’t at school, I was at the market selling underwear with Mum and Dad. When we got older and got electric wheelchairs, Dad just took an old door from the shed to our big van full of boxes and bras — there were no ramps back then. One time I got halfway up the door and it collapsed! So Dad went and got another door, put it on the back of the van, jumped on it a few times and then said, “Right! OK, we’re all right with this one.” And I’d sit in the back in my wheelchair with all the bras.
JC: No tie-downs?
NW: No! We were just thrown in the back with the boxes.
JC: How old were you when you started working in your parent’s lingerie shop?
NW: I was 11 years old. You’re not supposed to work in England until you’re 13. But from the age of 6 I’d be sitting in front of the telly at home sorting bras and knickers.
JC: Did you have any odd reactions from customers because of your disability?
NW: I’m sure no more than some of the old ladies who wouldn’t want dad to serve them. I knew my stuff. I knew an underwire, and a soft, and a girdle, and in the girdle range we had the double-fronted and the satin, and so on. My dad said I could sell snow to the Eskimos.
But before I came to the United States a few years ago, some kids did shout at me and called me a spaz. It was just a couple of months after my divorce, and I was trying to be brave, but it had been a really lousy morning. When I got home, I smiled and made a joke of it inside. I think that’s where the title of my play came from, the rolling laughter inside.
JC: Tell me about your experience as a kid, with your first high-speed power chair in Orlando, Fla.
NW: My parents took us to Disney World, but we couldn’t bring our powered chairs. So, as a surprise, my parents rented electric wheelchairs for us. But it really wasn’t for us, they just didn’t want to push us around! The government ministry in the U.K. had issued us these really slow electric wheelchairs, so when we came to America and tried the fast electric wheelchairs, my brother and I couldn’t have cared less about Disney World. We caused chaos! We put dents in the hotel walls racing about, and the manager came up and complained. In the end my dad apologized to the manager, and the manager took us out in his speed boat! We all became friends. It was a great experience.
JC: I heard you’ve never done any physical therapy, true?
NW: As a kid I did, but when my friend’s cheeky 8-year-old daughter told me I was fat, I started swimming. I was eating too much fast food and not exercising because I thought I had an excuse that I couldn’t, and didn’t need to. At first I could only hang on to the side of the pool and kick, but it took 10 months to really develop muscle tone. Now as an adult I do yoga as well, and I’ve lost 30 pounds since I was 22.
JC: Your brother died in 2005 — what did SMA do to him that became fatal?
NW: It was a respiratory thing with my brother. The last three years he had a breathing machine at night. He got really big, and got really sick, and all the weight put extra strain on his heart and lungs. We went through this every winter. And it turned out to be the one winter when I got pneumonia too, and I wasn’t able to be with him when he died.
JC: I understand your upcoming London performance is a fundraiser. Is there an imminent cure, and who’s doing the majority of the research?
NW: I’ll be performing to benefit The Jennifer Trust in the U.K., which supports parents and children with SMA. I think the main SMA research center is in Ohio. My brother discovered the Jennifer Trust for me. But I don’t think there’s going to be any magic potion. The Jennifer Trust said parents only ask one question, “What’s going to happen to my child?” And that’s the only question they couldn’t answer. And then they told me I would go on stage and answer that question for them. And I was like, “Really? Am I? I thought I was just going to go out with the cute man on the front row!”
I get e-mails from parents and it’s so emotional, so amazing. I’m learning a whole new thing. There was a woman at the play who was crying hysterically and she was making me cry. I met her afterwards and found out their son had died [as a result] of cerebral palsy [complications] at age 9 and they had driven two hours to come see the show. As long as I live, I will never ever forget their faces. They had all these photos of their little boy and it was so emotional. He was so cheeky. They were just wonderful. That’s what the show is supposed to be, inspiring. Obviously there’s one big thing on the stage, and that’s the wheelchair.
JC: You talked about working at the BBC — how did that come about?
NW: Getting my job with the BBC is a one-woman play all on its own. I was 20 years old and I decided it was time to grow up. So every Monday I’d pull out the classified ads media section in the paper, and three weeks later there it was: “Trainee Broadcast Assistant BBC Television.” I made a decision that that was my job. I cut it out and went to the library and I researched everything about the BBC. There was nothing this chick didn’t know about the BBC. That was my job and no one else’s.
JC: Your show included a lot of material about your marriage and divorce. Having been through both, what would you tell another wheelchair user who feels they’re missing out on life by not being married?
NW: I don’t put a disability angle on it. I was lucky. Now, I’m 37 in a few weeks, and yes, I’m single. Now I go through the same pain that any 37-year-old divorcee would go through. I haven’t really dated since I was 20. And it’s frightening, it’s awful! But I go out and it’s great ’cause I’m pulling like 22-year-olds! But then I’m like, “I’m old enough to be your mother!” And then that’s it. “I’ll flirt with you now, but bugger off and play with your friends.”
I think it’s the same for everyone. It’s no different now. I spend more time thinking, “Who’s going to want me? I’m getting fat again and I’m in a wheelchair.” And it’s all right, it’s the same anywhere, finding the right person that makes you laugh. I like guys that make me laugh. For me it’s a case of getting back on the horse and riding it. Oh, don’t write that. That’s terrible!
JC: So you’d get married again?
NW: I wouldn’t not get married. But I wouldn’t rush it.
JC: Have you noticed any differences between the accessibility in Los Angeles, New York, and London?
NW: Not really. Burbank’s great, ’cause it’s all fine and it has all the curb cuts. I walked everywhere in New York. I had no car. It was the summer and it was great. Or I went on the bus. Coming from England I had never been on a bus, mainly because I didn’t need to since I had a van. Wheelchairs can go on the bus in London. I just never had to. When I came to New York, I went everywhere! It was very therapeutic for me. I had left this whole existence, the world I had, for a different world.
I haven’t found many areas in L.A. that aren’t accessible. It’s a shock now when there isn’t a curb cut.
When I was in Washington, D.C., for the first time in 1993, we were walking down the street and a bus pulled up and a guy in a wheelchair got off and I was like, “Look! Quick get a picture! How does it work?” It was really funny! That was before we had accessible buses in the U.K.
The Americans with Disabilities Act paved the way for access in the U.K., and now we have our own law. But you’re going to hate this: If I can’t go into one restaurant, I’ll go into the next [instead of fighting the issue]. If people throw themselves in front of a bus to protest the lack of access, which was happening in Trafalgar Square 10 years ago in London, then I’m really grateful, but I just want to go on to McDonald’s or wherever. It comes back to the way I live my life.
JC: Does England have a similar politically-correct culture when it comes to disabilities, like calling electric wheelchairs “powered” instead? Or using the phrase, “uses a wheelchair” instead of “in a wheelchair?”
NW: I don’t really have any preferences. But you can’t say “handicapped” in England. I’ve got to be really careful. I use that word a lot now, especially with the play here in L.A. In the last two weeks I’ve started to change that line, “handicapped toilet” to “disabled cubical” in preparation for London. If I slip out “handicapped” on stage in England, it’ll be disaster.
JC: How so?
NW: “Handicapped” is an offensive word in the U.K. They outlawed it 10-15 years ago. I’ve got a couple of really good girlfriends who are social workers, and when I was back in England for Christmas and I said, “handicapped” they were like, “WHOA!” And it’s not that they care, ’cause we were having a laugh. But they were like, “You know you’re gonna get shot!” And I was thinking, “Oh yeah, I am, aren’t I?” If someone uses that word with me, even in England, it doesn’t bother me. Nothing really bothers me. But I never want to offend anybody.
JC: Your stage show gets into a lot of really personal things that come with having a disability. Were you always comfortable talking about really personal things?
NW: Not at all. I think there should be a line in the play that “I lived a lie.” When I got divorced I would pick up the phone every day at work and pretend to ask my husband what he wanted for dinner. I didn’t want anyone in the office to know.
That’s what the process of the play was. I made a decision to stand on a stage and entertain. If you’re going to go and talk about an autobiographical story, don’t fool the audience. Don’t think that I can sit here and tell you, “I’m really happy, my husband is great — anyway, he left one day.”
Everything you see in the play is truth. Total truth! The tits, everything. I wanted new tits and my husband said he wanted a new motorbike, so I found a motorbike in the paper. Then I told him I booked my new tits.
JC: Will your show ever be on video or audio book for those who can’t make it to Los Angeles, New York or London?
NW: At first that’s what we were talking about doing. But then it evolved into a play. The theater here is too small to film it, but I’d like to film it in London where the theater’s bigger and we can get five or six cameras. And I’d like to do it for radio.
JC: Why do you consider yourself “the luckiest girl alive”? Couldn’t your success be attributed to hard work, perseverance, and having the guts to go for it?
NW: I just think everything we do is a combination of hard work, perseverance, and the guts to go for it. But I also know I’ve been lucky. I was lucky meeting my husband. I was lucky with the parents I had. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor, so Dad could buy me an electric wheelchair. And that opened a whole new world for me. But yeah, it’s me doing this, and not sitting on my butt.
You can see more of Natasha and her show at www.rollingwithlaughter.com