She may be a villainous, butch war vet in the afternoon, only to morph into a graceful and glamorous otherworldly woman of mystery in the evening. In the past she’s been a barroom whore, a sideshow attraction worthy of American Horror Story, a tin woman and a steel magnolia. Regan Linton is a woman of many faces. Only 33, this T4 para has performed all of the aforementioned roles on professional stages.
But getting to this point in her life hasn’t been easy. It has been a process of gradual transformation, of finding out just who Regan Linton is.
She began acting in middle school about the time her parents were splitting up. “I was also navigating lots of female body image issues,” she recalls, “and acting allowed me to be someone else.” Later, in high school, when forced to choose between theater and sports, acting and singing won.
Upon graduation she applied unsuccessfully to a number of acting schools. “I didn’t know myself particularly well and knew nothing about auditioning. I was still trying to escape myself.” So instead of acting, she headed to USC in 1999 to study filmmaking. Then a freeway accident in March 2002 changed everything. She came home to Denver to rehab at Craig, then returned to California for spring semester the following year, with the help of a Swim with Mike scholarship. During those nine months back in Colorado, she was exposed to Phamaly, the all-disabled Denver acting company.
“I was still in a shell, very uncomfortable in my new reality. When I heard of Phamaly, I felt it wasn’t real theater and thought, ‘I don’t want to act in that company, I’m not disabled. I’m not that.’ Besides, performing was the last thing I wanted to do. How could I possibly channel a character through a body that was two-thirds paralyzed?”
But she stayed involved by volunteering summers with them between school years. When she graduated from USC and returned to Denver, she reluctantly decided to audition. Once cast and performing, there was no turning back. That’s not to say everything was gumdrops and lollipops. Only two years post-injury, she was still figuring out life on wheels.
By now Phamaly was on a par with other theaters in Denver. As one theater critic put it, “The first thing people notice is the disabilities. But when somebody starts to sing and you get into the story, suddenly you lose sight of the disabilities.”
Her first show with Phamaly was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. She remembers rolling onto the stage and feeling embarrassed because she had friends and family in the audience. “While doing a musical number and dancing in my chair, I felt totally stupid, a joke. I looked over at Kevin, who has a TBI and can’t remember all the lyrics. But it didn’t matter to him. He was going full-out with a big smile on his face. That’s when something just snapped in me. I felt this switch — an epiphany — like, ‘who the fuck cares? This is who I am now.’ That’s when I decided theater was going to be my salvation. I realized I would find my way in the world, authentically, through theater.”
Finding Her Roles
From Joseph it was on to The Wiz, followed by at least two productions a year, including Side Show (about “freaks” in a show), The Man of La Mancha and others. Side Show, her most challenging role, required an absurd number of quick costume changes. As one half of twins joined at the hip anatomically, she had to navigate a giant wheelchair with her sister, across the stage, while singing and dancing. “I utilized more multitasking skills than I knew I had.” She also began grad school that year.
All of her roles were valuable learning experiences, but Man of La Mancha began her transformation as an actor. She played Aldonza, a tavern and inn’s maid/prostitute, whom the delusional Don Quixote mistakes for Dulcinea, a fair maiden he has sought his whole life. When she’s assaulted and her chair is taken, she’s left to crawl across the barroom floor. At the same time she delivers her key solo, imploring Don Quixote to see her as she really was:
Take the clouds from your eyes and see me as I really am!
Look at the kitchen slut reeking with sweat! Born on a dung heap to die on a dung heap,
A strumpet men use and forget! A creature who’ll never
Do better than crawl?
The audience was stunned, deeply moved and totally engaged. She had redefined the role and made it more powerful. Linton also realized that her chair could be an acting tool to be used for something other than just getting her across the stage. Both Side Show and Man of La Mancha so impressed Colorado theater critics they awarded her with major honors in 2008 and 2009.
She did this — undergraduate degree, going all-in with theater and grad school — all in her first seven years post-injury. Besides the physical demands of SCI, she was also fighting all the preconceptions, prejudices and social messages related to disability she’d come to hold. “I spent a couple years depressed, but always wearing a happy face. Theater saved me from going to a dark and boring place of just getting by. Becoming disabled completely exploded my vision of the way life was supposed to be. It was a big liberation once I realized and accepted that I couldn’t change the SCI.”
Surrounded by a group of people with disabilities living their lives fully and not apologizing for who they were, she learned a critical lesson. “Phamaly nurtured me, taught me to accept myself and gave me the courage to explore the world as a wheeler. They introduced me to dating and helped me embrace myself and who I now was.”
During those four years in Denver, while pursuing a master’s in social work, Linton realized the way she wanted to have an impact was through the arts, on stage, with an injured body, telling stories. The string of successful performances not only convinced her she was capable of acting and singing at a professional level, but she also began to see the ways she could change perceptions through performing on stage.
Realizing she could benefit from more training, Linton applied to numerous acting schools and settled on University of California, San Diego, which she says was a perfect fit. “They take people who are already unique and help them embrace and use it. It blew my world open and those three years were just a fabulous experience.”
The program is intense and demanding — 18-hour days of acting, studying and teaching; brutally honest critiques; no special passes for disability. In many cases an actor with a disability requires more resiliency due to the extra scrutiny.
After finishing UCSD’s master of fine arts three-year acting school, she moved to Los Angeles, giving herself two years to get established and find a steady gig. “I was looking to see if I could get a job somewhere — maybe television — and make a dent.” In a town filled with actors looking to do the same, it almost didn’t happen for her.
She arrived with hopes that she could sell herself as something new and different but discovered it was an illusion, instead living the role of “starving artist” for 18 months. The normal jobs actors take to generate income while maintaining the flexibility necessary for auditioning — valet, waitress and such — were impractical, and using her MSW to get a normal 9-5 job left no room for auditions. Her options were severely limited. “At one point I considered applying to be a live-in assistant for a female sex therapist with a radio show who needed someone to edit her articles and scripts. In the end, I passed on the chance to have sex therapist assistant on my resume,” Linton laughs.
These were tough, yet exhilarating times — looking for the next little job to generate a couple hundred dollars, often working without pay. Employment was a patchwork of temp jobs, some theater related, thankfully. “I was a contestant on Let’s Make a Deal and won a pair of diamond earrings, which I later sold for rent money.”
She found auditioning to be a cross between a job interview and first date, with only a few minutes to make an impression and sell herself. With thousands of actors in Los Angeles, TV roles may have a dozen people vying for a part, theater as many as 30, and a film could involve hundreds. Sometimes she couldn’t even get into the room, as few parts are specifically written for women in chairs. Linton came across one such role in her 18 months in Los Angeles.
In April 2014 she auditioned for Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where she did two scenes from two plays and 16 bars of a musical selection. But ultimately, she found Los Angeles to be a letdown. “The chair makes me stand out, but if it isn’t written into the role it’s hard for casting directors to imagine it being there.”
Even a director she knew and respected couldn’t see past her chair, which was not in the script, telling her he couldn’t trust an audience’s reaction. “The town is built on manufactured illusion, fantasy and diversity,” says Linton. “It’s a hard place to be authentic, because the industry doesn’t support authenticity and is afraid of ‘new and different.’ It’s like trying to climb a mountain in an ill-fitting manual chair. I found it awful.”
Eighteen months of living on the fly with little predictability or certainty took its toll on her spirit and optimism. Faced with having to sign a new lease for housing, Linton was on the verge of throwing in the towel and moving back to Colorado.
Then word came from Oregon Shakespeare Festival three months after her April audition. They wanted her to join them in Ashland. She didn’t know it, but they had her in their sights for some time. Scott Kaiser, the director of company development, had seen her perform in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie when she was in her second year at UCSD. “The production was tremendously moving, in large part due to Regan’s luminous portrayal of the painfully timid Laura,” says Kaiser. “Late in the play, the Gentleman Caller lifted Regan out of her wheelchair to dance, and with her arms wrapped around his neck, moved both of them around the room. It was in that moment I knew we absolutely had to have Regan as a member of our acting company.”
Fulfilling Her Dream
Now settled in the Ashland, Ore., accessible apartment her employer provides for her — a perk of the actors’ union — in February she opened in Much Ado About Nothing, in which she plays the villainous war vet, Don John. In April, she began appearing as The Mysterious Woman in Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land. Both plays run until November, sometimes on the same day. How does she keep them straight, day to day for eight months, much less between afternoon and evening?
“I get to the theater early, go on stage for vocal warm-ups and maybe run through lines. The language helps, as does the wig, make up and getting into costume. My process is a bit different from nondisabled actors, as everything takes more time. Dressers are very helpful.”
Rehearsing and preparing for roles is all-out hard work. First comes defining the role, the “world” of the character, language, lines, rhythm. Doing Shakespeare requires Linton to transport herself back in time more than 400 years, to England’s Elizabethan Era.
Then come table reads, cast discussion, preliminary run-throughs, memorization. Some rehearsal sessions can last 10 hours or more for a two-hour play. “Doing the same scene 10 times in a row, each with a slightly different perspective or emphasis — while trying to remember the lines — is exhausting and requires an extraordinary amount of energy and creativity,” she says. Not to mention costumes, lighting, cues, props, timing, all leading to dress rehearsal and previews before the actual opening. Total preparation time before an audience sees a performance is six weeks.
With all the struggle, frustration and self-doubt that goes into finding jobs, much less finding and creating a character, why do it? “The stage is where I can discover myself,” she says. “It’s a safe place for me to release emotions, explore who I am and to imagine. I’m drawn to the human connection that comes with theater.”
For Linton, it’s all about the acting.
She also sees disabled actors bringing a subversive type of advocacy to the stage and says her chair can bring new creativity to established works, subtly revealing how the original work excluded people with disabilities. In fact, she says she’s more passionate about playing roles that are not written for a wheelchair.
It can also be, yes, inspirational. Linton favors “getting back to the original meaning of inspiration: breathing new life into an established work. That’s what theater is about, infusing new life into what we think of as being human. Why can’t theater explore disability? I want to show what’s possible, not just what is. We need to challenge assumptions we make about one another.”
The chair can serve as metaphor for some injury or other hurt the character has experienced. We’ve all experienced some kind of mess or brokenness or loss, she says, so why not put that mess on stage in a different body and see how it changes the audience’s experience. The chair hits people in an uncomfortable way when they know the actor is actually disabled, and Linton feels that’s an important reality. She likes that they can’t walk away from the play so easily.
“I love playing the person people hate or detest. Talk about emotional release! Those are the best roles and I want to play that nastiness. Don John is a war vet in a chair, but the rejection and hurt she experiences isn’t from injury but from being the prince’s illegitimate sister and some unspecified egregious offense for which she’s been pardoned. Her nastiness is in response to how people have treated her and who she is as a person. The chair gives it a different color. I like the challenge.”
“Look,” she says passionately, “theater is one of our oldest art forms, based on humans and their stories. We need that, with real people telling those stories. Why should we let others tell our stories? It’s important to have real people who represent all the realities of humanity telling those stories. Why can’t we be cast as a principal in Virginia Woolf or Hamlet? Those experiences are our experiences and we should be telling those stories.”
That’s why she’s an actor.
Now celebrating its 25th season, Phamaly is an award-winning Colorado-based theater company composed entirely of performers with a wide variety of physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities. Phamaly’s mission is to inspire people to re-envision disability through professional theater. In 2009, PBS News Hour did a segment on the company and its level of professionalism (www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-july-dec06-theater_08-29/). The company was named best area theater company of 2012 by Denver’s 5280 magazine. Phamaly also received the Alliance for Colorado Theatre’s 2012 Professional/Community Theatre Award and NEA Art Works grants in both 2013 and 2014.
In March, the company travelled to Japan for its first-ever international performance, the musical The Fantasticks in Osaka. The company will also lead a series of acting workshops for the community during its 10-day stay sponsored by the International Communication Center for Persons with Disabilities, also known as “Big i” (www.big-i.jp/)
More information at www.Phamaly.org.
Getting to Know ‘Regs’
TIM GILMER: On your website you say you love people who are not afraid to make fools of themselves. Did you do that growing up?
REGAN LINTON: In school I could slip into clownage pretty easily. I would dress as Santa and pass out goodies. In high school I was student body president, a big “spirit girl,” always dressing up in school colors. Maybe it was a defense mechanism, I don’t know. Every day was zany. In middle school, I would try out outfits. One day I wore a long jean skirt and a friend said I looked like a 30-year-old teacher. Next day I wore a sweater and tight stretch pants, just trying to fit in.
TG: Searching for yourself? Did you ever do something crazy?
RL: In Denver there’s a program called MisCast. I did a song from Chorus Line — this is after my SCI — working up a tap dance routine with my hands. I got a pair of full male tap shoes, stuck my hands in them and had a small ironing board on my lap as my floor and I did my routine, occasionally hitting my chair for percussion. The name of the song was “I Can Do That.” At Halloween I would always dress in some wild getup. One year I went as an iceberg, all white and blue, and I held a poster board on my lap of Titanic, it was sinking into me and people were sinking into me.
TG: I see photos of you mugging on your website with a camel and a deer. What’s that about?
RL: My brother is a businessman in Dubai. He couldn’t come home for Christmas, so we joined him there. The camel was at a restaurant way, way out in the desert where they had a show with dancers and camels. And the deer, that was in Japan a couple of years ago. I was there to check out a big international communications center for people with disabilities, and they took us to the Nara Deer Park where they come right up to you. It helped that I was on the same level as the deer.
TG: So you obviously travel a lot.
RL: When we were growing up there were always road trips. My dad was a Naval Reservist, so we got to see a lot of the states. Later I went to Greece, Italy and France, and Mexico on spring break — I probably shouldn’t say much about that — too much alcohol. I went to Brazil for a community service program for Amigos de Las Americas. I built bañeros (outhouses for people who had no bathrooms), taught kids how to brush their teeth. My parents instilled in us the value of travel, the different ways we encounter the world.
TG: You were very athletic before your injury, weren’t you?
RL: In high school I did all kinds of stuff — soccer, softball, ran cross country (just because a teacher needed someone and offered me extra credit, but running was not my favorite). I skied, swam one season. Because sports is a good option to get back into things, I tried a lot of adaptive sports, but my passion is still in theater even though I enjoy doing these things. Swimming I settled into, I love to swim. I try to swim every week.
TG: And you like being outdoors. I saw a great photo of you riding an all-terrain vehicle.
RL: My aunt’s partner lives in Michigan, so we went there, he had this ATV I drove, and it was so much fun. I definitely want to try it again. We went crashing through the woods, had a couple of races. And my boyfriend, Will, lives in Bozeman — we have this long distance relationship. Once I was visiting and he told me about this river out in the middle of the wilderness. He was busy that day, so I went off rolling down a path with a dropoff, and somehow I got stuck sideways and couldn’t move my chair. If I turned, I would fall into the river and no one would know. That was scary. But somehow I managed to back myself up and get out of there. It reminded me of those stories when someone gets stuck in the wilderness, like that movie 127 Hours.
TG: Tell me about your boyfriend, Will.
RL: I never dated a lot before my injury at 20. I was interested in all kinds of people, platonic relationships, but never found anyone until after my injury. Last year, I did an acting workshop in New York City, that’s where I met him, and I never expected it. I was preparing myself to be single and an old maid, like a solitary Buddhist monk or something …
TG: That was our February 2014 issue — Kaitlyn and Greg, from Flagstaff — they go everywhere together.
RL: Yeah, that was it. When we were on our first date — I’m the kind of a girl who if I have to I’ll just pee in a bush — we went to see a show in Central Park, and the bathrooms were totally crowded, and I’m used to peeing in a bush, so I did. From that point on we were “bonded.” There wasn’t anything we wouldn’t do together.
TG: I find it hard to believe that you didn’t date much in high school. Do you think, because you were strong, athletic, pretty, smart, outgoing and popular, that maybe they were afraid of you?
RL: I was told a few years ago that I am intimidating, and I thought, what!? I’m just a confident woman. Hey, if that’s the case, you guys need to man up!
TG: What’s next for you?
RL: I’m a carpe diem kind of person and I don’t know where I’m going to be tomorrow, but if I got the opportunity to do a show in New York or London, I would love it.
TG: You’re talking Broadway.
RL: Yes, I would love the opportunity, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be me. There are other disabled actors who could do it, and we need that to happen.
TG: Why? Why do we need it?
RL: Because television and theater and film are a mirror of our reality, and it’s a really big deal. Society needs to see us for who we really are. When Amy Purdy danced on TV, and when the public sees athletes excelling in the Paralympics, or the Olympics, it’s an equalizer.
TG: And Broadway is the biggest stage.
RL: Yes it is, but you know we do shows in front of 500-600 people in Ashland, that was a big change, a big audience. There are days when you might have 400 students to play to. I love it.
TG: This story is all about transformation, your transformation. Interesting, isn’t it, and ironic, how you had to become all these different characters to find yourself?
RL: I’m a big yin-yang person, it’s all about the way balance functions in our lives. Is it the chicken or the egg? Do we have a true self, is there really such a thing, or are we exploring all the time? The more I stray from myself, the more I come back to something solid and real in my life. It’s like travel. You have to go and explore to be able to come home and it becomes part of you. Confidence grows with the characters I play, then in myself. You can’t have one without the other.
Fruits of the Starving Artist Life
When Regan Linton was struggling to make ends meet as a “starving artist” in Los Angeles, she also plied her craft. She co-wrote and directed Gimplecapped, a group of vignettes satirizing aspects of difference, showing it not as sappy or angry or pitiful, but funny and honest, billed as a “Journey of Inspiration.” (See it: www.sorethumbgroup.blogspot.com)
She also workshopped a role in An Accident. “I played a woman who is paralyzed after being hit by a car. For most of the play she is lying still in a hospital bed with little to no movement. Even being paralyzed, it was incredibly hard to rely fully on my voice to indicate every action of the play. It reminded me of the frustration I felt while lying in bed after my own injury, and the extent to which I’ve now learned to make every part of myself expressive, even the parts that don’t feel. That was the most I’ve been challenged on stage.”
She auditioned and did some work in New York City as well, where she workshopped a play at the Apothetae Theatre, whose mission is to stage “full-length plays that explore and illuminate the ‘Disabled Experience’ by making visible the human impact of disabled people throughout history, thus changing perceptions.”
One NYC audition was at the Lincoln Center, where apparently disabled actors are off the radar. She surprised the audition people, who clearly had never dealt with an actor on wheels and greeted her by saying, “We didn’t know we had an elevator.”
Shakespeare and More
Oregon Shakespeare Festival has a company numbering more than 550 that includes over 90 actors, a budget of $32 million and an attendance exceeding 400,000. With as many as nine plays performing concurrently, OSF offers a wide-ranging playbill, including Shakespeare, American classics, musicals, contemporary works and world premieres. Artistic director Bill Rauch is consistently recognized nationally for his contributions and has received a number of awards. Past actors include William Hurt, Stacey Keach, Jean Smart, Anthony Heald and Kyle MacLachlan. For the most part the company consists of stage actors, committed to a number of months per year to acting in repertory.
In 2008, OSF launched a cycle of new play commissions, which has already resulted in several of them finding success nationwide, and one — developed and premiered at OSF — received a Tony Award for Best Play. More information about OSF can be found at www.osfashland.org.