If you want to know where disability has made the biggest impact in any form of American media, check out the live theater listings in New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, Seattle and maybe your town, too. Long a fountainhead of innovation and inspiration for film and television, the “thea-taa” — actors, playwrights, musical dramatists and the impresarios who pay for it all — has gradually been introducing characters and plot lines featuring disability experiences since The Miracle Worker first opened on Broadway in 1959. Just in the last two to three years, though, the pace has greatly accelerated. Performers with disabilities have gone from cast members to known quantities and even stars, while productions about disabilities have gone from small notices in the back pages of the The New York Times to major award winners.
Even if you have never seen a live production of a play and get your regular entertainment fix from film and TV, you should be jumping for joy, at least figuratively. Theater is busting through roadblocks and upending clichés. This stuff will spread. Success in American show business is contagious and cross-fertilizing.
Let’s start with the most heralded such success of this very noteworthy theater season. This year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded to playwright Martyna Majok for Cost of Living, her drama/comedy about four people — two couples alone in two apartments in New Jersey. The play focuses on Ani, recently paralyzed at a high level from a car accident, and her estranged husband, truck-driver Eddie, who desperately wants to reconnect. Then, in alternate scenes, the main couple is John, rich and bright but in need of personal assistance due to cerebral palsy, and Jess, his just-hired caregiver. Both Ani and John are in wheelchairs for the entire play. Ani is played by double-amputee Katy Sullivan, and John is played by Gregg Mozgala, who has CP.
The play intertwines the struggle of intimacy and loneliness within the lives of these two couples. It is searing, darkly funny, unsentimental, subtly sensuous — “My mind’s a great lover,” Ani says — and perhaps most importantly, as one review notes, “slams the door on uplifting stereotypes.” Disability is not a topic here, nor a flag of protest or exclusion. It’s a reality that informs and impacts the lives of everyone involved and links up with the most human of experiences. “In both stories,” says critic Jesse Green in The New York Times, “the biggest handicaps are the universal ones: fear and disconnection.”
“If you don’t find yourself in someone onstage in Cost of Living,” he concludes, “you’re not looking.”
Sullivan, aka Ani, “the hilariously foul-mouthed New Jersey terror,” as Green describes her, is a legitimate star in this new world of the theater of inclusion. She is riding high. For her role in Cost of Living she has been nominated for the highest theatrical awards — the Drama League, the Outer Circle Critics, and the Lucille Lortel — and she recently won the Theatre World Award.
She is having, in her own words, “her victory lap.”
Like most actors who make it, disabled or not, Sullivan is a decades-long overnight success. A Paralympian who didn’t compete until age 25, she got a degree in theater at Webster College in St. Louis and worked her way up, first in Chicago, then New York and Los Angeles. Born with no legs below the knees, she mastered prosthetics at an early age and has played both disabled and nondisabled characters on stage. In a long skirt, she says, she can pass for any long-legged lass. In Cost of Living she plays a character who is a combined quad/amp, has the use of only one hand, and needs a caregiver, a role Eddie yearns to fill.
“We are seeing the needle move in theater,” she says, and as is often the case, “theater leads the charge, and Hollywood follows.” Her agent, Gail Williamson, also the agent to a number of other actors with disabilities flourishing on stage, adds that “theater people are the most receptive and inclusive people you can find.” Their interest in the lives of people with disabilities is not out of an abnormal helping of do-goodness, she says, but because of the creative possibilities these stories invite.
Williamson is riding the same wave of success as Sullivan. Her other clients include a Tony Award nominee — Lauren Ridloff, for the deaf lead in the Broadway revival of Children of a Lesser God — and three out of six Theatre World Award winners, including Ridloff, Sullivan and Jamie Brewer of American Horror Story fame for her role in the play, Amy and the Orphans, among others. Brewer is also up for a Drama Desk Award, as is Mozgala. Another off-Broadway production featuring four performers with disabilities, The Artificial Jungle, got its share of award nods, as did Evan Ruggiero, a tap dancer with one leg.
You get the idea — actors with disabilities are hot. Why is this happening? Actress/amputee Anita Hollander, herself an established success with her long-running, one-woman show, Still Standing, tracks performers with disabilities for the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and sees a slow evolution, then a big blip. She says the picture started to change in 2015-16, coming off the Broadway success of Deaf Theater West’s revival of Spring Awakening, including the notable performance of Ali Stroker as the first wheelchair using actress to appear on a Broadway stage. Already in 2018, there are 11 different theaters in New York featuring performers with disabilities. In Cost of Living, Hollander points out, even the two understudies for the roles of Ani and John were disabled. That’s a sign of genuine inclusion.
Back to Sullivan: Eager to expand her horizons with an upcoming feature role and create her own television vehicle, she says it all comes down to the love of acting and “an insane amount of ‘I can do that!’” Theater is a great place to start, in your own backyard or your local children’s playhouse. Start young, keep at it, go to acting school, hone your craft and think big.
Today — as never before in history — actors with disabilities have every reason to dream of taking a curtain call on Broadway.