In September 2012, theater artists Suli Holum and David Bradley attended one of three FringeArts Festival presentations of Food Court. Holum and Bradley are working with Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities for another Center-supported project that explores theater’s potential to engage audiences in dialogue around histories and present-day issues of disability. Holum also attended a performance workshop with the cast members of Back to Back Theater, to learn about their process in creating provocative works such as Food Court. Here, both artists reflect upon the ways disability and difference might be represented, interrogated, and objectified in performance, as they deal with similar issues in their ongoing work.
As a theater director and a playwright, respectively, currently working with actors with intellectual disabilities, were you as disturbed by the production as others?
Suli Holum: I found most of the event difficult to watch. I felt uncomfortable and I had the urge to avert my eyes; I was being shown things I did not want to see, was listening to music that was jarring.
David Bradley: I had the same sense of watching things I did not want to see. The piece moved so swiftly from the ordinary (an actor coming out, changing placement of spike tape) to the cruel, that it gave the cruelty a kind of cold matter-of-factness, and that made the cruelty even more uncomfortable. This was certainly not a world I wanted to be inside.
SH: Often I find that violence onstage is presented in a way that makes it easy to watch. That was certainly not the case in this work.
How did specific production choices—the use of scrim, the continuous music, the projection of supertitles—affect your experience?
DB: At times, I felt the layers of scrim and persistent music heightening the experience and at other times, I felt them pushing me away, contributing to my feeling of being an outsider.
SH: I was aware of a very careful hand orchestrating the event. This was confirmed in the final moments, when the performer and the space underwent a complete transformation: a character that had been nonverbal stood in the cavernous space of the emptied stage and delivered Caliban’s speech from The Tempest. It was a bold and hugely theatrical moment and I found it deeply satisfying.
How did it make you think about the portrayal of people with disabilities onstage, or the stories that can be told?
DB: I had a conversation with someone right after the show, which brought up a question that grabbed me. She said, “When the first actor came out onstage, I wondered, ‘Is this person playing a person who has a disability or not, and would we have actors with disabilities playing characters who did not?’” The piece had characters that commented on the disability of another character, as well as characters whose disabilities were left unremarked upon. We watched power struggles, cruelty, and the attempt to recover from marginalization—all of which can be experienced both by people with disabilities and people without. I found this intentional layering provocative. How would the story of two people who are so deliberately tormenting another play if any of the characters did not have disabilities? When are we all Caliban, struggling to express our individual experiences even as we are denied our individuality? I found the piece both offering universal connection, yet also prompting a kind of estrangement. We all have these capacities for cruelty and can all suffer from marginalization. Yet can we truly identify with the actors/characters we saw? That question of identification will be alive as we work on our piece with Temple’s Institute on Disabilities.
SH: People with disabilities can tell whatever story they want to tell. They have the same breadth of access to the human experience as anyone else, and the work should reflect that. The goals for the piece David and I are collaborating on with, about, and for the intellectually disabled (ID) community are different; we are generating a work of community art that is about the ID rights movement and a struggle for inclusiveness. We’ll end up with a piece of theater that hopefully makes an audience feel included rather than alienated—but it will need to bring up issues of exclusion and alienation in a way that reverberates.
Suli, you participated in Back to Back Theatre’s workshop. How did that prepare you, or not, for viewing the work?
SH: I found out that the questions driving the artists in Back to Back are the same as the ones driving me in my work. They ask questions such as: How do we explore the place where style and content meet? How do we create work that challenges assumptions about what theater is and what it can do? How do we take questions raised by one project and turn them into the seeds of the next one?
An earlier Back to Back piece of note was a collaboration with actors from outside of the ID community. Some audience members questioned why the performers with ID were portrayed as innocent and good while the other performers were bad. The company decided that the next question they wanted to tackle was, “How do we portray characters with ID who are bad and who do evil things?” That was the seed for Food Court. From my experience generating work in a group, I’m guessing that it led to other questions and experiments such as, ‘How do we stage violence that feels authentic without being literal?’ and ‘What are the ways in which we are cruel to each other?’, which, in turn, likely led to choices about text, music, and staging.
How did the discussion afterwards provide context or perspective on the piece, the performers, and/or the approach?
SH: I appreciated hearing directly from the performers. I felt that there was a concern among some audience members that the performers, because of their disabilities, may not be aware of the effect of the piece. For instance, one of the performers disrobed onstage and it was exciting to hear her say that the act of disrobing made her feel powerful—that it was her choice to do it and that she felt no shame. The character she portrayed was a victim but she was not; she was an empowered artist. It was further explained that she is one of the more experienced members of the ensemble and has been generating experimental performance works for years.
DB: There was clearly ownership of the work by an ensemble that felt empowered. This was evident from the curtain call the night we saw it—the actors stood as joyful performers, reveling in connection with the audience. I was struck by the director’s description of an improvisation central to the piece’s development, in which the two actors played characters that persisted in tormenting a third character, played by a new member of the ensemble. This improv went on for quite a while and included the tormenting characters making the other woman take off her clothes. The director spoke to his dual responsibilities of artistic exploration and care for the well-being of the ensemble: How long should he let this go on, and did he have a duty to stop it? In a way it was akin to our experience watching—discomfort, concern, and ongoing negotiation.