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.