Rule Breaking: Disability As Performance

Inspired by Andrew Solomon’s book Far from the Tree, this participatory action research/performance project is part of the NYU Drama Therapy Program’s As Performance series and will be the featured performance of the series in November 2015 at the Provincetown Playhouse.

Background for As Performance Series

The As Performance series is produced by the NYU Program in Drama Therapy, Robert Landy, PhD, Program Director. The series is funded in part by a grant from the Billy Rose Foundation.

Between 2011 and spring 2015, the NYU Drama Therapy Program produced 22 therapeutic theater productions as part of the series. These productions, which drew from various drama therapy and applied theatre practices, were also performative, living enquiries into the experience of surviving cancer, the aftermath of suicide, and bullying amongst other life challenges. A premise of the work is that experience is written on the body and in relationship and thus may be understood as a script that is best revealed and revised as performance. The questions at the heart of the As Performance series are: How does performance transform the therapeutic encounter? How does performance contribute to healing?

Rule Breaking: Disability As Performance

Rule Breaking is performative research and theater about the impact of disability on emotional intimacy in relationship. All participants function as co-researchers/collaborators in the inquiry process. Participants entered the research in dyadic relationship (parent/child, sibling/sibling, direct support staff/consumer). Using drama therapeutic an applied theater processes including free-associative improvisation, role reversal, working with text, monologue and scene writing, use of actual developmental evaluations, storytelling and self-reflection, participants have distilled experiences of encounter between each other which have now been scripted by playwright Alec Silberblatt into a full length play.

The performance-research project has proudly received two funding grants from New York University—the NYU Steinhardt 2015 Arts and Culture Grant and the NYU 125th Anniversary Fund grant. It has also been selected as a featured presentation at the North American Drama Therapy Association 2015 Conference in White Plains, New York.

Emerging Themes in the Research Process

These themes include an interrogation of disability theory that, in part, examines the power and privilege of one group over another. In our research, we have begun to track and code when a person with a disability is aware that their personal agency over body or choices is being controlled by someone else. The insights into the frequency with which this experience is perceived and named within the improvisations have led to some rich discussion and insight around this topic.

Other emerging material involves issues around gender identity, queer and disabled bodies (several of our members identify as LGBTQ, one of our members is a person with intellectual disability who is also a transgender female. She has in recent years been engaged in a long legal battle with her parents who are her legal guardians) in order to receive hormones for her transition. Her experience in transition and the resiliency that she has had to demonstrate throughout the process has also become an organizing focus in our group. As a person who legally has no agency over her own body (due to IQ below 70) this group member’s struggle for self-determination has become a rallying cry within the group.

We are discovering how building and inhabiting co-creative community has implications for the “ethic of care” in clinical and familial relationships. How do we define and create community? What are the values that under-gird it? We are creating and discussing around these questions, as well.

Drama Therapist and Theologist, Roger Grainger, writes about a healing theater. His ideas are another source of inspiration for this project. In The Open Space he wrote,

“Human vulnerability, our own or other people’s, draws us closer to one another, just as fear keeps us apart. The gap between the two realities—one concrete, the other imagined—acts as a safeguard against fear but allows love to reach out towards the other person. Theater is always about pain: pain of breaking free from ourselves, pain of identifying with the suffering of others even if this is what we—and they—dismiss as the discomfiture of embarrassment. Theater is about the way we see ourselves: the way we value ourselves, protect ourselves, bestow ourselves. Because of these things it is also about how we discover ourselves, not merely theoretically but existentially, in and through relatedness” (p. 163).

Examples of the process:

  1. Here is an example of a photographic experiment we conducted “playing our role” (Mother, Son, Sister, Brother, Direct Care Staff, Client) and then playing the role of the “other person who we came to the research with.” We were not in the room with each other when we did the experiment and, yet, discovered that the images tell a potent story about how “playing the other” leads us to a greater sense of understanding of the other or understanding or how we internalize the other. For example, in this diptych below is a “Mother” pose. Real life Mother and Son are both “playing Mother.” The images are very similar in tender affect, posture, and gesture.

photo credit: Debra Weinstein, New York University

  1. Music is another part of the research process. One of our group members wrote and played a song about a friend who is away at college and has a more “normative” life experience. Words an music by Ethan Jones (collaborator).
  1. We’ve been thinking about the Punk nature of resistance among our members with disabilities. Watch our collaborator Ethan at age 4 being totally non-complaint in a speech and language evaluation. Go to minute 20 through 22 and watch Ethan fight the power. Watch the hands and the combination of words and hands as an evaluation process occurs: Ethan’s Video

The work has been rich and profound for everyone concerned. Our effort towards an anti-hegemonic worldview through the theater has brought each of us closer to an understanding of the impact of disability on our lives, closer to each other, and closer to the change we wish to be and to see in the world.

A Note From the Playwright:

The play is about a community of people coming together.  People that know each other, that care for each other, that fear for each other.

The challenging part was finding a structure that could carry each individual’s story.  Once I had done that, I had spent enough time with the group to know how they talked, what they believed, what they held dear, to write each person as a full character.
We ran into ethical challenges with certain aspects of the stories.  What’s appropriate to show on stage in front of people?  How will parents react to certain scenes?  Ultimately, those questions were answered by “what is the truth?”  Returning to the truth of the situation, rather than an overdramatized version of events, solved most questions.  As simple as a name.  When writing Delia’s story, I felt it wasn’t my place to decide the character name.  Delia’s name was something she had chosen, it was something that was a huge part of her and her story, even within the play.  I opted to call the character simply Delia, and let her decide what her name in the play would be.  She chose Delia.

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