When Thomas Ellenson was born, he spent ten days in the neonatal intensive care unit; his parents stood watch over their infant, hoping he would live. “My mom told me that my dad sat by me and sang ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Misérables ten times a day. She told my dad that I would think my life is a musical,” says Ellenson. “She was right.”
From the moment he was born, Ellenson was primed for a life in the theatre, but not a typical one. Ellenson lives with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder caused by brain injury or abnormal development of the brain that leads to a loss in motor abilities. Though he speaks using an assistive device and has motor impairments, Ellenson’s mental capacity is typical for a 20-year-old, and his creative abilities exceed them; Ellenson is already an award-winning playwright. His solo show It Is What It Is debuted in May Off-Off-Broadway as part of The One Festival’s playwriting competition and won.
Inspired by Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays, Ellenson brings his own brand of honesty and humor to the show he stars in and co-wrote with actor Christopher J. Hanke (Rent, How to Succeed…), who also directs the show. “When I saw 700 Sundays by Billy Crystal I thought, ‘Wow. He’s such a famous guy and yet he told a story that everyone could relate to,” says Ellenson. “I thought I should write a story about myself.” Fostered by the group Creative Arts Team for the past five years, Ellenson developed his skills. Now, It Is What It Is will play five performances at New York City’s Flamboyan Theatre October 19–23. Below, Ellenson shares in an e-mail interview more about his inspiration for the play, why he wants to make disabilities funny, and his thoughts on inclusivity in mainstream theatre.
For tickets and information about It Is What It Is, click here.
It is often the case that those who have been marginalized (by race, ethnicity, gender, ability) write their own material in order to be able to perform. Sometimes that material is a story completely separate from their identity, sometimes it’s their story. Since you have such a love of diverse theatre, what made you want to tell a story so close to home?
Thomas Ellenson: We have plays about disabilities but so often they are written by people without disabilities. I don’t say that those plays are bad. They can be amazing. But the playwrights can’t truly know what’s actually going in our life. A lot of those plays wind up with a really heroic ending—or a really tragic one. But that’s not life. When you have disabilities, life just keeps going, and it is every bit as important for people to know that. I wanted to write a play with a real life of a young guy who has a disability and can’t talk. So I wanted to show how our life feels normal and special to us. Just like yours.
What is the part of the play you are most proud of?
I think I’m most proud of the end, because after I won The One Show Festival I worked with my friend, the actor and director Christopher Hanke, to rewrite it so it would be better and deeper. I wanted to challenge myself to bring even more to my story. Also, I’m proud of the projections because they bring so much energy to the show, both amplifying my feelings and also adding humor. They are designed by my friend, Zack Lobel, who is studying theatre at Wesleyan.
The description of the play says that you want to show disabilities can be interesting and funny. How do you make disabilities funny without “making fun”?
I think that we have to make fun of disabilities because our life is hell. No one wants to see that. And even if they do, they sure don’t want to be part of it. I think we need for people to see that we can get by in life—and be happy—even with all these challenges. Let’s face it: Laughing is the key to a happy life.
How can we, as a theatre community and as audiences, help be more inclusive towards actors with disabilities?
I know that it’s really hard to have actors with disabilities because it messes up everything. It challenges the way the audience thinks about the actors. And there are also issues like making theatres accessible. But we need to try. I think that the theatre community is trying to be inclusive. For example, can you believe it… The Glass Menagerie never even had a real actor with a disability until one of our most brilliant directors, Sam Gold, cast a fantastic actor who actually has a disability. And it revealed completely new things about the play. But Sam also had a guy with minor disabilities in his version of Othello, so people could get used to disabilities also in the background. A brilliant play by Martyna Majok called The Cost of Living was all about life with disabilities. Even though she doesn’t have a disability she cast Gregg Mogzala, who has CP, and I’m sure it helped clarify the character—who was not a nice guy at all. But the best answer to your question of ‘How can we help be more inclusive towards actors with disabilities?” is to cast them!
Would you like to play a character someday who was not necessarily written as being affected by CP? If so, what character in what show?
Yes. I love musicals so much I’d love to be in one. I think that The Drowsy Chaperone should be perfect for me because I can play the Man in the Chair. I already have a chair. It was one of the first shows I ever saw. It was really funny. Of course, he sings twice and I can’t sing, but we can figure something out.
It’s a difficult conundrum where we want authenticity in casting and also inclusivity. In that vein, do you think only actors with disabilities should play characters with disabilities?
Actors play all sorts of people that they’re not. They need to understand what it’s like to be super smart, or super strong, or lonely, or funny. So I guess it’s fair to think an able-bodied actor can play someone with disabilities—if they really study what it means to have disabilities—because theatre tries to balance the specific with the universal. But it can’t always be the case.
I think that directors and producers make the choice of using an able-bodied actor mostly because it will be easier to put on the production. They don’t have to worry about making stages accessible, or needing more time to rehearse, or how would they get language into a speech device like mine. That is where we have the real problem because those people are trying to project a reality about disabilities when they’re not even willing to deal with those realities in their own production!
As for what actors with disabilities should play…of course actors with disabilities should play any characters! Most playwrights don’t start stage instructions with [From the right, Willy Loman, the fully able-bodied Salesman who speaks without technological assistance, enters, carrying two large sample cases.] I realize that’s probably what they were thinking, but I doubt most playwrights would think that a person with disabilities couldn’t have the very same emotional experiences that Willy has. Let’s open it up!
Do you have any additional thoughts we didn’t address that you’d like to share?
Just one. I’m so thrilled about this! It takes years to create plays and musicals. I still can’t believe that worked five years and created It Is What It Is and then I actually won a festival. Now to have a real Off-Off Broadway show for five nights at only 20…it’s so unreal! And I just want to thank a few people. CAT Theater group, and Helen White, without whom I wouldn’t be an actor! Christopher Hanke, a beautiful friend and mentor, who has helped me grow so much. And the fantastic Seth Rudetsky, who is helping me turn the show on Monday, October 23, into a small benefit.
For tickets and information about It Is What It Is, click here.