In a prepared statement, Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis said, “John was a brilliant playwright, a tireless advocate for the disabled, a profound thinker, and a warm and generous friend. John's great project was exploring how we depend on one another, and many of us grew to depend on him. His disability gave him a powerful understanding of how it requires a community to make us fully human, and he was a joyous participant in the life of the many communities who will mourn him. His death is a terrible loss, and we will miss him more than words can express.”
John Belluso, whose works were staged with increasing frequency in recent seasons, was found in his hotel room in New York City. The cause of death is not yet known.
Mr. Belluso was confined to a wheelchair, and many of his plays featured a disabled character. In Henry Flamethrowa, seen Off-Broadway at Studio Dante in May 2005, a teenager reveals his plans to disconnect his comatose younger sister Lilja from her breathing ventilator and allow her to die. Pyretown, staged by the Keen Company Off-Broadway in January 2005, concerned an unlikely love affair between a young man in a wheelchair and a middle-aged single mom.
Other plays included Body of Bourne, about essayist, poet and orator Randolph Bourne, a disfigured writer who managed to compose three books and more than a hundred essays before he died in 1918 at the age of 32; and Gretty Good Times, seen at Ensemble Studio Theatre, about a paralyzed, but vivacious and headstrong young woman living in a nursing home who frequently entertains two dream visitors—Hideko, a young Japanese woman disfigured by the bomb at Hiroshima, and Ralph Edwards, host of "This Is Your Life. " Mr. Belluso said that being disabled aided his understanding of what it took to be a playwright. “Finding the balance between participating and observing is really the key to being a good writer and a happy person,” he told the San Francisco Observer in 2005. “My disability has done nothing but help me understand that process.”
He named Maria Irene Fornes, Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin among his influences, and actually became friends with Mr. Chaikin, who, after a stroke in 1984, suffered from aphasia. “He was in some ways a great example of someone who is a master at what they do, but then when they become disabled they are somehow discounted as not being what they used to be. It was a shame, because a lot of people missed out on what he was doing the last few years of life.”
John Belluso was born in Warwick, RI, according to the New Dramatists website. The Observer reported that Mr. Belluso was misdiagnosed at the age of three as having a fatal form of muscular dystrophy. He has been in a wheelchair since the age of 13. At 17, he was correctly diagnosed as having Engleman-Camurdrie Syndrome, a non-fatal bone disorder that limits muscle strength. He received his Bachelors and Masters degrees from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Dramatic Writing Program, where he studied with Tony Kushner, John Guare, Tina Howe and Eduardo Machado.
Belluso's other plays include Traveling Skin, Challenger, The Rules of Charity and Knot Stew. He was a recipient of the 1995 John Golden Playwriting Prize. He was the NEA/TCG playwright-in-residence at Trinity Rep and a Resident Artist at the Mark Taper Forum. His other awards include the Mark Taper Forum’s Sherwood Award for Emerging Theatre Artists, the John Golden Playwriting Prize, and the NYU Tisch School of the Arts Dramatic Writing Program’s Graduate Playwriting Award. He also wrote for such television shows as “Eyes” and “Deadwood.”
At the time of his death, Mr. Belluso was working toward a reading of his new play, The Poor Itch, set for the Public Theater on Feb. 27.
Mr. Belluso told the Observer that he expected that disability would always be a theme in his work. “It is an experience that shapes my life and view of the world, and a topic that I find endlessly fascinating because there is that universal element… It is the one minority class in which anyone can become a member of at any time.”