Why You Shouldn’t Call These Actors “Differently Abled”

Outside the Theatre   Why You Shouldn’t Call These Actors “Differently Abled”
 
Gregg Mozgala and Katy Sullivan unpack the fear, anxiety, and power of disability onstage in Manhattan Theatre Club’s Cost of Living.
Gregg Mozgala and Katy Sullivan
Gregg Mozgala and Katy Sullivan Marc J. Franklin

Who: Gregg Mozgala & Katy Sullivan
The Theatre: New York City Center – Stage I

Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living, is a play about love, class, intimacy, and loneliness. It dips in and out of these themes in a way that is moving and unexpected. It isn’t necessarily a play about disability, it just so happens that two of the four characters are physically disabled—as are the actors who play them: Gregg Mozgala, who has cerebral palsy (CP), and Katy Sullivan, who was born a bilateral above-knee amputee. The two actors open up about their experience of working on the play, and what it means to be a disabled performer in the entertainment industry.

Gregg Mozgala and Katy Sullivan
Gregg Mozgala and Katy Sullivan Marc J. Franklin

What is your experience of being a disabled performer—is it challenging to get work?
KS: I feel like it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. In this industry, you hope to have something that makes you stand out from the other performers, so, [disability] can be a really cool thing to incorporate into a show. That being said, disability can be a scary thing to the world in general because we’re not represented in the entertainment industry, considering how large the community is—it’s the largest minority in the country, [and yet] less than 1 percent of characters on television are disabled. I didn’t grow up seeing myself anywhere. The first time that I saw a woman that looked like me on TV was me. My hope is that when people start to see themselves reflected in art and in work, younger people will have something to point to and think: ‘I can do this.’ I feel like we’re at a tipping point with this—people are trying to be more inclusive. It’s about figuring out how to do it in a way that’s powerful.

Cost of Living certainly has some powerful moments. Gregg, in one scene, you are completely naked and being showered. How do you feel about that?
GM: I think that is one of the most beautiful moments in the play. To see a disabled body nude onstage, and in that vulnerable, intimate scenario—that’s a theatrical dream of mine. To have audiences see that, I think is really powerful.

Do you feel like disability can be used onstage or onscreen in a misguided way?
KS: I feel like when people are incorporating disability into a project, it’s either about it being inspiring or sad. [The disabled person] is not ever just a human being with needs and wants. I feel like Cost of Living does a really good job of just presenting people living their lives, rather than disability being this elevated thing or a big tragic event.
GM: I feel like to put a disabled person onstage in 2017 is a radical experimental act. The standard practice is to cast non-disabled actors as disabled, and that’s what people are used to.

Why do you think we haven’t set a practice of casting disabled performers in disabled roles?
GM: Katy touched on disability being a “scary thing”—there is a lot of fear and anxiety built into being disabled and how people perceive it. The context to disability is trauma, loss, and pain—really, scary things, and the fear is real. Also, from a pure acting perspective, actors like working through constraints [such as that].
KS: There’s a layer of challenge [for the actor] but also, there hasn’t been a breadth of opportunity for performers with disabilities. A lot of that is because a show hinges on whether it’ll draw an audience so you put an A-list actor in a wheelchair and [voila]. But performers with disabilities will never get to that level unless we’re given opportunities to play the roles that make the most sense for us to play.

Gregg, I know that you worked with playwright Martyna Majok in helping write some of the lines in the play. Can you tell me about that?
GM: Before we took the play to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, we did a workshop of the play and added a scene with a lot of description about what cerebral palsy is and how it feels in the body. She asked me about [how CP feels] and we figured that scene out together. What’s cool is that people with CP have come to see the show and [can relate to what the character is saying]. That’s amazing to me. Not only is it great to embody a character that has the same disability as me, but also, as an actor, I’ve never seen myself reflected back onstage. So to have people in my community see a character that is like them and articulate that experience, is really powerful.

Lastly, there’s a line in the play that makes fun of the term “differently abled.” Should non-disabled people stop saying it?
GM: No one really knows but, in my experience, people within the disabled community prefer “disabled.”
KS: I’m just thrilled to have the conversation. Let’s not be scared. I’d rather someone just ask me.

Cost of Living is playing through July 16. Tickets are available by calling CityTix at (212) 581-1212, online by visiting NYCityCenter.org, or by visiting the New York City Center box office, located at at 131 West 55th Street, New York.

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