Monday, March 28, 2016

Hail, Mary: Performing as/by Gay and Disabled Jocks

Thomas Gorrebeeck (center) in Andrew Henderaker's Colossal at SF Playhouse.
The intersection of sports, disability and gay love is not an easy balance in art. Few have tried. 

Having taken on this trio of themes a few times (to some good notices, thank you), I was quite interested to see Andrew Henderaker's Colossal at SF Playhouse, which succeeds quite well in this triple-play subgenre.

A three-piece drum corps appropriately accompanies the scene shifts from practice to games, to personal moments in this four-quarter drama. Director John Tracy has assembled a brisk spectacle of heightened drama on a vast Astroturf stage.

Younger Mike, played by the handsome Thomas Gorrebeeck, has strong vigor in his depiction of the hunky football quarterback we wish was gay, and who, it turns out, is. 

Colossal's Thomas Gorrebeeck and Jason Stojanovski
While his deeply closeted on-team affair is hindered, his older self replays his on-field injury while resisting physical therapy and his sardonic trainer. Gorrebeeck leads a tightly choreographed team of actors, a Greek chorus in compression pants and shoulder pads.

Colossal should also be enjoyed for the empathetic yet mostly somber Mike, played by Jason Stojanovki. That he is both disabled and Australian are of note, and fulfill a goal of real representation, even in such a designed style.

Strongly woven movement, short scenes, and percussion provide a masculine Brechtian presentation, where, between the tim-toms and snare drum, the quieter moments of Mike, his father, or his lover's lives intersect with a heartbeat or clock-like sound. It's a beautiful broad production. While the minimal script may underplay in its brevity, the clock is ticking, upstage, actually. 

Another important issue in the play is the greater problem of debilitating sports injuries. It's countered by shirtless dancing, which seemed an odd mix.

But Colossal solves the problem of presenting actors from before and after an injury while being real. Actors with disabilities are still not represented enough in art, and Stojanovki's casting is great. That he and his "other" Mike don't look alike is irrelevant, because it's theatre. Colossal freezes –and freizes– the moment of Mike's injury in stop/rewind to examine not how, but why it happened.

But what if you get it wrong? And this one didn't, I'd say. What if it feels like sympathy bait, the pathos of recovery, and disappointment when the body fails; the melodrama of it all. How much is too much? And shouldn't actually disabled performers get more opportunities?

I was discussing the aspects and intersection of dis- and able-bodied actors, with a friend who linked a show he saw in Australia, where disability and performance arts blend beautifully.

Sometimes, disability becomes a theatrical device. Actor Michael Patrick Thornton is getting rave reviews for his role as Richard III at Steppenwolf Theatre, and a robotic breakthrough from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago helped make it all happen.

Robert Softley Gale
And with the Glasgow-based theatre company Bird of Paradise, disability is a main focus of the works presented, as discussed with Artistic Director Robert Softley Gale in this Scope feature.

I'm considering the question of how far can you go to add disabled actors for specific or other roles, since we're seeing it more and more. If the theater world is adapting, why not in the book and film industry?

In mainstream literature, where I am long afar to tread, one of the biggest book publishing conventions rarely included gay panels, and events were hampered for years. And so it is with disabled writers even last year.

In a Medium essay on the dissing of disabled writers at the huge AWP book conference, Katey Rose Guest Pryal penned, "Write Character With Disabilities Who Don't Suck, or we'll make fun of you."

Disabled authors aren't getting a fair chance at the conference, as witnessed by Pryal, who described the ridiculous resistance to adding a panel with and about disabled authors.
"Months before the conference, writers submit panel proposals on a variety of topics. This past year, just like every year, writers with disabilities submitted panels on disability topics. Then, in the fall of 2015, when the acceptances were going out for #AWP2016, it became apparent that every single disability-focused panel had been rejected."
 After being mistreated through their series of accommodation proposals, the reply was derisive. A representative of AWP published a diatribe about theircomplaints in the Huffington Post, and then quickly took it down.You can read its redacted form on the Medium link.

So this is why, as the Medium feature shares blogger/writers like Jillian Weise share snarky shade for writers who just want to "throw in a disability," like a flavor.

Stage Presence
When asked if I fancied adapting Every Time I Think of You to the stage or screen, the first thing that came to my mind was; hopefully someone could find twin actors for Everett, one disabled, to play both roles realistically. 

Of course that would be a tough call, but it never hurts to try. One could start with SAG-AFTRA, which recently created a special on Performers With Disabilities, and advancing casting opportunities.
Sam Renke (right) in Little Devil

Any time it works, do it. In the UK, actress Sam Renke stars in the film Little Devil.
She pulls no punches in assessing this overdue inclusion in broadcast TV.
“I’m not a ‘sit at home’ type of girl, I’m very pro-active in raising awareness in what to me, is still a blinkered world at times. The shameful lack of diversity at the Oscars, again, means that all of us in a perceived ‘minority’ must make a noise and demand change. The world’s population is amazingly varied – something not reflected by The Academy and its white, wealthy, aging heterosexual male members.”"
Having read some of the best and worst of straight and gay disability romances, thrillers, etc., I get it, and know more voices need to be added, stories without  'disability pity, inspiration porn,' a template all too overused. Non disabled people writing screenplays for non-disabled actors may still become easy Oscar bait, but independent producers aren't going that route.

Olivia Wilde
A simpler term: 'cripface' in film and TV, at least. Olivia Wilde's portrayal of a woman with Down Syndrome has been critiqued as the latest such example.

I wonder if some reviewers, readers and theatre-goers can compare depictions of disabled, gay, or all three aspects of a character in a review. I wonder if audiences appreciate both authenticity and storytelling. Certainly, when casting, it makes sense to at least hire two out of three.

Goal Tender
I hope I've been honest, and real yet literary, in my work. I've only read of one disabled person among thousands of readers who expressed any form of disappointment in my depiction of athletes, gay or disabled. That queen just did not like my writing. But he also hated a few Pulitzer Prize winners, so whatever.

It's a difficult balance, writing and creating art about something you have not experienced directly. The above praised works are worthy editions to the stories that combine all or some of these themes. I hope mine are, too.
PINS on stage 2002

My own stage adaptation of PINS, a vastly trimmed version of the novel, included wrestling scenes which led to plot shifts and weren't merely for show. It seemed to work. In contrast to SF Playhouse's widescreen drama, PINS sweated in the basement black box of New Conservatory Theatre Center, to mostly appreciate reviews.

You can't see more than the photos, or read the play.  But it was my first attempt to cover this trifecta of themes.

Until some smart producer decides to restage PINS, in say, a gymnasium, at the 2018 Gay Games, in French, perhaps?  I could see a more wrestling-music mix emerging from the wings, or locker room. Oh, and a live band!), go see Colossal for a bigger, broader take on similar themes done well.

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