Saturday, January 29, 2011

State of the Art (Part 1) Attitudes, Barriers and Opportunities

Preface: I will speak to these issues from personal experience and observation. Most of the content will be relative to Ontario, however, examples of what's going on in the rest of the world may be referenced.

State of the Art - now there's a term in contradiction; for the arts scene in Canada is anything but "state of the art".  In fact, we are way behind the rest of the world when in comes to inclusion, and access.  While there are numerous worthwhile arts organizations dedicated to the disability arts and "disability culture", there is very little for those of us who would like to break away from this segregated sub genre and get into the mainstream.

These organizations are great.  There is a lot of relevant, beautiful work being done, and there is much to be gained from participation in disability related projects; the most relevant being experience and confidence.  When I first started out, I wasn't aware such things existed, and I'm sure I would have benefited a lot more had I known.  

I also think that it is healthy to explore other possibilities and take the knocks and bumps from the outside world and not relegate or hide away our talents behind closed doors where few will see them.  I want to see someone on the stage in Stratford play Hamlet from a wheel chair, or Richard III with a physical disability.

Of course, this isn't just inherent to disability culture.  There are many arts organizations with a mandate to focus on specific cultural or age groups.  But with these groups, participants have the choice of working strictly within the confines of that group, or they can go out and pursue a more diversified career.  They can walk in both worlds.  Not so for persons with disabilities.

While no one is preventing anyone from attempting to integrate their talents within the mainstream arts and entertainment industry, attitudes, physical barriers and lack of opportunities present a challenge to even the most tenacious of us.

IMHO, one of the things that inhibits a person with a disability from taking that step into the world of the mainstream is attitude.  I think this is true of any workplace and accounts largely for the overwhelming statistics of the unemployment rate of people with disabilities.  A person in a wheelchair shows up for a job interview, the interviewer, or in our case, producer, or director or whatever, takes one look at that person and immediately has a preconceived notion that this candidate is not capable of performing what is asked, or that they will be too much trouble to work with. 

There are a good many individuals in the business who are open minded and accommodating, and I have been lucky enough to work with such people.  But there are an even larger number who have never had any contact with a person with a disability and get completely freaked out.  

I've seen this happen often.  I once participated as a playwright in a general audition where all the directors and producers auditioned actors over the period of a couple of days.  A blind actor showed up to audition. Afterwards there was a discussion among those in the room about how he was very good, but how would be able to act and work with others or if it was even possible.  It was the general consensus that this would not work.    

Without even giving the guy a chance, despite a brilliant audition, they concluded that when put out on the stage with fellow cast members he would fail. How can you prove that you are capable when you are ruled out before even being given a chance? I didn’t make any friends that day I can tell you!  Ah, but I was young and foolish, and hadn’t yet learned the game.

Then there are the physical barriers.  Attitudes aside, there is the consideration of the facility or the material itself.  If you get an audition or are cast. are you able to physically get into the building where it is being held?

In Toronto, chances are no. Thus, you are eliminated by circumstance from being able to do the work.  There are other types of physical barriers as well that are not quite so pronounced.  While I personally do not have mobility issues, I am unable to do a cold reading and I need decent lighting so I don't trip and fall on my head.  While I can read just fine, I must hold the sides too close to my face to give an effective performance.  Thus directors conclude incompetence.  

I need to have materials prior to audition, or an adequate accommodation must be made so that I can give a good "reading".  While the purpose for cold readings is obviously to see how well you can interpret and perform on the spot, for me, in the beginning, the prospect caused a great deal of stress and trepidation.  Admittedly, I myself was unaware at the time that there was any other way.  

This was the way it was done, an I just had to go in there and take my lumps like anyone else.  Now I know better.  But still there are those who make assumptions or are unwilling to compromise or make accommodations.   

Another type of physical barrier is appearance; the way you look.  In an industry (especially in North America) that is so intent on physical beauty and perfection, those of us who are less perfect  don't stand a chance out there.  Or so one might assume.  This is true for everyone, not just people with disabilities.  There's a lot of competition out there, and most often they are looking for a specific type.  Physical flaws and imperfections - however slight - are just another factor that can disqualify you from succeeding. 

In my case I have a visual disability; I have an astigmatism, and on top of that, I have glaucoma in my right eye which manifests itself as a white film on my cornea. 

Since a great deal of acting is conveyed with the eyes, much of emphasis is put on how this looks.  This has been the bane of my existence since I can remember.  It is impossible for me to conceal it (without   uncomfortable expensive prosthetic lenses).  Nor do I really care to anymore.  But they care, and it is one of those things that freaks them out, and they can't seem to get around.  I have always been very self conscious of it, and for me, it has always presented an obstacle I have not been able to overcome.

As far as opportunities are concerned, that is a whole new ball of wax!  

Casting aside, all the regular roles that one might like to take on, there are often specific roles concerning characters with disabilities.  For instance, say they are staging a The Miracle Worker in Stratford; A perfect opportunity, non?  Do you think that they will cast a deaf-blind or blind actor in that role?  Do you think they'd even think to look for one?   I can think of many examples where an "able bodied" person has been cast into such a role.  You wouldn't hire a white person to play the part of a specifically black character these days.  So why is it any different for the casting of disabled characters?  

In fact, when they do cast a regular actor in these roles, generally, they must get some "training" in order to learn how to play the part.  There's money well spent eh?  

An example would be in the film Blindness that was released a couple of years ago.  This is a film in which most of the characters go blind from an epidemic of “blindness”.  Yes, they did actually have blind actors audition (blind male actors). I didn't hear anything about a call for female actors, although I did go down to the casting agent's to scope out the situation.  None of these quite capable guys were hired. 

Instead, they opted to have someone come out and spend some time teaching the sighted actors how to be blind.  They blindfolded them and worked with them in a parking lot.  How disheartening is that? When I asked why this was, the excuse was that the characters didn’t start out blind, so using blind actors wasn’t appropriate. It was easier to teach sighted actors to pretend they were blind, rather than the reverse; even though the characters spent the majority of their screen time being blind. Here was a perfect opportunity for a prominent Canadian director to provide opportunities in a major Hollywood production, and they didn't.  

Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, this film had 700 extras who had to be trained to be blind. . .surely to God. . .but I digress. There are a lot of other issues with this film such as portrayal of blindness, but I'll save that for a different post topic.

I recently saw this person on one of my favorite shows and it totally ruined it for me.  It brought all the anger of that moment back -- and, I must admit, inspired me to start this blog.

So here we are in 2010 on the eve of .the AODA compliance standards coming into effect.  How will this effect the arts and entertainment industry?  My guess is it won't unless we get out there and bring about the awareness and change that is so badly needed.   We need to be seen and heard and be actively promoting our talent and abilities. The biggest hurtle to overcome, as far as I'm concerned is that fact that no one knows about us, or can't find us.  

We need to be listed in the talent banks, and seen on the stages and the screens.  We need to speak up when golden opportunities such as "Blindness" are thrown away.

I must admit, we've come a long way, but there's still miles before we sleep.  Canada is way behind.

In part II of State of the Art, I will be examining accessibility  to the arts community for arts practitioners with disabilities with a historical perspective and how the implementation of AODA can bring about change, and in part three, will take a look at access to live theatre for audiences with disabilities and compliance standards.  Good times!

Links of Interest;

Canadian Disability Arts Organizations

Picasso Pro


Arts series explores disability in Shakespeare plays; 

An analysis of the movie blindness;

Graeae (love this site! A prime example of an accessible theatre site from the UK.)


Friday, January 28, 2011

Let's See If This Fitz.

Welcome to my new blog.  Here I will examine accessibility issues and news.  But this won't be your ordinary accessibility blog rambling on about new innovations, insurmountable barriers or impending legislation.  Yes, there will be some of that, but I want to focus on empowerment, advocacy and the Arts; with an emphasis on Theatre. and what we, in the disability community can do to make our world a better place and get the most out of it.

The following are some of the topics I plan to cover;
Technology, web design, document design, employment in the arts and otherwise, Live Audio Description, opportunities for artists with disabilities.  That's just off the top of my head.  I'm sure we'll find many other things to discus here as time goes on.  I also welcome suggestions.  If you have a topic you would like covered, please feel free to send it to me.  I would even like to do some features on those of us with disabilities who work in the arts community.

That's it for now, and I hope everyone has a great weekend.