Romeo played by a wheelchair user. Alexander Hamilton portrayed by an amputee. Willy Loman performed by an autistic actor. These are examples of what co-executive directors Mickey Rowe and Talleri McRae envisioned while brainstorming the creation of National Disability Theatre, which exclusively employs actors, directors, producers, designers and other staff who have disabilities.
“A company producing large-scale professional work run entirely by people with disabilities will show the world that our differences really are our strengths,” says Rowe, who is also an actor with autism. “We want to flip the script and eliminate the single story of people with disabilities, showing that we are neither inspirational nor charity cases — just powerful and ferocious professionals.”
Still in its infancy stage, the company already has 16 advisory committee members made up of well-known and successful disabled actors, including Micah Fowler from ABC’s “Speechless”and Ali Stroker from FOX’s “Glee.”
All of the productions will have accessibility at the forefront of their performances, whether on stage, backstage or in the audience — using accommodations such as open captioning, active listening systems, interpreters, audio description and more. Those with visual impairments will be allowed to come backstage to touch and feel the costumes and props. And the theater, stage, sets, props, costumes and equipment will be made fully accessible to those with mobility impairments.
Because NDT wants its performances to be the showcase, not its performers’ disabilities, the company has decided to avoid works about disability. “NDT uses the lens of disability to tell stories on stage,” says McRae. “Any play, be it a favorite, familiar title or a brand-new play in development can be powerfully portrayed through the lens of the lived experience of disability and difference.”
The company has announced its first performance will be “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” set to debut in the fall of 2019. And with a lot of interest from regional theaters around the country, McRae says a co-production model will be a good fit for its premiere. The company is also considering a traveling reading series at various locations around the country featuring plays by disabled playwrights. “This series would accomplish two goals,” says McRae. “Providing a platform to discuss the work of Disabled Theatre artists, and also providing [nondisabled] regional theater professionals the opportunity to learn more about Disability Theatre.”