A character from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It famously states, “All the world’s a stage!” Ike Schambelan, artistic director of Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), expands on that quote to declare, “The stage is the way to change the world!”
How? As he explains, “Theater leads the way to bringing people into the mainstream.” He notes that although “thirty percent of all families have someone with a disability…we still need to bring disability into the mainstream. Theater does that. It gets the conversation going.”
TBTB (www.tbtb.org), a theater company funded by multiple sources, works for social change in the heart of New York City’s Theater Row. It is the only multiple-disability presence on the Off Broadway stage in New York at present. Although Schambelan founded TBTB in 1980 as the Theater of the Blind, four years ago the theater broadened its scope to include all disabilities. He says, “There are other good companies coming up.”
What does Theater Breaking Through Barriers do? According to its mission statement, TBTB is “dedicated to advancing actors and writers with disabilities and changing the image of people with disabilities from dependence to independence.” This is accomplished not only through the hiring and prominent inclusion of actors and writers with disabilities to work in off-Broadway productions, but also through a 10-Minute Play Festival of commissioned plays about disability.
10-Minute Play Festival
The idea of the 10-Minute Play Festival came from Beth Blickers, TBTB board Chair. Schambelan notes, “Being in New York gives us access to some of the best actors, directors and writers in the world.” Last year he put that mix of potential talent to the test by soliciting ten-minute plays from a variety of writers for a festival called Some of our Parts. He explains, “We chose the ten-minute play format because it is easier to get someone to write that size play for you.”
Last year’s inaugural festival showcased the work of seven writers whom theNew York Times reviewers called “an intriguing group of established and emerging playwrights”: Bekah Brunstetter, Samuel D. Hunter, Neil LaBute, Kate Moira Ryan, Diana Son, Jeff Tabnik and Emily Chadick Weiss. Fourteen actors, many with disabilities, displayed their talents for the 2011 production at the Clurman Theatre on W 42nd Street.
This year, TBTB’s More of our Parts, the second installment of the festival, ran from June 20 to July 1 and featured a new set of shorts, several by the same playwrights who wrote for the 2011 production. This time, Schambelan solicited scripts from other sources as well, reaching out to include new and younger writers. He says that although “two writers with disabilities said ‘no’ to me this year, [they] promised scripts for the future.” New to TBTB this year were playwrights Bruce Graham, A. R. Guerney and Jeffrey Sweet.
More of our Parts had lots of positive critical response and showcased 13 terrific actors, according to Schambelan. The Times said it was an “entertaining and worthwhile 70 minutes, witty and potent.” New York Theater Buying Guide said, “Our highest recommendation–don’t miss this dazzling package of one-acts by outstanding playwrights, delivered by an enormously talented creative team.”
In 2011, TBTB took several of that year’s ten-minute plays to a festival in Croatia. Actors from Britain and Croatia did small parts in the shows, extending the reach of the festival’s work to an international audience.
Word about this year’s festival reached the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., leading Betty Siegel, the Director of the Kennedy Center’s VSA and Accessibility Office, to invite the company to perform. “The Kennedy Center is always looking for dynamic and exciting new work by performing artists with disabilities or featuring issues relevant to the disability community,” says Siegel. “I’ve known of TBTB for a long time, and their 10-Minute Play Festival is something new and interesting.”
She explains the festival’s appeal like this: “They have gotten well-known playwrights, some with and some without disabilities, to write on a disability issue/theme/topic and produce those by casting actors with and without disabilities. This makes for the kind of engagement with the disability community and the theater community that I find really energizing. So, this seemed to be the right time to collaborate with TBTB to bring this work to DC. We wanted to produce something to celebrate the ADA anniversary.”
TBTB More of our Parts performance was held on July 24 on the Millennium Stage, a Kennedy-Center venue whose core philosophy is: the arts are for everyone. Performances there are free and some, like the TBTB production, are streamed live online.
Schambelan thinks that the Kennedy-Center appearance will promote even more positive inclusion for people with disabilities. He says, “We have been getting a lot of additional interest in the company…. I think that we have the Kennedy Center to thank for that.”
He points out that, as disabled playwright John Belluso once said, “disability is the only minority that anyone can join at any time.” Fear of this possibility is what often keeps others from accepting people with disabilities. Schambelan notes, “It is the mission of [our] theater to decrease this fear by showing the exuberance and independence, as well as the challenges, of lives lived with disability. The potential of this mission is the great source of power for us; power for change and inclusion.”
Schambelan hopes to build on the momentum of the 10-Minute Play Festival series by getting some of the plays published and enticing companies across America to produce them. He explains, “We believe that through artistic excellence and the development of role models we can best make our claim for full inclusion of people with disabilities in our society.”
Siegel agrees that the work of TBTB and theater in general has an important role to play in changing perceptions of people with disabilities in society. She says, “Theater is a wonderful way to look at the world around you. I love theater because I can experience other people’s stories perspectives and worlds. I think that is what the arts do well—help us understand ourselves, one another and the world around us. The Kennedy Center really strives to include all people with and without disabilities in the art that we do and hopefully, our audiences get the message that we are a wonderful and diverse country with so many different people with so many different and amazing talents.”
Edited by Mary-Louise Piner.