CRIPFEST @ BAM
On Saturday July 25th at BAM, ONEOFUS and The British Council presented CRIPFEST, a “relaxed performance” showcasing “dangerous disability artists from the US & UK” through discourse, film, theater, comedy, dance, sideshow, striptease, and burlesque. When asked why 2015 is the year for the first CRIPFEST, host Mat Fraser (of American Horror Story) answered, “It’s now and today because of the 25th Anniversary of the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act]. Very little has changed at all. We decided to put this together because we wanted there to be an edgy, politicized, professional output of disability arts energy for mainstream audiences.” Mat pointed out that despite 1 in 7 people worldwide having a disability, we still don’t see this reflected in the mainstream media. “If we did, we wouldn’t need a CRIPFEST.”
The day began with a video and panel discussion titled “Visibility of Disability: Getting Disabled Performers Cast in Popular Media,” hosted by Lawrence Carter-Long and featuring panelists from the US (Christine Bruno, Becky Curran) and the UK (Mat Fraser, Liz Carr, and Simon Minty). Starting with a series of clips from films like Phantom of the Opera, Elephant Man, Mask, My Left Foot, Forrest Gump, Dance Me to My Song, and Me Too, Lawrence outlined the evolution of disabled film characters: from being an outsider to “breaking free from the shackles of disability” to entering into mainstream society. He explained, “You can be scary, you can be an outsider, but also if you’re not scary or an outsider, you have to be an inspiration. It’s just required in cinema.” There’s that iconic scene from Forrest Gump, when Forrest bursts out of his leg braces and runs, miraculously freeing himself from his disability. I remember watching that scene for the first time as a child and feeling that mountain-top moment of encouragement. Watching it again at CRIPFEST, I realized how awkward it is that I once enjoyed a scene that makes the argument for life being better without a disability.
Forrest Gump isn’t what everyday life is like for people with disabilities and that disconnect between what we see on screen and what people with disabilities actually live was one of two main themes in this panel. Only in recent years have we started to see films that include disability in a more realistic way. Dance Me to My Song, about a woman with cerebral palsy, was written by the main actor (who has CP). It shows the power shift and abuse between the woman and her personal aide. As Lawrence pointed out, it was the first clip to show a disabled person played by a disabled person, “as opposed to Tom Hanks.” Similarly, Me Too is about a love affair between a woman and a man who has Down’s syndrome. These two films are able to explore the deeper complexities of disability life, Lawrence explained, because they have disability represented on the creative side.
In her opening remarks, Becky Curran explained how she is the first little person who most people meet, and, usually, all they know about little people is what they’ve seen in the media. If what they’ve seen is positive, they will treat her positively. The opposite is also true. To combat this, she encourages the disability community to “push positive content and positive portrayals” of themselves. American actor and disability advocate Christine Bruno also argued for “more accurate portrayals of people with disabilities, more authentic storylines told by actors with disabilities, or at least having people with disabilities at the core of the team in terms of consulting, writing, producing, directing, starring.”
Liz Carr, a British actor and comedian, is known for her role in a mainstream BBC drama Silent Witness. Although Liz explained she is thrilled to be a disabled person on mainstream TV, she said “the problem is, I also don’t get to be me in it. They [the TV show writers] are very scared about writing for my character. She has no personal life because they don’t know how to write that. They think that just the fact that I wheel into a scene is enough disability.” Simon Minty also talked about this fear that producers and talent have of talking about disability. “Sometimes they worry about saying the wrong thing. Nobody says it so it becomes a quiet subject and it never changes.” Playing it safe has led to surface-level stories. However, as Liz said, “Our lives are amazing as disabled people. They’re fascinating. It’s rich territory.”
Still, it’s not enough to present realistic stories of disability. The second point the panelists emphasized was a call for more artists with disabilities to portray these stories. Liz and Simon pointed out, “Hollywood owes a lot of Oscars to disability,” citing The Theory of Everything and Still Alice, two Oscar-winning films from last year. Both include disability as a topic but exclude disabled artists from their casts.
The panelists also debated whether the US or the UK has a warmer embrace of disability culture; there seems to be a grass-is-greener feel on both sides. In a conversation with Liz and Christine a few days after the event, Liz commented, “CRIPFEST was an amazing day, but in terms of the UK, it was nothing radical. There’s amazing disabled artists and disability art over here in the States, but for many reasons, partly geographical, partly financial, it doesn’t often come together like it did on Saturday, if at all,” whereas the UK has had events like CRIPFEST for over 25 years. Christine agreed: “It’s disappointing that this fantastic nine-hour event, in celebration of our Americans with Disabilities Act, was fully funded by the British Council.” Even so, Liz said, “I think it’s exciting… These opportunities to get together, whether it’s social stuff or political stuff or cultural stuff, are more needed than ever.”
The panel also showed an evolution of disability in mainstream advertising, which has a similar trajectory as film: pity to inspiration. Consider this Guinness ad, which shows a group of friends playing wheelchair basketball:
While it’s great that everyone goes out for a beer after the game, there’s a subtle implication that these men are heroic for treating their wheelchair-user friend like he’s normal. This is not something that should be applauded; it should just be the norm. You’ve probably also seen this Wells Fargo ad, that holds ultimate embrace of the 21st Century by featuring a lesbian couple adopting a deaf daughter. Don’t worry if it warmed your heart a little. Although some of the CRIPFEST panelists rolled their eyes at its sappiness, Lawrence pointed out that the ad gets points for featuring a real-live deaf actor.
Following the panel was The Apothetae’s abbreviated version of the Downsizing Camus, written by Chicago-based visually impaired playwright Todd Bauer. Before the show, I sat down with Gregg Mozgala, actor and artistic director of The Apothetae, who explained to me their mission to create and produce works that explore and illuminate the disabled experience. During our chat, Gregg gave me some background on why The Apothetae exists:
“Disability is an incredibly integrated minority. It’s been called the largest minority, because at some point, most people will have a disability, on the spectrum of human experience. It’s just a question of when… Disabled people have been around since the dawn of time, since people have existed. We have this very rich, deep history but that is not very visible or hasn’t been really explored. It’s the same thing that any marginalized group has done—African Americans, Asian Americans, gays and lesbians, you name it—if you look at the history of modern drama, what those communities did was start their own theater company, started to tell their own stories within their communities, and then eventually those stories infiltrated or worked their way into the mainstream. It started very community–based, with a specific focus, and then larger media outlets took notice, and that’s why you see a proliferation of wider ethnicity in film and television today. I feel like disability hasn’t quite done that yet. Disability seems to be on the verge of breaking into the mainstream. I think that’s only going to happen if you generate material that is of the highest quality, and daring, and asking really clear, specific, hard questions about what it means to be disabled.”
Gregg brought up a point that the panel also addressed: “It is a radical idea to put an actual disabled person on a stage, in a disabled role.” But one of the benefits of doing this is that it creates a safe situation for people to observe, comment, question, and learn. As Gregg put it, “I think it’s a lot easier to have a conversation about disability around an art piece than it is to say, ‘Hey, let’s talk about this huge massive idea.’”
Downsizing Camus did just that, showing how disability can exist on stage without being the focal point, adding to the overall intricacy and humanity of a narrative. Set in a college dive bar during a blizzard, it was comprised of an integrated cast: an actor with low vision, an actor who is hard-of-hearing, and Gregg, who has cerebral palsy. I agreed with Gregg’s explanation that while the play doesn’t overtly deal with disability, it addresses the “existential themes of alienation and isolation that are associated with humanity.”
Following Downsizing Camus, Bill Shannon, aka Crutchmaster, apparently threw it down on the dancer floor. Unfortunately, I missed this part, as well as British comedian Lawrence Clark’s Greatest Hits PowerPoint Show, to attend another ADA celebration. I chatted with a fellow audience member afterward, who questioned whether Bill really uses crutches because his dance moves were so stunning. Of all the various mainstream reactions to disabled performers, and to performers portraying disability, thinking that somebody is faking a disability speaks to something else Gregg told me about: the idea of “enough disability.” He explained to me how when you go into an audition for a person with a disability, you are much more likely to get the part if you come with crutches or a wheelchair. He also mentioned that actor RJ Mitte, who plays Walter White, Jr. on AMC’s Breaking Bad, truly does have cerebral palsy but doesn’t use crutches in real life, unlike his character. These two instances made me realize how crutches (or any adaptive equipment) can be used differently in art: Walter’s crutches help the audience identify him as disabled, but Crutchmaster’s are the spring board for his dance moves.
The highlight of the evening was the cabaret. Burlesque is alive and well in the disability community, and why shouldn’t it be? The show also included musical performances from The Spazms (Mat Fraser’s new punk band) and Velvet Crayon, and standup comedy from Rich “The Claw” Cyr, Liz Carr, and Greg Walloch (whom you may recognize from The Moth podcast). The cabaret concluded with the revival of “Vegetable, Vegetable, or Vegetable,” a segment from Liz Carr and Mat Fraser’s BBC podcast Ouch!. Liz had described the segment during the panel discussion: “Disabled people from all over the world would ring in, and we had to guess what was wrong with them… As disabled people, we’re often asked very intimate questions by random people on the street or total strangers, i.e. very commonly, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ People are obsessed, if it’s obvious, with what is wrong with us.” So, Liz and Mat took the stage, turned their backs to the audience, called up a disabled audience member and proceeded to ask all kinds of private questions until no legitimate diagnosis was made and everyone laughed.
Disability advocate Simi Linton, who also saw the cabaret, complimented ONEOFUS for “the humor, the seriousness, the intentionality, the way that people used their bodies in ways that were interesting and provocative and smart. It was a very exciting cultural moment… having everyone together in that venue and with great ethos that undergirded the whole thing. Mat and Julie [ONEOFUS] produced something really, really good.”
Each person I talked to about CRIPFEST said that moving forward, they would like to see more events like this, more collaboration in and outside of the disability community, and more representation of disability in the mainstream. As Simi put it, “another festival, as an annual event, is a very exciting opportunity … like CRIPFEST, or DanceNYC’s Disability. Dance. Artistry, or Lights, Camera, Access, all of which happened this month. It needs to be more public. In the disability community, we’ve honed our discourse and our work. We’re good to go. We need to have these conversations, and have this work be in public venues so that it’s not us talking to ourselves.”
The disabled experience is at times fascinating and funny, but always important, and the people who express it best are those who live through it. It’s worthy of your time and of the mainstream’s attention and inclusion. If you didn’t grow up with disability, or you’ve never met a disabled person, or disability culture is something you never knew existed, and these stories have intrigued you enough to get involved in the world of disability art, Lawrence has a few words of advice for you:
“If you’re afraid, ‘What can this be? What is this like? What am I supposed to expect?’ Follow that. Pay attention to that. Lean into that. Check it out. Give it a taste. Give it a look. Expect to be surprised. Challenge that. I think most people are going to find that it’s not what they expected, and they’re going to be refreshed. They’re going to find something that’s challenging, that’s edgy. That’s a good thing. I would say just check it out. Experience it firsthand. Don’t go with what the media tells you. Don’t go with what your parents tell you. Don’t go with what your teachers or your preachers tell you. Check it out firsthand, and prepare to be surprised.”