Mariah MacCarthy on ‘Magic Trick’

Photo by Kacey Stamats

Photo by Kacey Stamats

Mariah MacCarthy’s ‘Magic Trick,’ playing at the Studio Theatre of Theatre Row from August 27th-September 12th, is a play in which a disabled person leaves her boyfriend and becomes a burlesque dancer.  Culturebot reached out to Mariah to learn more about her process around creating this work.

Burlesque is nudity on two levels: There’s the obvious, literal kind, and then there’s the nakedness of having only your ideas to hide behind. Almost always, everything you see on a burlesque stage is the performer’s own creation. The act, the costume, everything. The act of simultaneously taking ownership of one’s own body and creativity inspires me. It’s riveting, it’s delightful. It’s hotttt. 

I’ve performed burlesque a handful of times – not so many times that I can call myself anything other than a rookie, but more times than I can count on both hands. It’s always a rush and a delight. The audience is so happy to see me! Just because I’m there! (My reticence to make a habit of it has mostly to do with my lack of sewing skills or costuming talent; there’s a lot of costume construction in burlesque.) Pretty much every time I’ve done it, some woman has said some variation of this comment to me: “Thank you for being so comfortable in your body.”

Now, I’ve got a protruding, stretch-mark covered belly and backne scars, and I don’t know if women with perfect skin and 36-24-36 measurements get these comments. But I love hearing it. It feeds my soul. I want to inspire you. I want to show you how comfortable I can be in my body, because I want you to be comfortable in yours. Yes, hang out naked. See how simple it is, even if it’s not easy. Put some glitter on your scars and see how it makes you love them a little more. Yes, I do want to inspire you. And burlesque is one of the most inspirational art forms I know.

But this inspiration becomes complicated when it intersects with disability, because “inspiration” in the context of a disabled person often means, “We are looking at your sad story and not at you as a person.” There’s a whole scene in Magic Trick revolving around the protagonist’s anger that another person in the burlesque community has called her “inspirational.” She doesn’t want to be your uplifting after-school special; she wants to be recognized as human, as whole, as not so different from anybody else.

I’ve felt this too; when I’ve been called inspirational because of who I was and what my life had been (rather than because of something I’d done or created), it didn’t always feel good. It felt like I was on a pedestal, removed from empathy. The more “inspirational” I was, the more of an alien I was. I don’t want to be an alien. I don’t think most people do.

So, how to celebrate one of the most inspiring art forms I know without making disabled people “inspirational”? That was one of the challenges when writing Magic Trick.

Bana, our protagonist, is paraplegic. She’s also promiscuous, confident, and – eventually – a burlesque dancer. I wrote her because I’d never seen anyone like her onstage or on film: a woman in a wheelchair who is a focal point for desire – and other people’s desire is neither because of nor in spite of her disability. And she doesn’t follow the Oscar-bait disabled person Hollywood formula: she’s a bit of an asshole, but (if you ask me, and I am very biased), only because she’s trying to figure out being a person and being in love and doesn’t always know how to take care of herself and other people at the same time. The plot of Magic Trick would not change if Bana were a woman who could walk; her disability is not a plot point.

Since writing this play – and I say this acknowledging my own able-bodied privilege and my own personal blind spots – I get prickly at most depictions of disability. The disabled character is always so bitter about the source of their disability, and that bitterness drives everything they do. And their disability is always a “Thing” for the people around them. There’s always this moment where the guy (it’s usually a guy) comes in with his wheelchair, and there’s this silence that accompanies their entrance where everyone’s awkward about it. And then later there has to be a monologue about how he got into the wheelchair. And this character is not sexual.

Enough of that. There are a million other experiences that wheelchair users are having, that have nothing to do with their wheelchair, that we could put onstage instead. One of my favorite things about the new Mad Max movie is that they NEVER talk about Imperator Furiosa’s arm. It’s just the fact of the situation. It doesn’t need a weepy backstory.

While I was writing, I tried to fill my brain with narratives of sexuality by disabled people. I fell in love with Sins Invalid in San Francisco, a “performance project on disability and sexuality that incubates and celebrates artists with disabilities, centralizing artists of color and queer and gender-variant artists.” With Heidi Latsky’s Gimp Project, where in one moment, a woman with no legs pulls herself up on silks to her suspended-in-midair husband and kisses him. I found myself at a reading at Bluestockings called Crip Lit, where Mat Fraser read a story about group sex in a public restroom, Christine DeZinno Bruno performed a monologue about wanting to get seduced in different kinds of shoes, and Elsa Sjunneson talked about the shitshow that is marrying while blind.

Can I love these stories and performances, be invigorated by them, write a play with them in mind, and avoid alienating disability tropes of “inspiration”? Do I even have the right to add my voice to theirs? I’ve tied myself in knots asking myself these questions. I don’t pretend to be the one who can answer them. But I’m proud of the result. And I’ll say this: the burlesque numbers are awesome.

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