“Nothing about us without us,” says Open Circle Theatre founder and artistic director Suzanne Richard, citing the slogan for performers with disabilities. So when Richard decided to stage “The Who’s Tommy” with the title character as a deaf person, she was delighted to nab Russell Harvard, a veteran of Broadway’s recent “Spring Awakening” by Deaf West Theatre.
“I call this ‘The Metaphor Strikes Back,’” says Richard of “the deaf, dumb and blind kid,” as the “Pinball Wizard” lyrics un-gently describe the traumatized title character of Pete Townshend’s seminal rock opera. “I think it’s time for the metaphor to get a dose of what the real experience of disability is like.”
Further illustrating Open Circle’s purpose — integrating shows with disabled and non-disabled actors — is Monica Lijewski’s return to performing, taking supporting roles as part of the “Tommy” ensemble. Five years ago, Lijewski, now 53 and a wheelchair user, fell into the orchestra pit at the Olney Theatre Center and was paralyzed from the mid-chest down.
Richard, who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta (also know as brittle bone disease), says: “My other favorite line about disability is that it’s the only minority group you can join at any time — and you will. So I’m really fighting for everybody’s rights.”
“Tommy” marks the return after a five-year hiatus of Open Circle, founded and run by Richard in 2003, and the production arrives at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre on a rising tide of disability awareness. Christine Bruno, a disability advocate with Inclusion in the Arts, notes that inquiries from casting directors have increased tenfold over the past decade.
Several factors seem to be driving the change, including the influx of wounded veterans returning from combat (which leads to relevant scripts needing appropriate actors) and a backlash against non-disabled performers playing disabled characters. In 2013-2014, Bruno says, “seven shows on Broadway featured prominently a character with disability — none played by actors with disabilities.”
That taboo has lately been termed “disability drag” and “cripping up,” as a study released this year by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that 20 percent of Americans have some sort of disability, yet 95 percent of TV characters with disabilities are played by non-disabled actors. TV actors Danny Woodburn (Mickey in “Seinfeld”) and RJ Mitte of “Breaking Bad” have been out front arguing that disability should be part of ongoing diversity discussions.
Bruno says hard data is elusive about how many performers with disabilities are working onstage or in film in any given year. But examples are increasingly easy to find.
Deaf West “Spring Awakening,” using American Sign Language with the energetic Duncan Shiek-Steven Sater rock musical, broke a barrier this year as Ali Stroker became the first wheelchair user to appear on Broadway. The upcoming “Glass Menagerie” with Sally Field will feature Madison Ferris, who also uses a wheelchair, as Laura. Playwrights Craig Lucas, Samuel D. Hunter and Martyna Majok have all created characters with disabilities in new plays. Andrew Hinderaker wrote the football/dance drama “Colossal” specifically for Chicago actor Michael Patrick Thornton, a wheelchair user.
As Richard contemplated “Tommy” she discovered that it touched on a number of issues affecting the disabled.
“Tommy is sexually abused, and people with disabilities are the most likely to be sexually abused,” she says. Family stress and medical revolving doors also come up, and Tommy’s eventual celebrity leads Richard to note that it can be wearying for disabled characters to be held up as inevitably inspiring.
“We get cranky sometimes,” she says.
Lijewski, an accountant who volunteers as Open Circle’s financial manager and development director, wasn’t even thinking about acting when she first connected with Richard about a year ago. “I can’t perform any more,” she told Richard, who pressed, “Are you sure?”
Lijewksi’s accident happened while she was rehearsing “The Sound of Music” as the Mother Abbess, who sings “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”; she settled a lawsuit against the Olney Theatre Center after her accident and can’t discuss it. (The Olney, now under different leadership, also declined to discuss the matter.) “Obviously they’re still up and running, which is what I wanted,” says Lijewski, who only recalls losing her balance onstage and ending up at the bottom of the orchestra pit. “Why would I want to sink the theater company? They’d been good to me.”
Lijewski was declared permanently and totally disabled; her medical bills are covered by the theater’s workers’ compensation insurance. Doctors said she would need 24-hour care, but she has lived in her own apartment for two years now, with an aide to help her into bed at night and out of bed in the morning. The van she drives was purchased with substantial support from the “Taking Care of Our Own” fund run by Theatre Washington and supported by Washington-area theaters.
“Once I’m in my chair, I’m mostly independent,” Lijewski says.
Before the accident, Lijewski appeared at Olney as the housekeeper in Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution” but was often tapped for vocal roles, including the concert version of “Bells Are Ringing” at the Kennedy Center in 1998 and “Menopause, the Musical” at the Bethesda Theatre in 2009.
Holding long notes is a challenge now. “I was a coloratura soprano,” she says. “I had a three-octave range, and now I think it’s maybe slightly over an octave. I can sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ That’s my aspiration: to sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ again, at a stadium.”
Harvard has made a specialty of making YouTube rock music videos using ASL, the latest being “Pinball Wizard.” He is third-generation deaf; he has some residual hearing and was raised with speech training. (For the interview, Harvard spoke a little but mostly used an ASL interpreter connected with the show.)
Harvard says he jumped at the chance to play his first musical lead when he heard about the project through Neil (Michael) Sprouse, the lead ASL master for “Tommy.” Sprouse and Harvard, who went to Gallaudet University together, are thinking of starting a deaf theater in Harvard’s home town of Austin. They’d like to open with “The Rocky Horror Show.”
“My dream for this production would be that it could go somewhere,” Harvard says of “Tommy.” “If we do it right, who knows?”
He and Sprouse are immersed in making music work for deaf audiences. “Time to feel the music! Time to see the music!” reads the text accompanying the “Pinball Wizard” video.
“Hearing actors already have the established score,” Sprouse, who is completely deaf, explains through an interpreter. “You can’t tell deaf performers exactly how to sign. It wouldn’t look natural. What works for my hands may not work for his,” he says, glancing at Harvard.
“Personally, I don’t like air guitar, air piano, air drums,” Harvard says about interpreting instrumental sounds. “I prefer dancing, or even just let me watch the performer on stage. When they’re doing lyrics, absolutely: interpret. But I know some deaf people like those aspects. They want to know what’s happening instrumentally.”
Grappling with such a variety of creative issues is what Richard has always aimed for with Open Circle. “It is a bit of a three-ring circus, actors working in ways and with people they are not used to and stretching outside of their comfort zones,” she says. “But I have to say, the payoff makes it all worthwhile, and we always end up with a unified cast that has learned a lot about themselves and each other.”
When Richard launched Open Circle by performing Christopher Durang’s “Laughing Wild,” she says, “What happened was all these artists with disabilities showed up. They just hadn’t felt safe going into the theater community. And I thought, yeah, we’ve got to make a space for you where you can get out there and be seen.”
Her résumé includes a good deal of advocacy work, often with governmental agencies such as the U.S. International Council on Disabilities and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has also acted a lot in the area, perhaps most visibly in “A Christmas Carol” with Ford’s Theatre. Yet after five years away from the company to deal with family matters, she still sees a need to create the kind of opportunities she’s making with “Tommy.”
“Eventually I’d like to be redundant,” Richard says. “Not needed at all.”
The Who’s Tommy, music and lyrics by Pete Townshend, book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff. Oct. 27-Nov. 20 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Tickets $30-$45. Visit opencircletheatre.org.