Breaking Barriers, Challenging Notions

By Rebecca Gross
Rows of theater seats

Theater seats by flickr user Thomas Hawk 

As Nicholas Viselli says, there are certain professional limitations that sometimes come along with disabilities: “If I'm in a wheelchair, I might not ever be able to work construction on a high-rise building. If I'm blind, I might not ever be able to be a brain surgeon.” But in the arts, whether on a stage or before a canvas, the only realities are the ones we ourselves invent, and possibilities grow as large as our imaginations allow.

Earlier this year, Viselli became artistic director of Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), a company he has spent years working with as an actor, script-reader for low-vision actors, and sound designer. A longtime NEA grantee, the off-Broadway theater company was founded in 1979 with the goal of advancing theater artists with disabilities—one of the few companies in the country with such a mission. Featuring integrated casts of actors with and without disabilities, TBTB strives to show through its productions that physical differences do not affect an individual’s artistic skill, breadth, or capability. As Viselli stressed, “An artist is an artist.” Below is an edited version of our conversation, which touches on discrimination, TBTB’s history, and Viselli’s proudest moment as artistic director.

NEA: Theater Breaking through Barriers originally began as Theater by the Blind. What prompted the change?

NICHOLAS VISELLI: We didn't officially change the name, or expand the mission until 2008. We were always a company that worked with artists of all different abilities or disabilities, but because our name was Theater by The Blind, the implication was we worked with blind [actors] and that's it. One of the things we always are working against is discrimination in our profession. Disabled artists are horribly discriminated against. Producers would rather hire an abled-bodied actor to play disabled [characters] than consider a disabled actor. So for our mission to really be successful, we have to be as open and accepting as possible. So, let's make it official. So, TBTB: Theater by The Blind became TBTB: Theater Breaking Through Barriers, and we expanded the mission and it changed everything.

NEA: When you opened up your talent pool, did the artistic processes change at all?

VISELLI: A lot of people ask, "What is it like to work with disabled actors? How does that differ from working with anybody else?" The answer is, it doesn't. An artist in an artist. There are challenges and obstacles that from day one of rehearsal, whether you're an able-bodied cast or not, you have to overcome. You have to try to work together to solve the issues of the play. Every actor brings their own limitations into the room. So it's the idea of trying to find the working vocabulary to make that happen.

As far as working with disabilities, there are so many creative ways to work around and through that. It's much less of an obstacle than people realize.

NEA: You mentioned that many directors and producers would still rather hire an able-bodied actor to play a disabled character, a concept that has become completely unacceptable in other areas, such as race. So why does this still remain true for disabled actors and actresses?

VISELLI: There are many professions in this world, that legitimately, if you have a disability, you might not be able to do. If I'm in a wheelchair, I might not ever be able to work construction on a high-rise building. If I'm blind, I might not ever be able to be a brain surgeon. But as artists, we create our own realities. We create the reality that we present before an audience. Since we create the rules, everything goes out the window, and disability can matter only as much as we want it to matter.

In our business however, people don't see it that way. When you think of film and television, it's the business of beautiful, perfect people. A lot of times producers feel, "We don't want people to be uncomfortable; it's going to cause some sort of problem; there's going to be some sort of special thing we have to do for these people; they're probably not going to be that good." They're very closed to it.

We have to be able to show them, and try to get them to hire the artist because they're good, not because they're disabled. That’s what we're trying to do as a company.

We've built a solid reputation for excellence, for great theater. Back in the mid-, late-'90s, a lot of times when critics would come to see our performances, they'd say, "That's really wonderful. For a blind troupe, that's really amazing." It's like, "Don't judge us on that!" And they have not for many, many years now; they judge the work. If the work is not good, they say it. If it is good, they say it. That's important.

NEA: What do you think we, as a wider cultural community, can do to push this along?

VISELLI: The hard part is that shift in perception. I don't know if it's ever going to be possible in my lifetime, but I'm going to be fighting every day to remove the stigma associated with disability. Nobody wants to be disabled, let's face it. But a disability certainly doesn't mean that a person is less than, or that they aren’t capable of producing superior work, or art.

People always misquote Charles Darwin. People say, "Darwin is all about survival of the fittest; only the strong survive." That's incorrect. The truth is, it's not the strong that survive; it is those that are most adaptable to change that survive. People with disabilities are the most adaptable people that I know. When you have an obstacle that you have to face every day, and you overcome that obstacle every day, that's adaptability. There is such strength in that.

I don't want to sound idealistic, or Pollyannish about the difficulties or the hardships of having a disability. I am not at this point in my life disabled, but I have been surrounded by disability my entire life. There's disability in my immediate family, my relatives, my friends, my wife has multiple sclerosis; she's in a wheelchair. To realize what a privilege it is for me to be around such an incredible group of artists, and an incredible group of people, who really show their resilience and their strength—it feeds into who we are, it feeds into the work, it feeds into my passion. I want to spread that as much as I can, to try to get people to change their perceptions, and not be afraid, and not look down on it.

NEA: What's been your proudest moment as artistic director so far?

VISELLI: It's been a very challenging year for me, personally. Our founding artistic director Ike Schambelan passed away in February. As Ike was dying, we were getting into our production of Agatha Christie's The Unexpected Guest. Ike passed away on February 3rd, and we officially started rehearsal for The Unexpected Guest on March 11th.

The show was our company's most successful production in our entire 36-year history. We sold out 95 percent of the run. And seven of our nine cast were disabled. We had an actor in a wheelchair, two amputees, two actors who were legally blind, one who had a spinal cord injury, one who had cerebral palsy. At the end, the audience just loved the quality and the professionalism of the show. When they found out it was a cast of disabled artists, they couldn't believe it. They were like, "Wait, where was the disability?" Exactly. It only matters as much or as little as we want it to. You came to see a professional off-Broadway production, and that is what you received. To be able to change perception like that is so incredibly rewarding.