In December, a group of prominent theater artists with disabilities announced the launch of a new professional company, employing only professionals with disabilities to create fully accessible theater. National Disability Theatre (NDT) says its mission is not only to create world-class theater productions, but also to “change social policy and the nation’s narrative about what people with disabilities can do and provide a guiding model in audience accessibility for the arts and culture sector.” Here, Co-Executive Directors and founders Talleri McRae and Mickey Rowe offer insight on how NDT came to be, as well as their plans for the future.
Office of VSA and Accessibility: Tell us how NTD came to be.
Mickey Rowe: The disability theater community is small, and often one thing that we have really noticed is that while there are lots of individual artists with disabilities doing their work independently, there are few opportunities for us to get together and work together. Every once in a while, one or two people would get a great job that would be a big bang, but we were not seeing the inclusion long term that we were hoping for. If other existing theaters were not going to take the lead on inclusion, there was no reason for us not to step up and try to do it ourselves.
Talleri and I created a disability theater Facebook group a while ago, and I posted a question about NDT as a thought experiment. After many conversations about the idea, we decided to make it happen.
Office of VSA and Accessibility: What is your artistic vision for NDT?
Talleri McRae: NDT is modeled after some of the great work that has been done by companies like National Theatre of the Deaf and Deaf West—companies that make work that so clearly tell a story using a lens of Deaf culture. Well, as founders of NDT, Mickey and I are interested in telling stories with a broader lens of disability culture, which may feel newer and less developed than the Deaf community, but it is there nonetheless.
So, as a storyteller, I ask myself, how might the stories we tell on stage change if they are told from a disability perspective? There are already companies around the country and the world that are doing this exciting work, in New York City, Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Washington D.C., and their work gives me goosebumps. When a familiar story, be it a musical like Cabaret or Jesus Christ Superstar or a play like You Can’t Take it with You is told with a cast with disabilities, a whole new subtext can be uncovered. Power dynamics shift. Characters’ stories change. Conflict, struggle, and social interactions can take on a whole new meaning.
Office of VSA and Accessibility: How to you plan to achieve that vision, practically?
Mickey Rowe: NDT plans to partner with regional theaters around the United States. We will offer our expertise, network, and programming, as well as an in-depth working education on how to work with the whole spectrum of artists and audiences with disabilities. Our goal is that in 10 years or so, NDT won’t be necessary anymore because we have partnered with enough regional theaters and planted enough seeds of inclusion across the country that the regional theaters themselves are taking the lead and being fully inclusive and accessible from the get go. We also hope to raise up people already doing this work in the process by connecting them with the larger theater companies so everyone gets to know each other, opening up more opportunities for those companies.
Talleri McRae: Our short term plans for NDT involve finalizing our first production and trying out the co-production model Mickey described. Mickey and I talk often about how there is no “one right way” to be inclusive. We hope, as leaders of NDT, we can model for theater professionals how to embrace the “trial and error” nature of accessibility. We hope to be a resource of how to fail, with humility and love, and how to be brave enough to try again, and perhaps fail in a different, exciting way!
Office of VSA and Accessibility: What are your roles at NDT now, and how to do you envision them in the future?
Mickey Rowe: Right now we are co-executive directors, and we really like that model because the disability community is so diverse, there are so many different ways disability can affect someone’s life. It can be very dangerous for one voice to speak for an entire community. That’s one of the main reasons we have co-executive director titles and why the advisory company members are so core to the company.
Talleri McRae: Currently, as NDT gets off the ground, I see my role as a steward. Mickey and I talk about how we are not re-inventing the wheel here– ideally, for NDT to do its best work, we want the organization to be in a position to lift up, to support, to connect the artists with disabilities around the country that are already doing this work. We want NDT to support more work on a national level.
Office of VSA and Accessibility: You have an impressive roster of advisory company members. What is their role, now and in the future?
Mickey Rowe: The advisory company members are so diverse and the ways they help us will vary therein, depending on their interests. For instance, Gregg Mozgala has many connections at theaters and exciting opportunities for us at Queens Theater. Ali Stroker is always doing public speaking engagements all over the place and every time she does one she introduces us via email to someone in the audience.
The disability community is so huge, and has so many intersections with race, gender, gender identity, sexuality, age, class, life experience, you name it. NDT, like so many organizations, is a work in progress. We intend to continue building a diverse advisory committee and a surrounding community of non-disabled allies represents as many experiences as possible, so that everyone feels like they can reach out to us. So that anyone can find a way to be involved.
Office of VSA and Accessibility: How can performers with disabilities get involved with NDT?
Mickey Rowe: The best way to get involved is to go to our website and click on the “work with us” or “contact” tabs on our homepage. If the form is inaccessible to anyone, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The best way they can support us is head on over to our Facebook page, share something they find interesting, comment, and let us know what is resonating.