Features Published 26 September 2016

Acting and Disability: A Transatlantic Dialogue

"Don’t give me place on the panel. Give me a fucking job." Mat Fraser and Gregg Mozgala discuss the frustrations of working as a disabled performer, a gamechanging decision from the BBC, and why we need more disabled writers.
Nicole Serratore
The Government Inspector at Nottingham Playhouse. Photo: Robert Day.

The Government Inspector at Nottingham Playhouse, by disabled-led company Ramps on the Moon. Photo: Robert Day.

Mat Fraser is a British actor known for his stage work in the x-rated fairytale Beauty and the Beast (Young Vic 2013, Abron Arts Center 2014) and his role in the TV show American Horror Story: Freak Show. Gregg Mozgala is an American actor and the artistic director of The Apothetae theatre company.

Mat and Gregg discussed the limited opportunities for actors with disabilities, the conflicts between activism and acting, and how they are creating space for new work. This is their edited conversation.

Nicole: Has the landscape of acting opportunities for actors with disabilities improved over the past 10 years in the US and UK?

Mat: There has been a definite shift in the last 10-15 years in Britain. About five years ago the BBC drama department issued a statement whereby they would no longer be looking for non-disabled actors playing disabled characters and they would be searching as hard as they could for people with the right bodily situations. They asserted their desire for more authenticity all around. We were beneficiaries of that. You’ve currently got Lisa Hammond a short-statured actress enjoying a main storyline in one of our biggest soaps [EastEnders], Liz Carr in Silent Witness, and we have Cherylee Houston in the other soap, Coronation Street. There is more visibility, however it’s still three people. There wasn’t that ten years ago. But there are no real plots around disability or discussions around disability or narratives, really. What about America, Gregg?

Gregg: The fact that you said that the BBC made that commitment is huge. We haven’t had anything on that level here in the states. Networks like ABC and NBC will do talent showcases—I know they make an effort to audition and include disabled actors. The ABC casting department, spearheaded by Marci Phillips, has done workshops for actors with disabilities. But that’s about as far as it goes. Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts has been holding community forums with members of [the Casting Society of America] and decision makers in the industry. While these one-off events and community conversations are important and should be applauded, ultimately they don’t—in my experience—create enough momentum to result in measurable impact. No one is talking about the creation of new narratives or a very true exploration of the “Disabled Experience.” But I think that’s going to happen in theatre first. It traditionally always has for other marginalized groups: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, gays, lesbians. They start their own theatres and they tell their stories through theatre. That allowed those stories to crack through the mainstream. That work has been going on for 40-50 years in those communities. Disability is just now in the states possibly starting to do that. But it’s very small.

Mat: [After the BBC’s casting policy change], five years later there still really wasn’t the material. Guided by my friend Ewan Marshall, ex-director of Graeae Theatre Co. and longtime producer at the BBC, and other instigators of forward-thinking efforts on disability in theatre, a group of large repertory theatre companies in Britain formed a consortium. The project, called Ramps on the Moon, involved the theatres agreeing to a six-year plan in which each one would pledge to have a main house production that was 50/50 casting of disabled/non-disabled and the other theatres would all pledge to receive it as part of their touring program. They just had the end of the first of that program which is Birmingham Rep’s production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector. It was glorious. But what’s really interesting is that actors who were in it are now getting auditions at the Almeida, the National, and the Donmar, and that just wasn’t happening before. My current cultural assessment of this particular situation is, this is wonderful news. I’m encouraged. As Gregg says, if you’re looking for risk and change, you have to look on the stage because it’s not going happen on the screen.

Nicole: You have Hollywood seemingly moving backwards, with respect to the film Me Before You which created tremendous controversy with some arguing it put forth a disability as tragedy story. That sounded like a narrative nobody wanted to see.

Gregg: That was the most I’ve seen the community organize in my lifetime, beyond the signing of the [Americans with Disabilities Act]. While I understand it and appreciate it, I didn’t agree with the rhetoric and vitriol because it would be like attacking Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook. Because that movie is not reality.

Mat: [In talking about it with someone in LA] I said ‘Awesome about Me Before You galvanizing the community.’ He said no, ‘fucking scared man.’ ‘Why?’ ‘They won’t want to do anything about disability for two years now. Shit scared they’re going to get it wrong.’ There’s that we have to deal with as well.

Nicole: Why do think this film was the galvanizing incident?

Gregg: You’re seeing other communities be so vocal; calling out bad decisions and wrongdoings, so why shouldn’t the disabled community in the arts do the same thing. It’s just nice to be part of that conversation. Often times, when diversity or equality or inclusion comes up, disability is very rarely in that conversation. This was at least something to gather around. I’m not saying the energy was misplaced. It’s important. But then you’re alienating people and the fear is that people will not touch another property around disability because they will be terrified.

Mat: I agree with Gregg. I personally think that big thing we need is more disabled writers. There needs to be an amazing script that blows people out of the water.

Gregg: Even with that it’s complicated. Because disability is not an ethnicity, gender, or race. Mat’s issue is not my issue, is not visual impairment, is not limb loss. Disability is a blanket term for this incredibly complex, diverse population. There’s no country of origin. There’s no specific culture to look back to. While there are commonalities, I think disability is a tougher nut to crack. Just because someone with visual impairment gets a break that does not necessarily advance someone with cerebral palsy or limb loss, or vice versa. In the UK, is that a discussion? The diversity of the disability spectrum?

Mat: Yeah. In terms of the hierarchy of disability. Like you and me have always noted, people with dwarfism have always historically been in entertainment. We’re not used to the rest of us being entertainers. So it’s really quite hard. There is no one solution.

Nicole: How are you bringing new work to the fore for actors with disabilities and yourselves?

Mat: I don’t think the industry trusts disabled writers right now. They only trust writers who have delivered. As an artist that’s trying to ingratiate himself to work with a writer, I have to find a writer who gets disability but is also a trusted deliverer. That’s one of the strategies I’m employing while waiting for my next role as “Neighbor.” 18 months, 8 auditions, and waiting.

Gregg: [As AD of The Apothetae], my initial core of writers that I commissioned, one was disabled. The others were non-disabled but they were writers that I knew and worked with. Now The Apothetae is collaborating with [play development center] The Lark. We hosted a national convening last year to gather people from all over the country who were working in and around disability or had it as part of their mission or organizational framework. The Lark and The Apothetae have developed a national fellowship designed to promote the development of disabled writers and the eventual production of their works. I think it has to start with the writers.

Mat: 100% with you. We need the work. We need the writing. I don’t want to talk about the work. I just want the fucking work. Don’t give me place on the panel. Give me a fucking job.

Nicole: Do you find people in the disability community agree with your views?

Gregg: Advocacy, awareness, and conversation are important. It’s got a place. But I’m a storyteller. Even with that convening last year that was great that we got to have this conversation. But what’s the next step? Not more conversation. I want to keep the focus on making work, getting work, and providing work, now that’s my role as a new artistic director. I will speak up when I have to but I’d rather speak through the work.

Mat: I can corroborate that is the correct thing to do if you want further relationships with non-disabled theatre practitioners to forward your career. Because I was given a couple of posh gigs way back in the day in Britain. Instantaneously I was the go-to guy for disability comment. And I’m hugely political so I always run my mouth off and then think ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have said that’ rather than the other way around. I did not get any more acting work. The end. I became the activist. Far too scary to deal with if you’re in casting. I’ve learned that.

Gregg: If [an artistic] organization is taking a risk by having a play that deals with [a story about disability] and these bodies on stage, then we have to do our job. That’s how we’ll advance.

Mat: And we’ll probably have to do it a tiny bit better to be seen as almost as good.

Gregg: I audition twice a year maybe. 2016 was the first year that I’ve been acting professionally where I had two auditions in one week.

Mat: Congratulations.

Gregg: Thanks, man. How are you going to get any better at the audition process when everyone knows it’s a numbers game? We have to show people how to cast us. How to see us. Either we have to make it or forge the relationship with people to help us make it.

Mat: Good writers, bereft of inspiration or culturally aware, should be and are seeking out disabled actors. It’s a little bit of both ways. If we want to move it forward quicker than it wants to move forward, then the onus is on us.

Gregg: I’ve taken some risks with new works and trying to present disability in a new way. That has been difficult because the consistent narratives of overcoming adversity, being inspirational, or death with dignity are the only narratives people [have] consistently seen for maybe 30 years. When you present them with something new, people don’t know how to deal with it. People are like, ‘I don’t know what I just saw. I don’t know how to talk about this. Did I like it? I think so.’ You’re going up against that. It’s going to take time and energy and a lot of work, but I feel like that’s work worth doing because there are much more interesting stories.

Mat: I just wish there were more people like Gregg. I’m a bit disappointed that at 54 I’m still considered one of the radical ones. I should be part of the old guard that people should be pissing on by now. But it’s not happening.

Gregg: It’s really the generation after the kids who are just getting out of college now that are really going to maybe see some change. Even in New York where there’s a critical mass of disabled actors, there’s still only about 8 actors that I’d want to work with on a consistent basis. So there aren’t a lot of us but I feel like there are people coming up who are more keen politically, not just about disability. They care about gender, race. They are so much more socially conscious than I ever was. But they are committed to making work that follows the rules of good theatre. Ultimately that’s how you’re going to move the needle.

You can find more information about Mat Fraser’s work on his website and Gregg Mozgala’s theatre company The Apothetae here.

Nicole Serratore

Nicole Serratore writes about theater for Variety, The Stage, American Theatre magazine, and TDF Stages. She previously wrote for the Village Voice and Flavorpill. She was a co-host and co-producer of the Maxamoo theater podcast. She is a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.