By Anna Swann-Pye
TBTB. Photo courtesy of TBTB.
Thirty-four years ago, Theater Breaking Through Barriers opened its doors for the first time. This Off-Broadway company broke onto the scene with a unique mission — it was (and still is) one of the few theaters in the country dedicated to working with actors and writers with disabilities.
Founded in 1979 by Ike Shambelan, the company was initially Theater By The Blind, a troupe that worked with visually impaired actors and writers (along with sighted actors and writers) to create work that subtly – and, at times, not so subtly — considered blindness and critiqued the notion of blindness as a handicap.
Theater For The Blind’s short play festival, “‘On Sight’ use[d] humor to show how language reinforces the idea of blindness as a handicap — love is blind, blind as a bat,” wrote the New York Times in its review of the play festival, “It also minimizes blindness by emphasizing other senses — more acute hearing, vivid imagination, sensitive touch.”
“During the play,” Shabelan says, “we will ask both sighted and blind people to taste candy, smell the air, and touch their neighbors.” These exercises work as an attempt to create an awareness of how much can be experienced without the eyes – the company strove to mythify this notion that blindness is horribly and intolerably isolating. They created a community with the ability to communicate and express to each other and to an audience.
By the end of the play, the Times reported, it was unclear who was blind and who wasn’t. The company was nearly flawlessly integrated.
Since then, Theater For The Blind has done some serious expanding. In 2007, Theater For The Blind featured an actor in a wheelchair in their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In a program note, the company explained, “increasingly we feel we must include all disabled people in our work. We need to get the reality of our active and productive lives in front of people.” Now called Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), the company works with actors and writers with a range of disabilities (as well as able bodied men and women). And, with the change in demographic, came a slight change in mission as well.
On their website, TBTB writes on their goals as a company:
The time for our strongest growth and influence is now. It’s 20 years since the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed. 54,000,000 of us, nearly 20%, are dealing with a disability. But nothing like this is visible in the media. Only 2% of characters on TV exhibit a disability and only .5% are allowed to speak. Hollywood is required to track casting based on age, gender and race, but categorically refuses to track disability. In Glee the black actor is black and the Asian, Asian, but the wheelchair user isn’t. We must change this and gain for actors and writers with disabilities the same acceptance that has been achieved by artists of color.
Part of this absolute integration means that Theater Breaking Through Barriers cannot expect to be handed rave reviews and constant praise solely because they have employed the impaired. Some of TBTB’s productions are given great reviews. The New York Times speaks of the “delightful extra layer” in Midsummer Night’s Dream — the presence of the wheelchair bound Hermia. They call the show “entertaining and more” and encourage readers to give it a go.
But, as is the case with every company, some productions fare less well. TBTB’s Crystal Clear was called a “sentimental theme lacking impact.”
“While ‘Crystal Clear,’ at the Long Wharf Theater Stage Two, does not use diabetes and blindness to pompous effect, it is wildly unfocused work that tries to cover too vast a terrain,” writes the Times.
It seems arguable, though, that this lack of focus comes out of a very important place. TBTB is striving to present a mission that is giant and profound. In each of these plays, they are attempting to explore and to change the ways that disabilities are dealt with and thought about.
“There is much fear of disability, increased because it isn’t seen. isn’t shown as a natural part of life,” their mission statement continues. “Yet 80% of us deal with it at some point in our lives. We have a mission to decrease this fear by showing the exuberance and independence as well as the challenges of lives lived with disability. The potential in this mission is the source of great power for us, power for change and inclusion.”
This is a massive undertaking for one small, Off-Broadway troupe. And yet they keep going – keep producing — with the hope that their voices will be heard. It seems that they’re certainly on the right track. With more and more media attention by the day, Theater Breaking Through Barriers is definitely getting its message across.