Actor Clark Middleton describes himself as "one ear short of being bionic." The proud owner of new hips, knees, and a shoulder—replaced due to rheumatoid arthritis—was just recovering from surgery a few years ago when playwright John Belluso handed him the script for his new piece, The Body of Bourne, and asked him to play the title character, Randolph Bourne, the famed intellectual who came to embody the voice of youth and progressive ideals in the years leading up to World War I. Bourne, who was disabled, wrote more than 100 essays, some classics, including the counterculture manifesto "Youth and Life" and the pacifist "The War and the Intellectuals," before his early death at age 32.
Middleton said he thought, I'm out of my mind but I'm going to do it. He appeared in the play's early incarnations at the New Dramatists in New York and at the Taper New Works Festival. He now stars in the world premiere full production at the Mark Taper Forum, helmed by Lisa Peterson, running June 7-July 15. Developed by the Taper's Other Voices Project, which aims to empower the disabled community in American theatre, the production will take place in the recently renovated theatre, with a new, wheelchair-accessible backstage area and additional seating for audience members with disabilities.
A lifetime member of the Actors Studio and Circle East/West, Middleton has appeared in more than 50 productions at such theatres as the Public Theater, Circle Repertory Company, and the Denver Center Theatre. His film and television credits include the soon-to-be-released Serendipity and The Opponent, the recurring role of forensics technician Ellis on Law & Order, and others.
Christopher Thornton, wheelchair-bound since a rock-climbing accident in 1992, was cast as Middleton's understudy and a member of the supporting ensemble as a result of his exceptional performance as Hamlet in last year's production at the Lillian Theatre. A member of the L.A.-based theatre company Page 93, Thornton's other Los Angeles theatre credits include Up the Hill at the Stella Adler Theatre, the world premiere of Small Days at the Hudson Stages, and many others. He has also been seen in recurring roles on Family Law, Any Day Now, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Middleton and Thornton recently took time out from rehearsals to talk about lessons they've learned through acting, life, and inhabiting one of the 20th century's most intriguing historical characters.
Clark Middleton: I always feel that roles come into my life for a reason, and I'm meant to learn something from them. I'm meant to sublimate my own unhealthy ego to learn. I have to use all of myself, but ultimately it's not about me. It's not my story I'm telling. I'm telling Randolph Bourne's story, and what I'm learning from this is that Randolph really achieved this wonderful ability—to be very facile and powerful, clear, and effective with his thoughts, his emotions, and what he could do for the rest of the world—only when he was able to let go.
Christopher Thornton: And not be afraid. The thing that really strikes me as I read and reread, is how ahead of his time he really ended up being, probably without realizing it.
Clark: He became a bit of a Buddhist, I think. Not literally, but…
Christopher: He was saying and thinking things at the time that were very prophetic. There's a scene in the play where Randolph is threatened with this old law on the books in Chicago, that a person who is deformed or unsightly to the public is not allowed in public. He could be arrested if he were to show himself. That's just unheard of now, but he was living and writing at a time when things were just beginning to change.
Clark: I think what he was asking the country for were things he was achieving within himself: evolution, vulnerability, change. We live in a country that obviously, to this day, is about heroism. If you can't do something, try harder! We don't understand that while literally "to be active" equals "to do"—acting is being active and doing things—sometimes it's just "being." Or letting go, accepting.
Christopher: Which took some doing, but he did it. And he was able to speak and write from that place of just accepting exactly who he was.
Clark: But there was always that pain. The pain of the cruel things that life throws upon you. It's living with the truth, wouldn't you say?
Christopher: There's a tendency with him, which I can identify with, where you just sort of plow your way through and not face who you really are, what you really are, where you're really at. But he finally does. And again, that's where his real power came from—when he was able to do that, finally.
Clark: It all goes back to what it means to have a disability, in a certain sense. I've worked a fair amount as an actor because I think I've had this component where I've pushed through this disability—in other words, not completely accepting the fact that I'm not able to do certain things. But I think that, at this point in my life, what I'm learning is that to go any further, I have to really let go and accept that there are some things I can't do. I've had arthritis since I was a kid, and with rheumatoid arthritis you've got to drive through, because if you're complacent, it will get worse. So I learned this thing of driving through, and I think I took that into my acting life. And it's become too much. I'm learning to become more Zen about it.
Christopher: As I sit here listening to you say all that, it strikes me as an interesting dichotomy to have you and me playing this role, as far as the disability factor goes, because we come at it from such different places. You grew up with it, while mine was very unexpectedly thrust upon me as an adult in an accident. So I've had to learn all of that in a much different way. I've had to readjust my thinking. I haven't had to accept what I am, I've had to accept what happened. I've had to accept a huge change, one day doing things this way, and then having to adjust to doing things a very, very different way.
Clark: Ultimately none of us has any control over the way our lives are going to change or turn. That's one of the great lessons I think acting teaches us—just giving up control.
Clark: I have a really wonderful agent, and he kind of keyed me in to a lot of things that maybe I wasn't looking at, or maybe I was in denial about. He's a very talented, aggressive young man who really believes in his clients and stands by what they desire, and so he's kind of like the soldier in my trench. He keeps me in a lot of casting people's faces until hopefully they are able to transcend the disability if that's necessary, or use it if that's not necessary. I mean, I'm not necessarily going to play Stanley Kowalski or Lenny in Of Mice and Men—nor would I want to. But there are some things, like the fact that you played Hamlet…
Christopher: And that took a director just deciding, "Let's try this."
Clark: A lot of casting people don't think that way, but a lot of casting people kind of get in your corner. I like to think that ultimately we're all in this together, we're all family.
Christopher: It's slowly changing. I know I come up against a lot of, "Oh, it's not written that way." Having said that, there are exceptions to the rule. But again, I'm very lucky to have an aggressive manager, as well. A lot of it is just about realizing that if you can get in the door to read for stuff, things will change.
Clark: Just keep going back, and reading again and again.
Christopher: It was great for [Taper Other Voices Project co-director] Vicki Lewis and Lisa Peterson and [Taper casting director] Amy Lieberman to bring me in for this role at all, because I don't have the same disabilities that Randolph had. So that was really open-minded for them to do that. I definitely think the theatre world is much more progressive than television.
Clark: That's not always the case. I think there are a lot of big regional theatres that talk a really good game, but it's talk. They're not the goods. And [the Taper] is the goods.
Christopher: And the fact that [the Taper's backstage] is coming up to code is a signal that things are changing. The house was [up to code], because in the audience—well, sure, you'll have older people, disabled people. But it never occurred to anybody that you'd ever have a wheelchair-bound actor doing anything onstage.
Clark: It's so funny, because in any art, like performance art, or film, or television, I just think, Why would anyone not want to do something a little different? Why would you want to be status quo? But I guess it goes back to the "m" word: money.
Christopher: It's an ongoing process to change the image. It's slow going, but hopefully it will just continue.
Clark: I guess that's what we're here to do, right? BSW