ke Schambelan, the founder and co-artistic director of Theater by the Blind in Manhattan, had a great day last week. A rehearsal for TBTB's next production, Hamlet, went well. Even better, when he got home that night, $5,000 was waiting for him in his mailbox. The signature on the check was Paul Newman's.
"My cousin knows Joanne Woodward, and she told her about us, and, well, you know," said Schambelan. The next thing he knew, Woodward's husband had mailed him a check.
If only fundraising were always that easy. Officials at any nonprofit theatre will admit that maintaining a healthy revenue stream is their most difficult task, and companies that specialize in showcasing the talents of actors with disabilities are no different. The stakes for those actors, however, are much higher; without those theatres, there are often few other options for work.
"I've been lucky enough to find this theatre," said TBTB actor and co–Artistic Director George Ashiotis, who is blind. "It's become a niche—perhaps too comfortable a one—for me to give expression to the creativity in me."
Indeed, opportunities for disabled actors are slim. In a study released last year, the Screen Actors Guild found that performers with disabilities worked an average of 4.1 days per year, and, of the 2% of TV characters with a disability, only 0.5% had lines. According to the study, there are 54 million disabled Americans—18.3% of the population—which means this country's largest minority group is the least represented in film, TV, and theatre.
Actors' Equity Association does not have current employment statistics for its members with disabilities. But Willie Boston, the Equity official in charge of equal opportunity issues for the union, said employment opportunities for those actors are "minuscule."
Though there have been notable successes in recent years—Robert David Hall on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Daryl Mitchell on Ed, and Marlee Matlin on The West Wing—the fragile nature of employment for actors with disabilities was revealed again last month: The New York Times reported that theatre companies by and for the deaf had lost $2 million in federal grants from the U.S. Department of Education. The National Theatre of the Deaf in West Hartford, Conn., and Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood, Calif., were the hardest hit: They lost $687,000 and $800,000 respectively—about 60% of their operating budgets.
"By the reduction in federal funding, we aren't able to do our mainstage and midstage performances, which have the largest casts and technical crews," Paul Winters, executive director of NTD, told Back Stage. "We have been putting our energies into our little theatre," which performs plays for schoolchildren—but, even there, cuts have been made. Where NTD formerly used four actors and a stage manager for those shows, it now has three actors and no stage manager.
Ed Waterstreet, the artistic director for Deaf West, cited similar concerns and said the loss of funding could affect the theatre world at large. "Partnerships with regional theatres and touring productions would likely not continue to happen without this support," he told Back Stage in an email.
No one knows exactly how the Department of Education grants were lost in the shuffle of an appropriations bill passed in late 2004. Waterstreet told Back Stage that Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) are working to get the money restored.
Nevertheless, the news was noticed throughout the community of artists with disabilities. "When I saw that article in the Times, I breathed a sigh of relief," said Schambelan. "If we'd been that dependent on federal money, I don't know what we would have done."
The annual budget for TBTB fluctuates, Schambelan said; this year it will be about $250,000. Though the company receives money from the government on the federal, state, and local levels, most of its donated revenue comes from individuals and foundations. Of the government, he said, "We can't depend on them."
The situation also draws attention to the ongoing debate about what the federal government's role should be in support of art. With limited budgets and layers of bureaucracy that are often difficult to navigate, governmental departments issue grants that are, in the opinion of some, too small to be worth the trouble.
"I'd rather have lunch with a wealthy person than go through the months of bureaucracy to get the same amount of money" from the government, said John Spalla, dean and musical director of the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped in Manhattan.
"We haven't had the visibility, so we don't get the funding," added William Morgan, artistic director of Cleveland Signstage Theatre. "Sometimes I feel like the bad stepchild," a tongue-in-cheek reference to his better-known colleagues at Deaf West and NTD.
"Overall, government grants tend to be fairly modest," said Sharon Jensen, executive director of the Non-Traditional Casting Project in Manhattan. "The staff at the [National Endowment for the Arts] is phenomenal. They stand on the barricades, serving a field under difficult circumstances. They make a dollar go as far as they can."
However, Jensen noted that the government should still do more. "My problem is with the legislative or congressional level," she said. "Their support could be going to art, but it isn't."
For its part, the NEA, with an annual budget of about $124 million, disburses money each year through its Access to Artistic Excellence program, which is designed to bolster art for underserved segments of the population. However, of the $31 million in Access grants given this year, only about 1.3% of that money ($410,000) will go to organizations directly supporting those with disabilities.
"Art can't be legislated," Jensen said. "But right now the message being given is: You don't count. If you're a person with a disability, you don't matter very much in our country. Your stories don't get reflected, and on and on it goes…. It's in the best interests of the country" for the government to provide this support.
In addition to the limited number of roles, disabled actors also have to contend with the misconceptions that make producers and casting directors less willing to cast an actor with a disability in a role originally written for an able-bodied person.
According to Jensen, her organization has 300–400 actors with disabilities in a database of about 3,500 actors throughout the United States and Canada. California's Media Access Office, another arts organization for the disabled, has about 1,100 actors on file, according to program coordinator Gloria Castañeda.
Casting director Arnold Mungioli of Mungioli Theatricals in New York said he always asks producers how open they are to nontraditional casting. "Twenty years ago, when I would suggest actors of color, it met a lot more resistance than it does now," he said. "For actors with disabilities, it's meeting that [initial] level of resistance…but people's reactions are changing slowly."
It seems, then, that one of the best ways to increase opportunities for actors with disabilities is by lobbying writers, which is what Jensen's organization did two weeks ago with Written on the Body, a symposium for members of the various writing guilds. More than 100 people attended, and, according to Jensen, at least one writer's thinking was altered.
"He stood up and said he had a grandmother who was a double amputee. He said never until that moment had he thought to write about it," Jensen recalled.
Actor and writer Jim Troesh took it upon himself to break ground for fellow disabled actors 20 years ago when he worked on Highway to Heaven, the TV series starring Michael Landon.
"I was 'the first quadriplegic this' and 'the first quadriplegic that,'" said Troesh, who has been in a wheelchair since he fell off a roof at age 14. "I thought my career was pretty well set. That wasn't the way it was. I was soon struggling to get work. The only way to make it happen was to get on the other side of the table."
In the first Highway to Heaven script Troesh wrote, his character married an able-bodied character. "I did that so I could be on the show more," said the actor, who typed the script by holding a stick in his teeth. He now uses a voice-activated system to write.
His feature script Color of the Cross, about Jesus as a black man, will be released on about 500 screens this fall. He recently finished filming a pilot, in which he acted and served as a technical adviser for Comedy Central: Special Unit, starring Christopher Titus. If it gets picked up, Troesh will be on the writing staff, a possibility that excites him more than appearing on the show. He's also won an ABC/Disney scholarship for writers, through Media Access, and is working on a pilot called The Outsiders, an allegory about disability. As a result of the scholarship, Media Access received $10,000, which it can use to train other writers and actors.
The subject of government funding is tricky for Troesh. Though he understands the need for organizations to get more money, he doesn't believe that the government is the best source of revenue. He's very grateful to the state-funded Media Access, but he said it would be better off if it became a private nonprofit institution supported by money from the entertainment industry. He noted that Media Access' staff has been cut from four to one due to budget cuts.
"There's so many hoops you gotta jump through to make it all," he said. "It's supposed to be art. Kind of hard to quantify that for government hoops. Art doesn't fit into the cubbyhole that the government kind of needs it to."
Troesh once went to a government organization, the California Department of Rehabilitation, to get funding for acting classes. "The guy told me, 'That's not a viable goal for a quad,'" he recalled. "I didn't get the funding. But they did give me money for graphic-design classes." Troesh has worked as a graphic designer to supplement his income.
"I've been on government funding for a long time," he said. "I can't wait to make what I like to call 'F.U. money.' Then I'll be able to say to that guy, 'I don't have to jump through your hoops anymore.'"
To learn more about resources for artists with disabilities, visit www.nea.gov/resources/ Accessibility/ArtistsResource.html, www.sag.org, www.aftra.org, and www.actorsequity.org.