Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2004, Volume 24, No. 3
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies

The Theatrical Landscape of Disability

Victoria Ann Lewis, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Theatre at the University of Redlands
Founding Director of the Mark Taper Forum's OTHER VOICES Project
Email: Victoria_Lewis@redlands.edu

Did it start with Bergson or before? Space was treated as the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile. Time, on the contrary, was richness, fecundity, life.
   -- Foucault
Poppi, I'm not going to walk, but it's OK. I just want a life outside these hospital walls, and I'll make it the best life I can.
   -- Italia Dito, Tell Them I'm a Mermaid
Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose.
   -- Kris Kristofferon / Fred Foster
Hey, hey! Ho, Ho! Nursing homes have got to go!
   -- A.D.A.P.T. demonstration chant


On Wednesday, July 9, 2002, from a bridge above the Feather River outside Paradise, California, a 92-year-old man jumped to his death (Glionna 2002). The reason Coval Russell gave for his suicide was that he "would rather die than go into a nursing home." Many in the disability community will read this event as a moral parable about the terrors institutional life holds for disabled and elderly Americans and the pressing need for better in-home care. Russell's action will be read as an act of heroism by many others. Refusing to live a life of dependency, Russell asserted his humanity and his self-hood, making a daring escape from a life not worth living.

But there is a twist to Coval Russell's story that complicates both of these readings. The elderly Russell had just been released from the Butte County jail after serving 14 months for stabbing and wounding his 70-year-old landlord, Russell's first-ever brush with the law. During the 462 days he served, Russell became a friend to guards and inmates alike who took the 92-year-old man under their collective wing. Guards furnished him with extra mattresses for his frail body and prisoners gave up their television rights and mess hall seniority in Russell's favor. One inmate remembered, "We became his grandkids. We were a motley crew, but we were family nonetheless." The World War II veteran explained, "They took care of me, treated me like I was human being. And I showed them respect too." Despite several continuances filed by Russell and his lawyer, the day finally came when a judge ruled it inappropriate for a man of Russell's advanced age to be incarcerated. Russell was devastated, considered violating his parole so he could be jailed again, but in the end took his own life.

Disability activists have used a strong and important spatial analogy in their fight with the nursing home industry. As ADAPT leader Mike Auberger puts it: "The only difference between a jail and a nursing home is the color of the uniform. They use a night-stick in jail, medication in a nursing home" (1992; quoted in Baizley and Lewis 2005). But the opposite of nursing home for Russell was not a "life outside these hospital walls," as Italia Dito demanded in the television special Tell Them I'm A Mermaid," [quoted above], but a life in prison.

The modern, liberal reader, on the other hand, assigns a heroic value to suicide when "life is no longer worth living." The Los Angeles Times account poignantly contrasts the Coval Russell of the 1930s who prospected for gold in the hills of Northern California and the Russell of 2001 whose physical deterioration is noted in detail: "blind in one eye, suffering from prostrate cancer and bearing a saucer-sized scar on his forehead from surgery for melanoma" (Glionna 2002). But Coval Russell does not reject his aging flesh but rather the space that is allotted to such a body. Isolation, neglect, and invisibility characterized the space Russell could inhabit outside the prison walls, whether in the $40-a-night motel where he spent his last days or the county nursing home he so feared. As the song says, "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to loose."

This story, this performance if you will, of the disabled body and space points to a need to re-code the value of home and belonging and disrupt the liberal dichotomies of individual freedom vs. confinement/prison and the related hierarchical oppositions of movement over stasis, and time over place. As geographer Doreen Massey (1993: 148) has described, "Over and over again time is defined by such things as change, movement, history, dynamism; while space, rather lamely [sic], by comparison, is simply the absence of these things." Time is gendered as masculine; space as feminine (and, I would argue, disabled). The postmodern disruption of these long-propagated dichotomies has led to a more sophisticated analysis of space not as a "passive, abstract arena on which things happens," but rather as constitutive of the social and thus a site for political change (Keith and Pile 1993: 2). I propose in this paper that disability studies has a critical contribution to make to space-based investigation in theater studies, given the centrality of place in the experience of persons with disabilities.

I propose to investigate three "geographic" sites that illustrate in real or imaginary terms the "remapping" of the physically disabled body in the theatrical landscape: first, the reciprocal relationship between performance space and performers as it informs questions of architectural access, confined in this paper to the so-called legitimate, professional, or the term I prefer, regional American theater; second, the disabled body in non-verbal performance including civil rights activism and wheelchair or integrated dance; and, third, the contribution of disabled playwrights to the reclamation of space, immanence and home in post-modern drama that challenges what cultural critic Una Chaudhuri (1997: xii) has called the "geopathology" of modern drama structured as it is on "the victimage of location" and the "heroism of departure." Just as cultural critic Edward Said questioned the modern theater's valorization of the figure of exile given what we now know of the "truly horrendous . . . irremediably secular and unbearably historical" conditions of the world's dispossessed (quoted in Soja and Hooper 1993: 194), disabled artists have a similar potential to dislocate the figure of "home" in modern theater.

Remapping Architectural/Theatrical Space

I got to the concert hall and the parking lot--no stairs; the public entrance-no stairs, the stage--no stairs. . . "Okay," I asked, "who's disabled in the city government?" Sure enough, some relative of the mayor was disabled.
   -- Itzhak Perlman, quoted in Lewis (1981: 10).
After graduating in the top of my Harvard Law class, I was unable to get a job offer. At one of my interviews a client asked the firm's assembled partners: "Is the circus in town?"
   -- Paul Miller, person of short-stature, Commissioner of the EEOC--1994 to present
It is imperative that the disability movement develop methods to influence image-making from the inside and the outside.
   -- David Hevey (1992: 8).

Theater is a social art. The overriding problem facing disabled artists today, traditional or experimental, community-based or professional, political or commercial, is isolation. As the first two quotes above demonstrate, the disabled body is not part of social space. Violinist Itzhak Perlman underscores this fact in his ironic report of a rare encounter with an accessible performance venue. His first response is that something is missing, something has been removed, erased from the civic landscape. The evidence mounts: " the parking lot—no stairs, the public entrance—no stairs, the stage—no stairs." Like a private eye on the trail of civic corruption, Perlman uncovers what a duller mind would have missed--the mysterious presence of a disabled body somewhere behind the scene, a body with influence in high places. The message is clear: civic spaces do not normally invite the disabled body even in the role of spectator.

In the second quote Paul Miller encounters a different experience of space. The corporate conference room he thinks he is sitting in and in which he assumes the role of a highly-qualified job applicant, is overlain with another space, the circus. According to the offended client (quoted above), Miller brings into the room, or at least leaves lurking nearby, a traveling circus with elephants, popcorn, tight-rope walkers, and side-show freaks. The client cannot interpret Miller's body as part of the space of a professional law office. Similar stories recount the experience of disabled people in public spaces receiving unsolicited donations from passersby. Waiting for a light to change, drinking a cup of coffee, moving through an airport to catch a plane, coins drop into their laps or land in their (sometimes full) coffee cups.

The two examples quoted above demonstrate the contention of the new geography that "the social is inexorably also spatial" (Massey 1993: 155). The absence of disabled people from these spaces or the invisibility or misinterpretation of their social roles in those spaces establish the very rigid boundaries which separate disabled people from the arts whether as working artists, students or audience members. Gaining access is a complex process, precisely because it is spatial, social, civic, and aesthetic.

Scholar Carrie Sandahl (2002: 23) recently asked in the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism what would happen if "space were reconceptualized with human variety and people from the whole life span taken into consideration? How might consideration of disability transform the aesthetics and use of theatrical space altogether?" This is the question, of course, the one that brings the disabled body to center stage in the 21st century. What community has more experience and analysis of a vision of place characterized by " its insistent particularity. . . [and] a recognition of situatedness," than the disability community? (Chaudhuri 1997: 251) But Sandahl acknowledges the difficulty of attaining this utopic ideal even in that best of all worlds, a conference of the Society for Disability Studies. Inevitably there are "competing accommodations," for example when a vision-impaired person needs bright lights to see the speaker and a hard of hearing person needs dimmed lights to read the projected captions (Sandahl 2002: 26). Susan Nussbaum (2005; originally written 1995) comments on similar spatial incompatibilities in her comedy No One As Nasty:

When you're a crip you get fucking cold. Unless you're one of those crips who's hot all the time. I know a bunch of those, too. That's why you can't have a whole bunch of crips in one place all together, because people are turning up the thermostat and opening the windows at the same time.

My investigation of architectural access, my excavation of the complex "politics of location" and the "insistent particularity" that shapes disability performance whatever the venue will focus on a "professional" theater institution, because it was such a theater that housed my community-based work in the local and national disability community, OTHER VOICES, for 20 years. The boundary between the large "professional" theaters on one side and experimental projects and solo work on the other is blurred. Theater artists, disabled and nondisabled, tend to migrate back and forth across that border for a variety of artistic and economic reasons. For me the ability to transform the theatrical space of disability is not connected to either term of the professional/non-professional dichotomy. Rather I feel the location of the re-imagination of the disabled/impaired theatrical body lies within the project of decentralization and multiculturalism in the American theater.

Certainly, important, exciting work involving disability and performance is being done in a variety of non-traditional spaces. Two disabled choreographers, Petra Kuppers and Kanta Kohhar-Lindgren, created a performance piece in the stairwell of the Chisendale Dance Space in London. At the Society for Disability Studies conference in Oakland in 2002, Joan Lipkin spoke movingly of the need to recognize theater outside the confines of professional spaces as practiced in her DisAbility Project. At the same conference Chris Anne Strickling (2002) chronicled her work with deaf artist Terry Galloway to create Actual Lives Performance Project with a group of disabled women in Austin, Texas, a project she characterizes as "non-professional." Also Carrie Sandahl and Paul Longmore offered us a comic parody of critical language that grew out of the historic National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on Disability Studies the summer of 2001.

As I believe my colleagues would agree, transforming the theatrical landscape of disability is not dependent on the whether the space is traditional or non-traditional or whether the actors are professional or not, but whether the space is transformed by being inhabited by a radically material disabled/impaired body(ies). And not just any habitation but one in which the social status of the disabled participant is equal to others using the space. Power is deeply embedded in social space. As Carrie Sandahl (2002: 23) chronicles, her liberal Unitarian-Universalist church, which "prides itself on being open to anyone `whatever your abilities,'" has only achieved "audience" access, the performance/sacred space is inaccessible for a person using a wheelchair. As Sandahl notes the analogy within the world of performance is the chasm between audience access and artist access.

So, to return to the site of this investigation, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. It was exciting when, after 35 years of operation, the performance stage as well as backstage dressing rooms and bathrooms of the theater became accessible. The occasion was the world premiere of John Belluso's The Body of Bourne, a Brechtian epic chronicling the life of turn-of the-century radical, disabled critic Randolph Bourne, a play that required the casting of several disabled actors and access to the stage for the wheelchair-using playwright during rehearsals. As Tony Kushner (Pulitzer Prize, Angels in America) said in praise of the young disabled writer's success, "How many playwrights physically transform the theater they're working in?" (Breslauer 2001)

Kushner is a deeply committed, political man and his remark exhibits a savvy appreciation of the relationship between space, access and power. But, and in no way do I mean to detract from the significance of John Belluso's achievement both artistically and politically, the highly publicized access renovations were not achieved by one event (Shirley 2001). The weaving of social, spatial negotiations that resulted in backstage access at the theater was complex. Only the beginning of that story can be told here—how audience access and street access, the building blocks for the backstage renovation of 2001, were first achieved. By undertaking this minimal deconstruction of the access history at one theater I hope to emphasize the complexity of the politics of location, the importance of the disability community's involvement with cultural institutions and the extraordinary changes, however frustratingly slow, that have been achieved by disabled artists, academics and advocates in the re-imagination of the disabled body in performance. I will be talking about the structures of cultural life, such things as licensing contracts, the myriad of specific social relations that control performance space.

The first event that transformed the space of the Mark Taper Forum's stage and auditorium goes back at least to the late 1970's when the theater developed and premiered Mark Medhoff's Children of a Lesser God. Whatever the weaknesses of the text (see Felleman 1989), the production radically altered theatrical space by placing deaf and hard-of-hearing actors not just on the Mark Taper stage but also in theaters throughout the world. Because Children of a Lesser God's licensing agreement, the legal arrangement by which a particular theater is given the rights to produce an author's play, contained a stipulation requiring the employment of deaf and hard-of-hearing actors, trained deaf actors (many from the famous National Theatre of the Deaf founded in 1967) migrated all over the country to play the roles of Sarah, Orin and others. Changes on the stage led to changes in the audience. The Taper's pioneering program in deaf audience development, Project D.A.T.E. (Deaf Audience Theater Encounter) had 200 deaf audience subscribers attending signed performances and participating in pre- and post- play discussions. And, even more unusual at that time, the Taper employed a deaf person to coordinate Project D.A.T.E.

However, in a scenario that recalls Susan Nussbaum's description cited above of windows opening and closing to serve competing environmental needs of disabled people, the success of Children was also an embarrassment to the institution. Wheelchair-using theater fans, eager to see this acclaimed production, discovered that the Mark Taper Forum was inaccessible.

The Mark Taper Forum is a "non-profit," "not-for-profit" or "regional" theater, in Los Angeles. (In this paper I will use the term "regional," because it emphasizes the project of geographical multiplicity that I am advocating and to which I relate multi-cultural and disability-specific theater.) In 1965 the United States Congress established the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Like the failed project of the depression, the Federal Theater Project, the NEA was commissioned with decentralizing and regionalizing the arts by providing seed money for the performing and fine arts projects initiated outside of New York City. As a result of Endowment support, a network of regional theaters (and symphonies and ballet companies) sprang up in American cities during the 1960's and '70's. Because the regional theaters were dependent on public funds they were required to comply with successive waves of civil rights legislation in the United States from the 1960s on, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1976 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

When the access controversy surfaced during the run of Children of a Lesser God, the Mark Taper Forum was aware of the need to bring their theater, built a decade before the 504 regulations were mandated, into compliance with the law. But the cost of retrofitting, estimated at the time at half a million dollars, was prohibitive. When I came along in 1982 with an Artist in Residence grant from the California Arts Council to teach disabled women theater, the Taper agreed to sponsor the project, as an act of goodwill towards the Los Angeles disability community and a promise of more substantial accommodation in the future, not necessarily because they were particularly interested in the emerging disability culture. The rehearsal halls in the frumpy Music Center Annex across the street from the glittering music center plaza were accessible. A flowered curtain provided an accessible toilet and the work began.

Barred from entry to professional training programs because of my disability, I arrived at the Taper schooled in the alternative practice of feminist and people's theater. I had also worked for years as a journalist for the anarchic, disability-run Center for Independent Living in Berkeley where hierarchy of any kind, including disability, was not acceptable, including faulting a person such as myself as not being "disabled enough." The techniques of radical, feminist theater practice brought a different use of space into the Taper's rehearsal hall than that employed by traditionally trained actors. And the peer model of decision-making promulgated by the Independent Living Movement contrasted radically with the top-down decision-making process of the Mark Taper Forum.

Most important to me in those days was that a disability-identified theatrical project was being offered a home in a space other than the church halls and recreation centers for the "handicapped" that had been the normal venues for disability arts in the past. The three Taper rehearsal halls were not glamorous. Linoleum floors, beige walls, cranky heating systems and faulty coffee makers gave evidence of years of hard use. These spaces were unmistakably work rooms, not to be confused with the soft-textured cushioned comfort of the auditorium across the street -- the still inaccessible Mark Taper Forum. In these rooms actors such as Jack Lemmon, James Edward Olmos, Phyliss Frelich, Lewis Merkin, and Alfre Woodard, had created plays of artistic and social significance that had targeted a hegemonic American identity --Children of a Lesser God, For Colored Girls, Zoot Suit and Trial of the Catonsville Nine. We all sensed that we were speaking for a new place of disabled identity and that the importance of that new ground was reinforced by our habitation of a privileged cultural space.

I also was allowed to run the workshop on my terms, which was a segregated environment of disabled women. This freedom might be attributed to benign neglect rather than artistic vision on the part of the powers-that-be, but it served its purpose. Always and foremost was the circle -- for storytelling and dance. Always and deepest was a reclamation of the body. One participant recalls:

We all joined hands (or whatever) and concentrated to receive and send tactile impulses around the circle. I like this because someone I don't know (usually) deals with holding my left arm (a little piece of education for them). Because our physical beings are frequently a problem for all of us, and for me, the touching exercises help build confidence in simply using the body for expression.

The restriction of the space to disabled women situated our movement and our storytelling in a new space of social possibility. The energy normally directed to "managing stigma" was released into a new field, a new embodied community. The work could be described in the same terms that Chaudhuri employs to valorize multicultural theater, "insistent particularity. . . [and] recognition of situatedness." The immediacy and authenticity of this new location from which to speak and move was recognized first by the disabled leaders and community members who saw the initial public workshop presentation of Tell Them I'm a Mermaid in the Taper rehearsal hall, then by scouts from television producer and innovator Norman Lear and finally by the national press reviewing the televised adaptation of the workshop material.

Rehearsing for the televised version of Tell Them I'm a Mermaid extended the boundaries of the workshop space. The Taper rehearsal spaces were only available to us at night when the professional productions were not rehearsing. The only rehearsal available was a block away in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the high-art home of the city's orchestra and opera. As we set out for the Pavilion, we soon discovered that there were no curb cuts between the annex and the civic center across the street. As four women in the ensemble used power chairs, we were stuck. Eventually we found a driveway from which to enter Grand Avenue, one of the most highly trafficked streets of downtown Los Angeles, and rolled our way to rehearsal in the face of oncoming traffic. Within a year curb cuts had been installed connecting not only the Taper main stage with its rehearsal halls but also Los Angeles's cultural plaza with the city government offices on the other side of Grand Avenue, thus creating an opportunity for government and arts spaces to overlap.

In addition to the actual space transformation afforded by the workshop's housing at the Mark Taper Forum, the institution also provided a symbolic venue for the work. The positioning provided by a major cultural institution was crucial to the development and visibility of the program as a whole as well as the individual careers of the artists connected with OTHER VOICES. This affiliation was a two-edged sword. On the one side was the institution's inability to recognize community-based work and a marginalization of the program. On the other was the stimulation of the professional model and the chance for individual artists and plays to benefit from the expertise and reputation of the organization. It is doubtful that had the workshop remained under the auspices of Lilith, a Woman's Theater in San Francisco, that we would have stumbled on the opportunity to develop two commercial television specials or to create national as opposed to local programming in the Contemporary Chautauqua.1

Remapping Speechless Performance

As playwright John Belluso, who uses a manual wheelchair, explains:

When I get on a bus, all heads turn and look, and for a moment, it's like I'm on stage. Disabled people understand the world in a different way. You understand what it's like to be stared at, and in a sense, you're always performing your disability (Breslauer 2001).

While lack of architectural access in our major cultural institutions restricts the presence of disabled persons on our theatrical stages (though not in dramatic representation), the disabled person experiences him/herself as a performer on a daily basis. The wheelchair lift on a public bus becomes a stage, creating a performer of the disabled bus-rider and an audience of the other passengers. As Rosemarie Garland Thomson (1997: 13) has observed: "Those of us with disabilities are supplicants and minstrels, striving to create valued representations of ourselves in our relations with the nondisabled majority." Sociologists Gliedman and Roth talk of the "double life" of disabled children -- one life within the family, the other in society at large. The disabled person is aware of the power of space to create identity living as they do in "two worlds," one in which the disabled person is perceived as "normal" and the other in which experience must constantly be negotiated through societal perceptions that distort if not degrade the disabled identity.

Many disabled activists and artists are self-consciously manipulating these spatial identities to effect political change and create new aesthetics. In the third section of this paper I will investigate playwrights who are creating new texts that problematize that space, taking the public stare, ". . .that gaze, and spinning it. . . staring back at them," as playwright John Belluso has described his motivation to write (Breslauer 2001). Before entering that text-based performance discussion, I will look briefly at non-text based performance as represented by political activism and dance.

Militant groups such as ADAPT embrace public performance and destabilize civic space by engaging in what cultural critic Gayatari Spivak has called "wild practice" (quoted in Soja and Hooper 1993: 195). For example, a demonstration staged to advocate for enactment of the ADA held in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1989, called for a large group of significantly disabled people to move out of their wheelchairs and collectively crawl up the Capitol steps. For ADAPT activist Stephanie Thomas (1992), the performance was a conscious manipulation of space and location. She recalls:

It was very hot. I was wearing a tee shirt and jeans. I had to be careful the catheter didn't get ripped away. It took a long time - 20 minutes that seemed forever. 70 of us got out of our wheelchairs and crawled up the Capitol steps. We took a lot of flak for it - but I've thought a lot about crawling. First - people like me in most of the world - if they're not dead - they have to crawl to get around. There's no wheelchairs, no access. Do I think I'm better than them?

Second - the media responds. I wouldn't crawl to see a movie, but I'd do it to get the Americans with Disabilities Act passed.

Thomas uses the performance to re-map social space by invoking a relationship with disabled people in the third world. By assuming the physical gestus of these people, the public crawl, and repeating that gestus 70 times, ADAPT dislocates the social meaning of crawl in modern space and, for Thomas at least, creates a space that simultaneously includes those disabled people living outside the comparatively privileged location of disabled people in the United States. Even granted that a spectator might not read a third world presence into this event, the excessive nature of the event--the sheer numbers of people involved, the inappropriate use of a revered public monument -- would disrupt the normal response of pity. A Brechtian manipulation of sympathy is certainly in evidence here. As for Thomas's second point, the media response, in addition to extensive print and television coverage, there is a single photograph from that day that captures in spatial terms the claim to media space effected by the demonstration. Shooting from above Tom Olin has photographed what can best be described as a mob of media at the top of the Capitol stairs. The entire frame is filled with a mosaic of people and machines--dozens of journalists, an intricate web of tripods, cameras and cable -- assembled to witness the transgressive collective crawl.

Another more personal disruption of social space but equally performative was Elliot Hoppenfeld efforts to bring a prostitute into his nursing home in Chicago. Hoppenfeld (1993) recalls:

The nursing home lawyer grilled me like five hours, bringing up all kinds of crap: " Why did I bring a prostitute into the nursing home?" I brought two of them. I said, "Look, I'm not married. I want to get laid. They wanted money. I gave them money. What is your business? That's my life."

Hoppenfeld was judged mentally unstable based on his violation of the nursing home space and placed in a mental institution, a disturbing example of the assumptions about social relations that constitute space.2

Many protests incorporate elements of what we in the western tradition consider a play, i.e., character, agonistic dialogue and mimetic action. ADAPT radical Spitfire (1993) relishes the performance elements of protest that allow her to assume characters. Her clothing/costume on the day I interviewed her was provocative and easy to read in a large crowd. She wore chartreuse sweat pants and an army helmet (the theme for the Nashville demonstration, ADAPT always has a theme, was army camouflage in honor of Schwartzkopf's presence at the Nursing Home convention). Her black sweatshirt provided dialogue that could be "heard" no matter how noisy the demonstration became or how difficult Spitfire's speech is to understand. The front of the shirt read: IF YOU WANT ME, CARRY ME. The back read: CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE, just in case they cuffed her from behind.

But Spitfire's performance did not end with her costume. She created scripts to engage her adversaries, usually members of the local police force. In the course of our interview she slipped into a mimetic reconstruction of her actions during the demonstration. She performed her "script" for me, alternating between the character of the policeman and herself. With enthusiasm she assumed the roles:

[as police officer] Can you walk?. . . [as herself] When I want to, but I don't want to. . . . [as police officer] What is your name? . . .[as herself] Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi! GET IT!!

Examples of ADAPT performative actions are abundant: face paint; noise making sirens, a wheelchair-rider who is a quadruple amputee draped in an American flag wearing a sign that reads: IF I CAN'T DO IT, IT AIN'T WORTH DOING; a march led by a group of disabled people dressed in period dress from the American revolutionary war carrying an American flag, etc. ADAPT actions are full of non-official, carnival elements to use the language of Bakhtin -- masks and disguise, loud noises, processions, all climaxing in an act of civil disobedience in which hundreds of disabled people inhabit forbidden public space. The spatial disruption continues with the arrests as law enforcement scrambles to create accessible lock-ups.

Another site for spatial disruption by the disabled body involving non-verbal performance is the world of dance. Unlike political protest, which creates theatrical forms against a background of pedestrian movement, wheelchair or integrated dance positions the impaired body in a site traditionally reserved for ideal, beautiful bodies executing virtuostic movement. The transgressive intention of locating the impaired body within this aesthetic space has not gone un-remarked. In 1994 New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce refused to attend choreographer Bill T. Jones's Still Here, which included videotaped interviews with people dying of AIDS, on the basis that the dance was "victim art" and therefore, "undiscussable." For Croce a physically different body in a performing space was aesthetically taboo. But Croce was challenged. In 1996, Jeremy Alliger, Executive Director of New England's largest dance presenting organization DANCE UMBRELLA, produced the First International Festival of Wheelchair Dance in Boston, which served as both a catalyst and legitimization of the field.

The best overview to date of the field of wheelchair or integrated dance is Ann Cooper Albright's chapter on the topic in her study Choreographing Difference: the Body and Identity in Contemporary Dance (Albright 1997). She criticized choreography that sought to normalize the disabled figure and use the wheelchair as a sort of prop upon which the nondisabled dancer could display her/his virtuosity. Albright, who is herself disabled, identifies the tendency of disabled women "to hold onto the image of a classical female dancer as graceful, elegant, strong and beautiful." She finds that even more aesthetically adventurous and impairment-embracing companies such as Light Motion and Candoco are "still informed by an ethos that reinstates the classical body within the disabled one" (Albright 1997: 83).

I do not agree with all of Albright's judgments. Agreeing with Carrie Sandahl (2002: 28), I find the work of Charlene's Curtis' Light Motion to be innovative in its embrace of the wheelchair as an extension of the body. I also admire the work of Candoco, notwithstanding Albright's accurate identification of the privileging of the male dancer in Candoco and other integrated companies. What I do agree with is her emphasis on the particularity and materiality of each dramatic environment. The difficulty, and it is one which theater shares, is how to create new forms. As in text-based theater, Albright finds the old narratives encoded in the movement vocabularies of classical and modern dance resistant to the impaired body.

In the interest of space one example will serve to suggest the kind of experimentation taking place in this field. British company Candoco's Outside In, choreographed by Victoria Marks and produced for BBC television, plays with space and the disabled body in a variety of ways. One duet early in the piece features a nondisabled woman dancer and a male disabled dancer, David Toole. The number opens with the nondisabled dancer entering a space covered in a pattern of wheel tracks left by the preceding ensemble dance. The dancer engages tentatively with the marks, testing them with her feet and apparently picking up information, which is then somatically expressed through eccentric movements. The film then cuts to Toole. Toole, who has no legs and in this number is not using his wheelchair, also encounters a distinct floor surface, in his case a diagram of a dance pattern drawn onto the floor such as one might find at an Arthur Murray dance studio. The floor is covered with a sequence of footprints, black for left and white for right, numbered, and linked by arrows and dotted lines. Like his soon-to-be partner Toole is at first quizzical about the directions the pattern suggests. He places his hands in the foot outlines and moves haltingly through a few steps in sequence. We cut again to the woman who is now leaping and jumping as if engaged in an inspired playground hop scotch game. Back to Toole who now decisively places his hands in the outlines of the shoes, looks aggressively straight into the camera and, to the accompaniment of Tango music, begins to swirl through the path of footprints. As the tango music swells the scene cuts to the full company performing a hilarious but sexy group tango between wheelchair-using and non-wheelchair using dancers. The duet prepared us for this unleashing of sexual dance. The two dancers by inhabiting the other's social/spatial relations patterned into the two performance spaces create the possibility of what Chaudhuri (1997: 259) calls a "heterotopic. . .vision of place."

Remapping the playtext:

All dramatic works built on a cliché or that borrow their conception, plot, or a part of their development from other works of art are wholly contemptible.

from "The Pleasure of Being Booed," from "War, the World's Only Hygiene" (1911-1915) F.T. Marinetti

I begin with Marinetti's Futurist manifestos published in the teens of the last century, which called for the banishing of all previous theatrical forms and the creation of a totally new drama. "Abolish the farce, vaudeville, the sketch, the comedy, the serious drama, and tragedy," he expounds. "Create in their place the many forms of Futurist theater." (Flint 1972: 128) Perhaps there is a clue here for how to transform the narrative of disability in playtexts, given the deep roots of the convention of the disabled figure in drama. Disabled playwrights and scholars have struggled to disrupt the old forms. Playwright John Belluso has identified the controlling disability narrative as "individual triumph over personal tragedy." David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have spoken to the "narrative determinism" of the disabled figure. Rosemarie Garland Thomson (1997: 23) identifies two strategies to destabilize these received figures: structural essentialism, which emphasizes difference and individual experience and calls for a community based on a claimed difference, and structural constructionism, which removes stigma, minimizes difference and attacks hierarchies. Because Thomson resists privileging one position over the other, she might be said to present a "Shavian" paradox, an "and/or" simultaneity that destabilizes either fixed location. Carrie Sandahl (2002: 21) suggests an essentialist focus on "impairment," the subjective, phenomenological experience of impairment," as a strategy to challenge theatrical form.

Marinetti et al. offer some possible new forms, such as:

... the short, acted-out poem, the dramatized sensation, comic dialogue, the negative act, the re-echoing line, "extra-logical" discussion, synthetic deformation, the scientific outburst that clears the air.

Filippo Marinetti, Emilio Settimelli and Bruno Corra (2001: 205) "The Futurist Synthetic Theater, 1915"

As intriguing as Martinetti's suggestions are, I contend that dramaturgical reform, like architectural reform, is not accomplished through a modernist heroic departure, the individual in exile from the entire canon of dramatic literature. My point is not that new forms are not necessary, but the difficulty of creating them. I believe that the occupation of the stage by the physically body has begun. My lens with which to locate these transformations is within the discussion of the role of place and immanence in dramatic criticism and practice.


The ideology we recognize as modern humanism was inaugurated by a decision not to remain in a home as artificial and stifling as a doll's house.

   Una Chaudhuri (1997: 7)

Theater scholar Una Chaudhuri in her seminal and highly influential Staging Place: the Geography of Modern Drama characterizes modern drama (since Ibsen) as "geopathological." For playwrights such as Ibsen, Beckett, Pinter, and Shepard, place and home "victimize" the individual and heroism is located in "departure." Chaudhuri believes that multicultural and identity-based drama of the late 20th century now marginalized in the dramatic canon should take its place at the center. Playwrights such as Jose Rivera, Suzi Lori Parks, Marie Irene Fornes, David Henry Hwang and Tony Kushner, Chaudhuri argues, are the true postmodern visionaries as they reject the geopathology of the moderns and instead "sketch ... out an alternative, heterotopic ideal, a vision of place as combining the local and the global, habitation and deviation, roots and routes" (1997: 259). I argue in this section that much of the emerging theater of disability participates and contributes to a multi-cultural, post-modern aesthetic which reasserts the role of space in human experience and challenges the modernist privileging of transcendence over immanence, time over space, and spirit over body.

The lived experience of disability is bound to questions of home and belonging. The revolutionary Disability Civil Rights movement of the 1970's was driven by domestic desires: an apartment of one's own, help with dressing and eating, etc.--questions of little concern to the middle-class leftists who were setting the larger political agenda. Personal, private space was equated with capitalism, private property and the "bourgeois" suburban homes many had left behind. "Tune in, turn on, drop out" became a national mantra of escape, urging an entire generation to go "on the road." The first disabled radicals, Ed Roberts and the "Rolling Quads," were part of that mass exodus from the confines of home. Their collective narrative begins with a "a victimage of location" which necessitated "a heroism of departure," thus illustrating the two central principles of the geopathogy of modern thought (Chaudhuri: xii). But unlike Ibsen's Norah, who can slam the door on the prison of her middle-class home and take off with her little bag into the Nordic night, Ed Roberts' escape was encumbered by an 800-pound iron lung which threatened to collapse the floor of any dwelling less sturdy than a hospital (Shapiro 1993: 45).

Likewise the contemporary disabled playwrights I investigate here, writing as they do out of the lived experience of disability, bring what John Belluso calls in Gretty Good Time, "the Shit Body," into theatrical space. The three plays discussed here—Mike Ervin's The History of Bowling, Susan Nussbaum's No One As Nasty, and John Belluso's Gretty Good Time—disrupt both the content and forms of their dramatic predecessors.

At first glance Mike Ervin's History of Bowling (2005; originally written 1997) seems to fits modern geopathological narrative. Before the play even begins the main character Chuck, a quadriplegic college student in his early 30's, has fought the "victimage of location," through an "heroic escape." His mother had installed a satellite dish for Chuck as a young man and he spent most of his youth watching sports on TV. He shares his moment of recognition with his new girl friend Lou, recalling:

When I saw the guy [on satellite TV]who weighed 900 pounds, that's what made me go to college. . .this guy weighed 900 pounds. . . . When he died, they took him out of the house with a crane. . . . And they interviewed his mother and she was all distraught and I remember thinking, "Damn, woman. Who the hell's been feeding him?" He pissed and shit in a bucket. So she must've spent all day just baking him pies and shit. ...I got a chill because I thought, "Woah! Wait a minute! That's me! My mom spent all that money on . . .that satellite dish. And why? So she could feed me ... sports. To keep me fat and sedated. I was so stuffed and useless, pretty soon the only way you'd get me out of my room up in that attic would've been with a goddam piece of heavy machinery.... And I would never have realized it if I didn't see them swinging that fat guy around with a crane like a grand piano.

Ervin begins his play after Chuck's escape from home, traditionally the dramaturgical climax of modern realist drama. But he introduces a second character, Lou, a college student with epilepsy who wants her own heroic escape.

I just want to get this over with so I can graduate.... The minute I get out of here, I've already decided what I'm gonna do.... I'm gonna hop a boxcar. I don't care which one. Just pick one and go. I did it once before. All by myself. Rode all the way across Indiana. Changed my life. I know it's hard to believe riding across Indiana could change your life. God, it's so amazing out in a box car. I was howling at the moon like a coyote.

However, before she can escape, Lou has to fulfill her PE requirement. She attempts to file an exemption from the class because she has a hidden disability, epilepsy. But the comically sadistic coach, instead of granting an exemption of the requirement, places Lou in the "special section," of PE for "people with handicaps" and assigns her a partner. Horrified Lou responds, " You mean, someone who's blind, or in a wheelchair?" Lou is now trapped in a special space reserved for "people with handicaps."

Throughout his comedy Ervin plays with the problematic social location of disability identity. In the opening moments of the show, Chuck tells the audience that unlike Lou, he is "the king of the doctor's notes." For example, he explains:

When I got the license plates with the little wheelchair hieroglyphic, I had to get a doctor's note. When I got this wheelchair, doctor's note. When I applied to this university, doctor's note again. One time I was in a shoe store and the manager rushed up and said that before he would let any of his sales people touch my feet, I would have to get a doctor's note.

Chuck needs a doctor's permission, a virtual medical passport, whenever he wants to enter "foreign" public space.

Initially the playwright appears to be satirizing the label of disability. Just as Lou and Chuck are stuck in the same special section of PE, Chuck and the blind and deaf Cornelius (Corny) are assigned to be roommates. The university has paired them together according to Chuck, ". . .because this is the cripple room and all cripples go in the cripples room. Big bathroom and bars around the toilets." But the social label of handicap/disability is most fiercely satirized in Ervin's hilarious account of Chuck's childhood participation in a charity recreational activity called "Bowling Buddies" which becomes the subject of a paper entitled "The History of Bowling," that Chuck and Lou write together for their PE class assignment. Chuck dictates to Lou:

Every third Saturday. The bastards! . . .They'd close down Rainbow Lanes for the afternoon and bring the cripples in. . . .Bowling buddies motto was "anybody can bowl a strike" And in bowling buddies, no one ever threw a gutter ball. You know why? Because the Christians ran along side the lane and if the ball headed for the gutter, they'd kick it back on course.

Chuck is ruthless in his comic portraiture of his fellow bowlers: the blind kids; the armless boy who pushes the balls with his head; Wilbur, the developmentally disabled youth who uses a basketball; and Chuck himself, the captain of his team, wearing a shiny red cape with appliquéd lightening bolts. Bowling Buddies was a space coded with the lowest possible social status, where the conventional male-coded world of sport with its dynamism, action, striving, and competition had been erased.

At the same time as Ervin is comically exploding the category of disability by exposing the cruelty of a space that infantilizes and invalidates disabled people, his character Chuck is doggedly moving Lou into the location of disability. He taunts her fear of becoming a "Bowling Buddy" herself. He valorizes her moment of greatest social stigma, her epileptic fit in the middle of cheerleading practice, as the gesture by which he would love her. Lou's eventual identification as a member of the disability community is intertwined with Ervin's assault on the binary opposition of transcendence/action/male to immanence/stasis/female. By the end of the play, Lou identifies as disabled and heroism has been defined as stasis.

Ervin reverses the conventional association of the male with movement and risk and the female with home and security. Lou represents the romantic figure of the nomad/exile. Unlike Chuck who "has never been past New Jersey," Lou has not only dropped in and out of several academic institutions, she has visited Alaska and Graceland. She longs to finish college and hop a boxcar.

Chuck's reaction to Lou's vagabond adventures sounds suspiciously like the "bitter cripple" trope of conventional drama. In the course of a wild, drunken poker game with his deaf and blind roommate, Chuck explodes:

You know what else I hate! I really hate that daredevil crap! . . . But that's what it takes to hit the mark with her, boy! That's the kind of man that gets her all juiced up! A boxcar jumping maniac!

Chuck is angry but he is also posing a paradigm shift and vigorously arguing for the moral high ground of his position. Like Tony Kushner's angel in Perestroika who issues a command at the turn of the millennium, for human beings to "STOP MOVING!" (as quoted in Chaudhuri 1997: 259) Chuck is reversing the cultural privileging of movement over stasis.

In the tradition of mismatched but fated-to-be together lovers, Lou and Chuck come to a crisis over the central environmental event of the play, the appearance of a comet. Lou wants Chuck to join her to see the comet. Chuck repeats his argument about "daredevils," redefining heroic adventure. When Lou accuses him of cowardice he replies:

You think you know all about what a daredevil is! But you don't know a damn thing about daredevils! . . .I'm a daredevil, baby! I'm a daredevil like you never saw! Sometimes just dragging my ass out of bed in the morning is like jumping across the Grand Canyon! Who the hell needs comets and boxcars?

When Lou demands of Chuck, "Don't you want to see a miracle?" Chuck replies:

I see miracles every day. I'm a miracle, you're a miracle. . . That camera is a miracle. This beer is a miracle. Out of that great big bang we got me and you and this beer can. Everything's a miracle, considering the odds against it.

Susan Nussbaum will offer a similar, if darker, resistance to the narrative of transcendence so often located in the disabled figure of overcoming.

The comic knot propels the play forward from this point. Ervin brings his comedy to a close with the warring lovers in the school gymnasium in front of all the jocks presenting their separate versions of "The History of Bowling." Lou's paper revisits the boxcar ride in Indiana but instead of the heroic, daredevil leap she has recounted to Chuck, she tells instead of her appearance in the Hendersonville railway station where she has an epileptic seizure. She describes herself as she imagines herself to have appeared in that space: an "alien being pulls itself onto the platform like an amphibian from the lagoon!" When she comes out of her seizure, she finds that:

. . .an old woman had fainted. Children were crying. A man in the black overcoat hovered above [me] gulping with fear, his arms extended, his sheriff's badge in one hand, a gun in the other. Sirens blazing!

Lou's speech acknowledges and makes visible in a spatial-social relation her shared status with Chuck as disabled. Ervin reconciles his lovers and then accomplishes the triumph of Eros (required by comedy) through a spatial fantasy. Lou describes a journey of homecoming, a return to Hendersonville with Chuck.
Look, we'll go there and you'll see. We'll walk around, minding our own business-- and soon somebody will go, "There it is! It's --it's ---that thing! And look what it brought with it! Eeeeeek!

The lovers suggest a new space of belonging that replaces the modernist necessity of the heroic departure, a space created by their shared recognition of a non-normate identity.

Narrative and mimetic dreams comprise approximately half the verbal text of John Belluso's Gretty Good Time (2005; originally written 1997). This extensive use of dream convention destabilizes the realistic settings of the play without erasing the importance of place. Rather, as Chaudhuri (1997: 138) describes, a new possibility of space is created through "the combination and layering, one on top of another, of many different places, many distinct orders of spatiality." Belluso layers the dream space onto his realistic narrative, which is a "spin" on the trope of the victimage of location and the heroism of departure.

The time is 1956 and the place is a nursing home somewhere in upstate New York. A thirty-two year old woman who had polio as a child and whose family immigrated to the U.S. is living in a nursing home. Her immediate family has died and all of her other relatives are inaccessible in East Germany. There are two doctors: Dr. Kaplan, the villain, who is trying to transfer Gretty to a state institution to free up her place for a more lucrative patient; and young Dr. Henry who becomes romantically involved with Gretty and agrees to help with her suicide. In her dream world Gretty has a lively relationship with one of the so-called "Hiroshima Maidens," young women disfigured in the atom bomb explosion and brought to the United States for free plastic surgery. Gretty saw the young woman, Hideko, on Ralph Edwards' popular 1950's game show This is You Life. Hideko now visits Gretty in her dreams.

Gretty Good Time's plot employs one of the modern variants on the victimage of location and the heroism of departure trope, what Chaudhuri describes as the "pseudotragic" solution to the victimage of location--suicide. Belluso purposefully enlists this dramatic trope to forefront its use in popular drama where disabled people, trapped in the claustrophobic immanence of an impaired body, are thwarted in their heroic desires to kill themselves. Belluso frustrates the geopathological determinism of the heroism of departure scenario (i.e., suicide as the means of transcendence). Gretty finds a place in the newly legislated In-Home Supportive Services program that began in California in the late 1950's.3

In a less conventional fashion, Belluso expands the spatial boundaries of the disabled figure on stage by doubling and dislocating the disabled figure through the characters of Gretty and Hideko. Alternative dream space disrupts the realistic setting of the nursing home. Belluso ends the dream play with a variation on modernist heroism of departure. Departure is still necessary, but it is not a solitary one:

GRETTY: I don't think I know enough history facts.
HIDEKO: I remember another schoolteacher who once told me that history is not really about facts, but about relations.
GRETTY: (touching Hideko's scarred cheek) Relations.
HIDEKO: To imagine your own history you must also imagine the history of others.
GRETTY: Yes, and you must find the balance.
HIDEKO: Between remembering and forgetting.
GRETTY: It's a tricky, tricky path.
HIDEKO: And we'll go on it together.
GRETTY: Together, we'll go.

Like Ervin, Belluso's doubling of disabled protagonists suggests a new location for the disabled figure within community, a location of belonging.

Susan Nussbaum's No One As Nasty (2005; originally written 1995) resists even the dislocated, highly qualified transcendence achieved by Ervin and Belluso's characters. No One As Nasty begins and ends with an image of confinement – a quadriplegic woman dependent upon a personal care assistant. At the beginning, it is 1 a.m., and Janet's attendant is several hours late to put her to bed. She rails, "Goddamn her to the pits of hell. Fuck her to death." At the end Janet lies in bed worrying that her new attendant has been eating food from her refrigerator. Janet confesses that she finds this:

. . .strangely irritating. Why should it be irritating? If she asked I'd just say, "help yourself." But anyway, the reason I think she's been eating stuff is because the lid of the pickle jar was on really tight, and I never screw lids on tightly. Now I sound petty, and it is petty...I hate myself for even having this discussion.

Nussbaum, like Ervin, rejects transcendence. In her opening monologue she dislodges the figure of disability from any narrative of meaning, insisting:

It was an accident, it had nothing to do with whether I was a good or bad person or just an in-between person, we don't live in an ordered universe where there are reasons and "it's for the best" or this happened so I and others "could learn." No-- it was an accident like the whole human race is an accident. Because the dinosaurs got blown away by a meteor.

What is remarkable about Nussbaum's play is that her relentless assertion of immanence, her refusal to indulge in heroic recognition, creates a new space. Like Belluso, Nussbaum overlays a variety of spatial worlds onto Janet's claustrophobic world. In her dream life Janet observes the murderous adventures of a mystery woman who lures men to Janet's apartment and sucks the life out of them. Janet shares cocktails with Chris Reeve, talks to cats and giraffes. In her discussion of playwright Sam Shepard, Una Chaudhuri (1997: 120) talks of a "dramaturgy of afterthought, . . a theatrical musing . .[on our] cultural investment" in myths. For Shepard the controlling myths are the American West and male heroism. For Nussbaum it's the myth of transcendence, the myth of meaning. Nussbaum practices a similar distancing, a slight of hand, that allows her to dwell in a location that permits the extremes of immanence -- "I am sitting here in my own shit, get it?," Janet cries at one point. "I can't bear the stink." -- and yet carry us to a new location. Her most obvious tool is humor, but there's more here than jokes. There is a sense of grace, certainly a virtue associated with the transcendent. But that platial assignment is not available in Nussbaum's universe. So the grace must be able to exist in immanence.

To return to the play's end. Janet is worrying over her inability to rise above "petty" concerns of her new attendant's offensive body odor, loose jar lids, stolen food, strangers touching her body, making judgments, eating her pickles! Coming to the end of her determinably unheroic journey, Janet muses:

I hate myself for even having this discussion. Maybe I'll just forget about the whole thing. Ha ha. No, but maybe I'll let it pass. Unless it gets out of hand. I can't get anything open.

And then the closure, the grace note: "I could be dead wrong," Janet tells us, "about the pickles." The word "pickles," generations of comics insist, is a "funny" word. "P's" are funny, "K's" are funny and Pickles has both. The rhythm of the last monologue is also comic. "I could be dead wrong about the pickles," is the punch line of the monologue. "Pickles" is the final word of the play. The final image is a jar inside a refrigerator in Janet's home. The image is fixed, domestic, mundane, insistent in its immanence, underlining the anti-heroic narrative. And yet it makes us laugh. Nothing is containable, the playwright insists, not even a jar of pickles and certainly not the disabled figure.


My hope in this paper is to suggest the contribution that disability studies can bring to space-based investigation in theater studies, given the centrality of place in the experience of persons with disabilities. By emphasizing the complexity of the politics of location, I want to encourage the continued involvement of the disability community with cultural institutions, traditional and nontraditional, to appreciate the difficulty of accessing civic spaces, including institutions for theater training and performance, and the importance of theater artists finding a home(s) for their work. I also want to honor the extraordinary changes, however frustratingly slow, that have been achieved by disabled artists. Finally, I encourage disabled theater artists to the resist the reductive impulse of a universalizing, transcendent dramaturgical narrative of disability and to rest instead in immanence.


1. The Chautauqua from 1994-2002 brought a wide of emerging and recognized disabled artists to the Taper: Cheryl Marie Wade, Lynn Manning, David Roche, Laura Hershey, Anne Finger, Kenny Fries, John Pixley, John Belluso, Terry Galloway, Mike Ervin, Susan Nussbaum, Ann Stocking, Christopher Thornton, Elena Minor and more. back

2. Hoppenfeld successfully sued the nursing home and now lives independently. back

3. According to the playwright, Shapiro (1993: 256-7) was the source for this plot point. back


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Copyright (c) 2004 Victoria Ann Lewis

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