Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2006, Volume 26, No. 2
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies

In memoriam, John Belluso, 1969-2006

Victoria Lewis
Assistant professor of theatre arts
University of Redlands
Redlands, CA 92373-0999
E-mail: Victoria_Lewis@redlands.edu

Note: Renowned playwright John Belluso died Feb. 10, 2006 in New York City. A wheelchair user, Belluso focused on disability themes in many of his plays. The following tribute was part of the remarks at the Los Angeles memorial for Belluso at The Evidence Room on March 6, 2006.

[A disabled young man] who seeks a life in the larger world...has to practically construct anew a world of his own, and explain a great many things to himself that the ordinary person never dreams of finding unintelligible at all...he will begin to understand the feelings of all the horde of the unpresentable and the unemployable, the incompetent and the ugly, the queer and crotchety people who make up so large a proportion of human folk.

We are perhaps too prone to get our ideas and standards of worth from the successful, the sayings the wealthy give us, Surely... a philosophy gained through personal disability and failure [is] as just and true a method of appraising the life around us as the cheap optimism of the ordinary professional man
                                                                                   -- Randolph Bourne

These words of Randolph Bourne written in 1911 brought John Belluso and myself together. They were printed in the 1994 program of the OTHER VOICES Chautauqua held at the Mark Taper Forum. John had been reading the program in New York City in 1995 and in our dialogue about those words John Belluso and I became partners in the project of OTHER VOICES, a development lab for disabled theatre artists begun in 1981 at the Taper with two goals: one, to create training and employment opportunities for disabled persons in theatre, and two, to change the representation of the disabled figure on the stage.

John came to Los Angeles in the summer of 1995 for an OTHER VOICES writers' residency and then came on as Acting Director, then Co-Director, then Director of OTHER VOICES until the lamentable closure of the Taper's play residency labs in 2005. John began to shape the direction of OTHER VOICES in new ways: He crafted plays that were competitive with the best in American theatre, plays that have been and will continue to be produced throughout the country, created roles for disabled actors, and instituted a series of commissions.

One factor in my grief, which I share with some in the audience, is that the community of artists and activists who spun around OTHER VOICES in the 20 years of its gerry-rigged existence has lost a host of colleagues in a short passage of time. Comedy writer Paul Ryan, whose acerbic voice ran through many of the early OTHER VOICES pieces, died in 1998 at 43. Since then, we have lost Denny Meehan, chair of the OTHER VOICES Advisory Board; Doug Martin, Advisory Board member who wrote legislation that made it possible for disabled artists to make money at their craft without losing medical care; Barbara Waxman, who left on the institutional memory of OTHER VOICES a strong commitment to feminism and a celebration of the sexuality of persons with disabilities; and Lisa Lovett, who selflessly worked to support the work of OTHER VOICES as a board member and actress. The oldest person in this noble group was in his mid-50s. The youngest barely 30. All untimely deaths, all cut down in their prime.

Now John, who not only left behind an extraordinary body of plays, but like one of the comic book heroes he loved as a teenager, also possessed a super power that gave him the strength to rip open the back of the Taper, install ground floor toilets, dressing rooms and a ramp, thus making the Taper one of the few theatres in the country with access for both disabled audience members and disabled artists.

But I feel myself falling into a narrative of disability that John would chide me for–the dominant narrative, he would say, of disability in western drama that of "the triumph of an exceptional individual over a personal tragedy." He believed passionately in the opposite: in his words to represent disability on stage not as a simple biological experience, a medical condition or a "rough card drawn by the Hand of Fate" [but as a] network of social phenomenon ...[informed by history].

In 1997, armed with his brand new MFA from NYU, but before it was at all certain that he would find a life, an economic life, in the theatre John questioned the wisdom of going against this powerful deeply embedded story of triumphant individualism. Fellowship panels wondered whether disability was "all he can write about?" Don't "ghettoize yourself" a prominent American playwright counseled. John reflected:

It flashes into your head: What might people's reaction be if I wasn't writing about a subject that was so challenging to them? It does seem like another language to many, so set in their seeing disability as an individual narrative and therefore containable. But there's nothing else for me to write about.

And tell that story he did. He achieved a success in his brief life that any young artist would envy and he did it without forgetting his place in history and his debt to the disability civil rights movement. In 2003 he wrote:

Although too young to have participated in it, I think of myself as a writer who is born of the contemporary disability civil rights movement of the mid- to late 1970s. I've always felt that it was the creators of that movement who paved the way for the life I live now. Without the civil rights laws they struggled so hard to force into passage, without the history they changed, I doubt I would have been afforded the opportunity to seek out training and create a life for myself in the theatre arts.

John was working on a play about a disabled veteran of the Iraq war, The Poor Itch, at the time of his death. The play was scheduled for a production at the Public Theatre in New York City. His produced plays include: A Nervous Smile (produced by the Actors Theatre of Louisville Humana Festival of New Plays), The Body of Bourne (produced by the Mark Taper Forum), Henry Flamethrowa (produced by Trinity Repertory Company, Victory Gardens Theatre and Studio Dante), The Rules of Charity (produced by the Magic Theatre), Body Songs, created with legendary theatre director Joseph Chaikin (Eugene O'Neill Center/ NPC, workshopped at the Public Theater), and Gretty Good Time (produced by the Ensemble Studio Theatre, Perishable Theatre, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Falcon Theatre). Awards and honors John received included a National Endowment for the Arts/Theatre Communications Group Playwright-in-Residence Grant for a residency at the Atlantic Theater in New York, the AT&T On-Stage Award, the Mark Taper Forum's Sherwood Award, as well as grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Berrilla Kerr Foundation Award and honorable mention for the Kesselring Prize.

John Belluso received his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts Dramatic Writing Program, where he studied with Tony Kushner, John Guare, Tina Howe, and Eve Ensler, among others.

Copyright (c) 2006 Victoria Lewis

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact libkbhelp@lists.osu.edu.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)