October is both Down Syndrome Awareness Month and National Disability Employment Awareness Month, so we asked playwright Lindsey Ferrentino, author of Amy and the Orphans (US/UK) [also available as Andy and the Orphans (US/UK )], This Flat Earth (US/UK), Ugly Lies the Bone (US/UK) and other plays, to describe her experience in writing for, and casting, an actor with Down syndrome. Here is her thoughtful and inspiring response.
My aunt Amy was loud and funny. She loved the Hulk, root beer, and calling people “meatball.” Her love of action films was so complete that she’d often yell “shoot guns”… which was a particular problem in airports and led to Amy being patted down several times by TSA. Through a work program, Amy worked in a factory putting plastic forks, knives and napkins into plastic packages. Amy was born with Down syndrome during a time in this country when my medical professionals told my grandparents she’d never read, write, or even sit up on her own. She was part of a generation that didn’t develop, not because she had a disability, but because she was never given an opportunity.
After writing my play about my aunt’s life, I contacted an agent who specifically represents talented actors with Down syndrome, telling her I was looking for someone to play my aunt. Gail Williamson of KMR’s Diversity Department focuses on representing actors with disabilities across the country. She connected me to Jamie Brewer who I then met when she was in New York for a few days, walking the runway in New York fashion week – the first person with DS to do so. We spoke about Jamie’s life, her acting ambitions, and how she considered herself a “theatre girl” despite there being very few roles for her to play – I left that meeting promising to write her one. Spending just an hour with Jamie that day completely redefined my perception of what people with Down syndrome were capable of, despite having known my aunt my whole life. As my friendship with Jamie grew while we developed the play, she made me aware of a whole new generation of actors, artists, and activists with disabilities, who were not only redefining barriers, but breaking them down completely.
As we moved into production at the Roundabout Theatre Company and considered who we would cast as Jamie’s understudy, I once again asked to be set up on meetings with more actors with Down syndrome, but this time didn’t specify the gender. I felt like if we found someone who we believed in, I would figure the rest out. I then met with the actor Eddie Barbanell, who lives in South Florida. I told him he didn’t need to prepare an audition piece, but rather we’d just meet for lunch and talk. Eddie arrived carrying posters for me from a lecture he’d recently given, and a signed DVD of The Ringer – the movie he’d starred in alongside Johnnie Knoxville. And though I’d told Eddie he didn’t need to audition, he launched into impromptu, word perfect performances of Romeo, Julius Caesar, and Puck for me right over lunch at the packed roadside diner (drawing spontaneous applause from the other patrons).
Needless to say, I was blown away… and that was from just two of Gail’s clients. Since then, I have met and been put in touch with many, many more talented actors with Down syndrome in various states all over this country and indeed the world. When I did a workshop of the play in London, we had a wonderful English actress – Sarah Gordie. When the play was produced in Spain, it was exquisitely performed by Odile Fernandez Labayen.
Which brings me to one of the biggest misconceptions about producing a play that has a role for someone with Down syndrome – that it is difficult to find the actors. I can personally attest to this being an absolute fallacy. The reality is that they are just not as visible as they should be, because they do not have the opportunity. It is a vicious cycle — the plays don’t get done because theaters think they can’t find the actors; the actors don’t get to have relationships with the theaters because there aren’t roles for them being produced in their season. If we produce more inclusive theatre, the actors will be there to seize the opportunity. At the risk of quoting Kevin Costner, if we build it, they will come.
Another misconception that I believe holds theaters back from producing more work inclusive of these communities is that the theatre will need to provide extra (and costly) support for these actors or that they will not be able to rehearse in a customary way. Again, this is just not true. When we did the show at Roundabout, Jamie and Eddie were the first cast members to memorize their lines and learn their blocking. Jamie went on to win the Drama Desk Award for best Supporting Actor – a distinction never before given to a person with Down syndrome. Whenever I have worked with actors from this community, we have always rehearsed within Equity guidelines; no chaperone needed to be present. And this isn’t because we were at a major off-Broadway institution. Amy and the Orphans was also done at Yale University, before we headed to Roundabout. Jamie Brewer was cast in a thesis production of my play and the university did nothing different than they would normally do in rehearsing a student production.
I’d further argue that not only will no extra costs be incurred when producing a play with a role for someone with a disability, but that it may even have the opposite effect. When we produced Amy and the Orphans at Roundabout, communities that had not felt invited into the theatre before because they hadn’t seen themselves reflected on the stage… suddenly felt welcomed. So not only was there a much-needed move towards inclusivity, but the ticket sales benefited from this as well. I spell out that slightly crass commercial assessment simply to say in clear terms — there is no reason not to reflect this diversity on stage. As theatre strives to become more inclusive of race and gender identity, we must remember that, according to the CDC, 1 in 4 people in this country lives with a disability. If we don’t represent this community on stage, we fail them… and ourselves. There is no excuse.