After five years on hiatus, Open Circle Theatre (OCT) is back with a bang.
That’s how founder and artistic director Suzanne Richard explains the decision to stage “The Who’s Tommy,” using OCT’s trademark troupe of actors with and without disabilities, a rock band and an onstage, real-time American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation of the musical by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff.
“It was a heck of a time, getting a theater company back up and going. At times, I thought, ‘Why didn’t I just do something small?’” said Richard. “But…I’ve never been good at small. I love epic, I love large-scale.
“I thought, ‘Tommy!’ Why not?”
A good question, and one that’s particularly relevant in this case. “The Who’s Tommy”—starring Gallaudet University alumnus Russell Harvard, a sensation most recently in Deaf West Theatre’s Broadway production of “Spring Awakening”—is the first OCT production that is about a person with disabilities. And Richard, whose career has included a stint as an accessibility specialist for the National Endowment for the Arts as well as years as an actor and director, is keenly aware of the perception and reality of people with disabilities—like the eponymous pinball wizard in the musical and the rock opera that spawned it.
“If you look at Pete Townsend, he really wrote ‘Tommy’ as a metaphor,” Richard explained. “The disability of being ‘deaf, dumb and blind’ was a metaphor for how (Townsend) had grown up.
“He was playing around with that idea, but I wanted to say: Look! People with disabilities are the most likely to be sexually abused as children. People with disabilities are most likely to be victims of crime—and violent crime. It’s not talked about.
“I wanted to take the metaphor out and put the real experience of disability in.”
It’s an experience that is complicated, challenging and more “normal” than most people are ready to believe. While acknowledging the enormous strides society has made since Richard was a child with osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease), she is not on board with a world that expects disabled people to be “an inspiration” all the time.
“It gets tiring after a while,” she admitted. “People with disabilities are just people, but it gets into this whole game of, ‘Oh, the barriers you’ve overcome!’
“We’re not walking down the street going, ‘I’m disabled! I’m disabled!’ We’re just walking down the street.”
Yes, as the artistic director of OCT, Richard uses disability to enhance the creation of art and challenge the way audiences receive it. But being held to that higher standard, being that 24-7 role model? Richard says it gets to be a burden, especially for someone with a wicked sense of humor, a fondness for cigarettes and a career as a director who needs to tell people where to go and what to do in no uncertain terms.
But before she was a director, Richard was an actor, performing with Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, the Washington Shakespeare Company and at Ford’s Theatre, The Folger Theatre, Imagination Stage, the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival and more. “I think I was an actor the day I was born,” she laughed. (She laughs a lot.) “My poor parents had no idea.”
They found out soon enough. Growing up in Rockville, Richard saw shows at Adventure Theatre (AT) and dreamed of the day she would take a turn onstage. At 12, she turned pro, playing the grandmother in AT’s “The Reluctant Dragon.”
“I was born in 1971, when people with disabilities were just given the right to an education,” she pointed out, acknowledging that her parents (like Tommy’s) were advised to put her in an institution because “‘having a child with a disability is just a burden on the family.’
“People don’t understand the civil rights movement behind disability, so I play with putting some of that in (the show), like ‘Hey, that used to be a thing: You sent your child with a disability away—and it wasn’t even thought of as weird.’”
Raised in a nurturing family, Richard was part of the mainstream movement; she has a bachelor of arts degree in theater from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But she is deeply aware of the vulnerability of the disabled population, whether they are institutionalized or not. In 2012, the World Health Organization—yes, another WHO—found that children with disabilities were 3.7 times more likely to be victims of violence than their non-disabled peers; children with mental or intellectual disabilities were at an even higher risk. These statistics fuel the director’s mission to raise awareness about disability—a cause she sees as increasingly important as aging baby boomers live increasingly longer lives.
“We’re fighting for everybody’s rights,” Richard explained. “Disability is the only minority group you can join at any time—and you will.
“If you live long enough on this planet, you’re going to need help, to find different ways to do things, whether that’s walkers or wheelchairs or hearing aids. We’re here to help: we’ve been doing it already!”
The “we all have disabilities” philosophy is ingrained at Open Circle; “The Who’s Tommy,” like all OCT productions, is accessible to all audiences, with modified audience banks for wheelchair access, audio description on demand at every performance and a seamlessly executed ASL interpretation that adds depth and beauty to the show as it enhances understanding. Even as the character of Tommy is healed onstage, Richard makes it clear that his salvation is part of an inner journey to understanding and peace, not some “cure” that makes him “normal.” That’s not a message she’s interested in sending.
“People with disabilities, you either live for the cure or you live,” she observed. “For me, that’s crippling, living for the cure. I’m living now.
“That’s what Tommy realizes.”
Open Circle Theatre presents “The Who’s Tommy” through Nov. 20 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Tickets range from $30 to $45. Visit opencircletheatre.org or view this event on CultureSpotMC here.