Disabled Life, Film, Theatre

Getting Involved.

This year has seen a big change for myself personally and I have been going over it a lot in my mind. It’s not physical it’s a mental change. I think. I’m not sure how to define it.

At some point this year I gained new followers on twitter, I still don’t know what post or tweet caused it, suddenly I was in touch with more people with disabilities and I have become more aware that I am not alone with my concerns.

So I decided to become more active on social media in issues involving the disabled community. Have I caused any change in the world, no, but I am still finding my feet in this regard.

There does seem to be a big move against casting AB’s (able bodied)  actors in disabled roles. So at this point I should address the elephant in the room.

My own films are guilty of this. It is something I have always been aware of and it is why I have taken extreme care with my actors to make sure they are honest in their portrayals, taking the melodrama out of the situation.

There are many reasons why AB’s are used. In my own case when I was at film school we had to use fellow students who were studying acting. However for the next 3 films I did in fact ring agencies and ask for disabled actors. You can only hear the phrase “There’s no market for that.” so many times before you feel like you’re asking in vain.

A cheat can be “We need flashbacks to when they were well” this of course leads us to the stereotype that all disabilities are caused by accidents.

Recently an actor in the US was questioned by disabled people about how he felt playing a disabled person when he himself was not disabled. His response was one of the worst I’d seen. He dismissed the concerns and tweeted out a picture of himself with standing with his two paraplegic consultants. One of whom was an actor in his own right. The whole situation just got worse and worse. I would have preferred if he’d engaged with his disabled fan base better, being rude and dismissive is unhelpful. It’s great to have a disabled character on screen but they could achieve more if they were disabled.

There are a few things I can accept. Budget and safety concerns can affect the casting of a disabled person but they should still be given the opportunity to audition. From there you can talk to them about their disability and what they can and can’t do.

I guess this is an issue I’m passionate about because I feel I can effect some change here and it is my hope to address the balance in a web series in 2017, I am hoping to once again be prolific in my script writing. Maybe I can bring some disabled people in on smaller roles thus creating a demand and then agents can have a better look at their books.

I’m also considering applying for  the disability advisory panel at Auckland Council. My main inspiration for this is my amazing friends who have been standing up for diversity much longer than I have. They’re smart and I have learned a lot from them and I hope to take those lessons and apply them to the disabled community .

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Film

I was a Shorty extra and got extra yelled at. Till Claire Chitham stepped in.

I wrote a while ago about my time as an extra on a short film. That was while I was at film school, after school I still needed to get a foot in the industry. So I joined an extras agency. I ended up on the street..Shortland Street!

Quickly for international readers Shortland Street is a 5 nights a week soap set in a New Zealand hospital. Judge Dredd, Jango Fett and Hercules sidekick have all been there. Lots of Lord of the rings actors. I’m going to mention a few names here to give these people props, others shall remain nameless.

It was a 2 hour commute and the pay basically covered my travel. I didn’t make money from it. being disabled the agency sent me out quite a bit. “You’ll just look like a regular patient.”. Once you get there your herded into a room. You need to take 3 changes of clothes, I just took shirts and hats. Changing pants would take to long. Turned my phone off and I sat and waited.

My first time I was just to walk into the clinic and sit down. Coming out of film school the set was really big and a little intimidating. As I stood there waiting for “Background action!” I must have looked pretty nervous as one of the main actors walked passed me and gave me a pat on the shoulder “Hey bro.” “Hey”. That was it. And then I saw another extra just go to town and screw up the shot.

This guy had been telling myself and the other extras about how experienced he was and that he was known for whacky/zany characters. Whatev’s you’re background bro, stay there. The scene is in reception On the reception desk there is a Canteen bandanna box.  The show is promoting the charity. “Background action!”  we all move, “Action” the scene begins.

Everything is going fine. Whacky Zany reaches the bandanna box, right where the main scene is happening, and tears into it. WTF are you doing! He proceeds to try on every bloody bandanna. Maybe his character has brain cancer and a magical bandanna can heal him. “CUT!!” “I think we had a scene stealer in that one.” Understatement. He gets directed to walk to the desk and then sit down.

On my last time job I was to be used in a bar scene (A disabled person in a bar on prime time tv. PROGRESS!). I had been in a few times now and had a handle on what happens so I’m comfortable. I’ve never had a mishap or any direction beyond “sit here.” and “Change shirt”. Naturally shit went wrong.

They are running behind. An extras phone goes off. This causes much yelling from the 3rd AD (3rd AD is in charge of extras) nobody moves. The phone goes again, more yelling. Nobody moves. “If you answer your phone now you won’t be fired!” A woman gets up runs to her phone and we get back into the scene.

“You stop looking at (MAIN ACTOR)!” “Did you hear me?!” “Please look at me when I’m talking to you!”

Maybe say a name?

No one is sure who he’s talking to, I’m facing the other way so I can’t see.

“You in the green shirt!”

Evidently it’s me, pretty sure I wasn’t but ok I’ll just focus on my fake beer.

The scene continues.

“Ok next shot that means you out, you out and you out!”

I am one of the you’s who are out. But I know I’m in shot so I stay seated. There are 3 people at my table who all move.

“Green shirt! I said out!” “Please listen when I am directing you!”

I really don’t like this jackass. “I’m in the shot.”

“What? No. Out.”

I start picking up my cane. I’m sure this is wrong but I’m not paid for my thoughts. I’m background bro.

Then it happens. Claire Chitham a long time cast member has a quick look around at the cameras and scene. She stands up

“No he’s right.” “Stay seated.” Brief but epic. The AD checks his notes. Mumbles a sorry.

The scene continues. I move pretty quickly once the scene is over. I’m not needed. On the way home I realise how much I know about sets and things. I decide to quit the agency. I did extra work one last time for a friend. But I’d gotten enough on set experience at that point.

Years later I met Ms Chitham after a play and was able to say thank you.

Also I now direct my extras personally.

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Disabled Life

Let’s talk about Prejudice.

So here it is the blog where I talk about prejudice towards the disabled. I guess the hardest thing about this is it’s hard to define. There aren’t really disabled hate groups, if there are they’re keeping it on the down low, but it does happen. It can be very humiliating because it usually happens in public places, in my experience.

This piece was inspired by the recent news story of a three year old being barred from a performance because of her walking frame. The attendant thought it constituted a fire hazzard and refused to let her in to the theatre. Management had to step in. They got her seated took the walker out of the theatre and returned it at the end of the show. I wonder what they do in a fire?

Prejudice towards the handicapped is called physical ism or Ableism (that seems like the reverse to me). For me it often happens with people being condescending or talking slowly to me. On the set of my film Musketeer I once had a boom op who saw me on the first day of filming ask me if I was having a good time hanging out on a set, patronising tone included. The look on his face when he found out I was the director was amazing.

When I played cricket I was my schools captain. Once again you had people looking in disbelief and you could see the other teams not taking it seriously. We ended up winning a lot more then we lost and my team also earned the school an indoor cricket title.  It wasn’t great though. You still had people assuming I was the non playing captain or if the game got close they’d protest about me having a runner or almost any concession that allowed me to play. It wasn’t a problem at the start of the game but now that they were losing there was an issue.

During one game I was told by an opponent that “You don’t belong on the pitch you should be next door.” There is a disabled home/therapy centre next to the school. I suggested an alternate storage space for his gear bag, so it was closer to his person. I got told off by a teacher from the opposing school for inappropriate language. Prompting a parent from my school to put down her book and scold said teacher. It was gold. Thank you Mrs DeGrut. In my opinion it’s most surprising when it comes from big corporations whom I won’t name. There is no point.

A lot of disabled toilets these days have electronic locks on the outside of the door. This is because of “Nefarious activities” pretty much drugs and people mating in the disabled toilets. I understand the need but last time I used one of these locked disabled toilets I had to ask someone for the code in a crowded foyer. “Sure I can open it for you.” she turns to her colleague at the other end of the counter and yells “Hey! I’ve gotta take this guy to the toilet!.”  “What?” “I’ve gotta take this guy to the toilet!” After complaining about to management I was sent an apology and various vouchers. Haven’t used the toilet there since.

Other incidents include a friend being asked what I would like when ordering in a restaurant and being asked to move three times during a performance at The Auckland Town Hall.

I had gone to a show there to support some friends performing. I got there early and was guided to a seat. The show starts. An usher then arrived with  two Able Bodied people and asked if I could move. I did. Then another late comer. There is plenty of available seating but again I am asked to move to accommodate them. On the final occasion I am seriously considering leaving the theatre. I found it absolutely unacceptable. They weren’t asking anyone else to move at all. I went from front row to on the side. I suspect that I was too nice but if you complain you’re drawing attention away from the show and I felt that was unfair to the actors.

Most of these things as you can see are small and don’t happen everyday. The problem is they can be dismissed as mis understandings not prejudice. I think that’s where the fault is. There’s no thought given to how this will effect the disabled person at the centre of it. Hell I’m getting to the end of this and I still don’t know what the solution is.

Communication I guess although you’d think common sense would prevail.

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Disabled Life, Film, Theatre

Mt Actor

I’m 40. A sometimes writer/director who hopes to make a feature film or tv series at some point in my life. I discovered I wanted to be a director at 24 when I went to film school because I’d being rejected from a radio course 3 times. However the drive behind film school was acting.

I have acted since primary school. I wrote plays, skits things that were performed in assembly’s all sorts. It has enabled me to meet a variety of people and certainly made me a better director. I couldn’t play sport  (Eventually I would play indoor cricket for 4 years) so I used acting as an outlet for energy and to fit in with other kids (I would never call actors normal and neither would they).  I went to Sydney’s theatrefest at 16 with Theatre Unlimited (a 70% disabled theatre group) and got to perform over there

My first break as it’s called was a ridiculous piece of luck that will never be repeated. A notice at college was looking for extras for a music video. I was in a wheelchair but hey it’s just extras, who cares. I go to the audition and am shown into a room. There’s a few girls with legs stretched up the wall, a few I know from school. I realise I’m the only guy and their all wearing dance gear. A head pops through the door, sees me, pops out. Two heads pop in eyes bulge and they disappear. This woman in a suit enters and wheels me out to a carpark where theres two guys a desk and a lamp.One guy is just staring at me. The other is telling me that they are really looking for dancers for a kids show called The Early Bird show. I tell them I have theatre experience. Suddenly the starer starts waving his arms around.

The song is called “It doesn’t bother me” and the concept involves a band made up of giant birds and people dancing in the rain, unbothered. BUT WAIT!!! Wavy hands has a new concept and it’s me in my wheelchair and there’s some skaters doing tricks and I do one in my chair and it’s cool and then I met some girls doing double dutch and blah blah. Essentially I meet people, they challenge me, I respond, we’re mates and then random people dance in the fountain at Albert Park.

They changed the concept of the video and I became the featured attraction. The song played once at 8:30am and was never seen again. It was directed by Grant Lahood and was one of his first paid jobs. I met up with him years later and he looked over a script of mine for me.

After this I performed in school plays and a few other things. Then after film school I decided to have a real crack at acting. I enrolled for an acting class, a good one, good reputation and I did well I thought. Then I made a phone call that just shattered me.

“Hi I was wanting to talk to someone about representation?”

“Sure, how much experience do you have and how old are you?”

I run off my cv I have about 20 years at this point. I tell them I’m disabled. There is a pause and a deep breath.

“You have a good voice, you sound young and a lot of experience….but your disability is really off putting.”.

I’m stunned. I don’t know what to say. I say thanks and goodbye as an automatic reply. I have never named the agent and I never will. But it was some pretty cold shit.

I can’t say I gave up on acting at that point but I became less confident in myself. Lots of  actors go through knock backs but I can’t change this, I can’t ignore it and I can’t improve it with a workshop.

To make myself feel better I decide to go audition for a local theatre production of Pride & Prejudice. I have played Puck in Midsummer nights dream.  A very physical role that I was given the opportunity to take on by Lexie Matheson. To this day it is my all time favourite role.

I prepare to audition for Mr Darcy and Mr Collins. When I go in for the audition there are 20 other actors. All in a circle. You step into the circle and read the scene, are given some direction, read again and are then asked if you’d like to be considered for other parts.

My turn in the circle. I read Darcy. No direction. I read Collins. No direction. No consideration for other roles. I end up waiting for an hour in the waiting room before being told I can go home.  The directors prejudice just kicked my pride in the nuts.

That’s almost it for theatre.

Almost.

I channeled the anger into my writing and redesign my feature script Defensability into a play. After much thought I realise I can’t direct a play. I asked my friend to direct it as she’s more experienced in theatre then I am. I do take on the role of Kelly and I do get to play a lead in something I wrote. I didn’t chase an agent though and I’m not sure I will now.

Acting for me is still something I like but writing and directing are my passions.

I hope to return to them soon.

The featured image was taken by Adam Baines on the set of my short film Rollmance.

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