Our Bodies, Our Selves
Three Plays Expose Our Too, Too Sullied Flesh And What It Means
The woman onstage is ripping her body apart. Off goes a breast. Down comes the skin of an arm. Away goes the belly. It's the climax of Terry Galloway's play Lardo Weeping, and her character, Dinah LaFarge -- "a large, intellectual, quite sexual woman of independent means who seldom ventures outside her apartment and refuses to answer her door unarmed," says Galloway -- turns upon the ample flesh covering her "in a frenzy of self-excoriating curiosity."
The act isn't nearly as horrific as it sounds. Dinah's flesh is pink fabric, part of a padded suit constructed so that through the magic of Velcro, the character can tear herself to pieces. When she does, peeling away skin to reveal an American flag or r-r-r-ripping away a breast with a stitched nipple, it's like a Warner Bros. cartoon gag come to life, and rather funny.
Still, you don't see someone pull apart their body without being drawn to contemplate your own physical being. It's a very theatrical representation of our feelings about our bodies. We have such fixed ideas of what they should be, and anything that falls short of physical perfection as we imagine it (or society dictates it), we feel an urge to tear away.
What does that mean to the Dinah LaFarges of the world, who live with obesity? Or people whose imperfections -- blindness, deafness, paralysis -- can't be torn away? How do they live in the world? Or do they, like Dinah, live apart from it?
Galloway, who created Lardo Weeping in Austin in the 1980s, brings it back to town this week just as two companies are producing shows that also feature women whose bodies are different, whose flesh is imperfect. The State Theater Company is staging Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, with Laura Wingfield and her famous limp, and Hyde Park Theatre is mounting Melanie Marnich's Blur, which features Dot Di Prima, a 17-year-old who is losing her eyesight, and her friend Francis Butane, a bad-ass with a cleft palate.
This convergence of dramas dealing with women and disabilities seemed an opportune time to discuss what playwrights are trying to say through characters who are disabled, and how actors approach playing a disability. So the Chronicle got together Lara Toner (Laura in The Glass Menagerie), Monika Bustamante (Dot in Blur), Lee Eddy (Francis in Blur), and Terry Galloway (Dinah in Lardo Weeping), for a conversation about their shows and what they mean.
All four were quick to point out that their plays are not about disability per se. Bustamante says Blur is "about all of the characters' struggles to relate to the world. About looking for acceptance. It's a very human, general need." Toner calls The Glass Menagerie "the struggle between a dominating mother and her children." Galloway doesn't connect Lardo to disability at all. "I don't regard obesity as disability," she says. "The world is sick. It is at times insane. My character, whatever her flaws, recognizes that insanity, articulates it as such."
With that caveat, the actors proceeded to talk about their characters, how they relate to them, and how theatre portrays disability. The conversation begins with Terry Galloway referring to the flak Tennessee Williams received about Laura and a comment that she is not "as pathetic as people make her out to be."
Lara Toner: I've never thought of the character as pathetic. I had a woman come up to me on opening night and describe the character as "wimpy," and I've heard other things like that, but it never occurred to me to judge her in that way. She's a beautiful character. The disability, whatever that may be -- and we went through a lot of thoughts in the rehearsal process, trying to figure out what the limp was -- certainly is part of what distances her from society, but more it's a social awkwardness, an extreme social awkwardness. Her father left her, her mother being who she is -- having that family dynamic has contributed to the way other people see her. If they see her as pathetic, I can see that, but I don't think she is at all. She's found a way to cope; she's created a world that she lives in.
Austin Chronicle: I think it's also 55 years of some pretty bad productions of the play.
Lee Eddy: A lot of high schools.
Toner: Karen Jones, who plays Amanda, was standing in front of the theatre and two women walked by and looked at the poster and one of them said, "Oh, what's that about?" and the other one said, "You know, it's about the retarded girl with the limp." [laughter]
Eddy: She obviously didn't read the play.
Toner: I thought that she probably saw a production where Laura was presented that way.
AC: Maybe she got The Miracle Worker and The Glass Menagerie mixed together as the same play.
Terry Galloway: "Ow! Ow! I poked myself in the eyes with my glass figurines!" [laughter]
Sometimes we pussyfoot. The way that people play Laura often, they play her for sobs. They play it for tear-jerks, they don't play it for steel. [To Lara] You're steely. You've got iron in there. If I could see that in [the character of Laura], I could forgive her. The fact that she goes back and she survives, that seems pretty steely to me.
Toner: There is a part of Laura that is not able to interact with society, that is tender and fragile, and I never shied away from that. I didn't want her to be portrayed as some strong She-Ra-woman Laura. That's not the story. But I did look for places where she makes positive choices -- and [director] Michelle Polgar was very helpful in finding them. Christopher McCollum, our designer, wanted Laura to be an artist. Tom writes; that's the way he expresses his views of his experience. And she's created this glass menagerie world. Instead of just a shelter from reality, it's really a creation.
AC: Did your characterization of Laura change as you stopped just reading the lines and started walking in character, developing the limp?
Toner: Yes. We went through three different limps. [laughter]
Galloway: Show us! [more laughter] Oh, please!
Toner: There's a man with a camera here. It is not gonna happen. [Laughter] It was never any wild, extreme limp. The text tells you that it's gotten better than it was in high school. She no longer has a brace on her leg. And I looked at it as: If you have a physical disability, you're not going to show that to everyone; there's going to be an attempt on her part to walk as normally as possible. And she doesn't quite manage that. But I did start working with it right after we did the initial blocking, and began to get a feel for how awkward it was.
Eddy: Is it a costume thing? Do you have one shoe bigger than the other?
Toner: It's pretty simple. Michelle and I decided that it would be pretty subtle, and that a lot of it was still in the family's mind. Like in another situation, if she was part of a different environment, it might have been overlooked.
AC: That fits so well with the idea of a memory play. We do have a tendency to think of members of our family, the people we've known the longest, as much as they used to be as they are now.
Galloway: Talking about the body and changing and all that reminds me of the parallels between aging and AIDS. I had a friend who was a very beautiful man, and he got AIDS, and when he got AIDS it was almost as if he got that disease, you know, that makes children who are 9 years old all of a sudden look 90. That happened to him. It was very difficult, because all of his life he'd been very critical about other people getting older, and he could be very, very cruel about it and do things like take your arm and say, "In a couple of years it's going to be just like those dykes who bowl." Or do things like: [pinches the skin of her throat and shakes it] "Gobble, gobble!" There could be a real cruelty about it. But when he was dying, he came to visit me. I was in Edinburgh, and he came and I feared, I guess you could call it, the cruel eye.
Eddy: What do you mean by "the cruel eye"?
Galloway: Well, the one that looks at you and you're not it. You're not what it wants to see, and there's nothing you can do. You know, you have audiences that are like that. [laughter] You're not it. And that's what I feared from him. Because even though he was my friend, he felt privileged by his beauty, by the way he lived, by his intellect, to be that critic and the cruel eye.
I found it interesting because in a way I find Tennessee Williams -- I like him and I can't bear him. I like him, but if all the women's roles were played by drag queens, I'd like him a lot better. [laughter] [To Lara] I actually find Laura more interesting after what you've said. I don't think she's entirely a wimp either. And I think what she represents is more Tennessee Williams than anything else, you know, the fragility of his own psyche and the fragility of his own little world.
AC: Monika, what did you think when you read Blur?
Monika Bustamante: I loved it, actually. It's one of the first plays I've ever really read that I immediately identified with.
Galloway: What did you identify with?
Bustamante: I have health concerns that put me in the same place that Dot, my character, is in, and I've really felt what she's feeling. There are a few scenes in the play when they're in a doctor's office and it feels very familiar to me. And of course, she's a teenager and most teenagers go through a phase where their parent is the stupidest person on the planet, and I remember that phase. It wasn't that long ago. I can still remember it, so I relate very well. She treats her mother pretty badly for a little while, then she comes back around. I remember that moment, coming back around.
AC: Do you do anything to put yourself in the place of losing your vision?
Bustamante: On a purely technical level, we've experimented with lots of different glasses. I'll be wearing several pairs of glasses in the show; as she gets more and more blind, the lenses get thicker and thicker. Beyond that, it's kind of funny, the reason that Ken [Webster] wanted me for this part is that he saw a piece that I wrote for FronteraFest last year about young women who are blind, and I had actually performed as one of them, so when he told me he had a script he wanted me to be in, he said, "'Cause I already know you can do blind!" She's never actually blind in the show. She's not even near it. She wears glasses.
I thought that was interesting, but I do know what he meant. There are a lot of references -- and I feel like I find more of them every time we run through the show -- to her becoming much more aware of other senses. And that's something I've experimented with before, so in a way I've been preparing for this part my whole life. I mean, I haven't done a lot of Method exercises to get ready for this, just really reading the script about a thousand times and hearing the themes a thousand different ways.
Galloway: [To Lee] How do you fit in?
Eddy: When she starts going to the special ed school, I am the lesbian, hardcore, punk, bad-ass that becomes her best friend.
Galloway: Has she been operated on for her cleft palate?
Eddy: She has been operated on, but it was a botched operation that screwed it up more.
Galloway: How's her speech?
Eddy: It's going to be regular speech. Because of the social stigma that comes along with cleft palates, people do go into speech therapy, and they communicate perfectly, to where you wouldn't know. So I'm figuring that's what this character did. It's another way for her to cover up not having a cleft palate; she doesn't speak differently.
AC: Terry, you have your own disability, deafness, but in the play you're putting on a different physical difference, obesity.
Galloway: When I first did it, I got lots of flak from people saying, "Why are you doing it? Why are you making it a figure of ridicule? If you're making fat jokes, why aren't you making deaf jokes?" There was all of this controversy about that kind of thing, but the whole idea is that nobody has a monopoly on any of that. Nobody has a monopoly on health, nobody has a monopoly on weight, body, mortality. Yeah, I don't really refer to deafness in Lardo. This isn't my deaf show, you know. I'm deaf, but so what? I pretend to hear the cues. [laughter]
The whole idea of the body, it's about mortality, but it's also about the hatred that we seem to have for the flesh. You know, the Taliban and the Baptists are the extremes of that; they hate the idea of sex and mortality and the messiness of the body, but also it's the death of us, and it's almost as if it horrifies them -- you know, the mortal flesh.
AC: I think one thing about characters with disabilities is that audiences tend to view them as inherently tragic. They want to see the disability as negative, and it doesn't change for the character at the end of the play, the way, say, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast magically loses his ugliness. Where are your characters at the end of your respective plays and what is that saying to the audience?
Eddy: Well, my character has this constant defense mechanism so that if you call her disabled, she'll kick your ass. As a result of that, she wears leather, she has on massive amounts of eye make-up, black lipstick, hair sticking out everywhere, to where everything about her is very edgy; it says, "Don't fuck with me. If you do, you're gonna get it back." But at the same time, what she wants more than anything is for somebody to love her. Her mom committed suicide, you get the impression she lived in a shelter of some sort, so as the play goes on, you see her dealing with "I can take care of myself," but she'd love to have some kind of family support. At the end of the play, she has this revelation of "I'm scared that I'm going to go back to the way I was where I had the opportunity to be loved and I lost it, and it was [because] of my cleft palate." And when she does finally admit that to her friend Dot and her boyfriend Joey, she asks them to help her and take care of her, so it's putting aside the whole punk-ass bitch thing and saying, "I really need some kind of comfort and support." And of course, they accept her. And as soon as they do, it's straight back to the bad-ass.
Bustamante: I'm not sure if this is an answer to your question, but the play hasn't been received very well in other cities, and I've been trying to decide why that is, aside from poor production choices. I think part of it is that the writing assumes a certain amount of reading between the lines. It's very terse, and I think it's counting on audience members to relate it to themselves. Maybe my own experience helped me with it instantly, and that's why I loved it. But I think that a lot of people could see this play and completely forget that it's a play about a girl who's going blind, because it's so much more about several people having to renegotiate the way they relate to people. And I guess I hope that at the end of the play the audience feels optimistic. It's not a tragedy. I think what you were getting at is that these plays are very often ways for us to see a story and feel something for somebody else. I think it's much more relevant if they can see it in themselves.
Toner: Throughout the play, Laura has an acceptance of her uniqueness that her mother and brother don't share. Amanda can't stand for her to be called crippled, but Laura calls herself crippled. It's not a pity-me cry; she's just stating the facts. I think her real problem is an extreme sensitivity. That's a lot more debilitating to her than her physical defect. So at the end of the play -- and because it is Tom's memory play it's not resolved what happens to Amanda and Laura, there's not a nice little epilogue that says they started a little business ...
Eddy: An antique store. [laughter]
Toner: But Laura does stay there. At the end of the play, Tom runs off and she stays, and the way I've been approaching it, there's a huge love for her family, for her brother and her mother, and she stays there with her mother.
Eddy: That kind of makes her the stronger one.
Toner: Yeah. Where Amanda has been living in her past and Tom is always talking about the future, Laura lives much more in the present. She makes a decision to live there. That's how I approach it to keep it from being a tragedy.
Galloway: At the end of the play, my character rips herself apart. I find the play at this point funny. It reminds me of a time when I laughed really inappropriately, but I thought not that inappropriately because it was a litany of all of these things this woman had been through: "I lost my breast, I lost my foot, I lost my this, I lost my that, and then my house burned down." And I laughed. [laughs] Godless, soulless. [everyone laughs] What privilege. What privilege all this denotes. This is not the be-all and end-all. I mean, we're in a kind of privileged place when it comes to the body. When I was a kid, growing up deaf, I was sent to a camp for crippled children, and everybody there was far more disabled than I would ever be, and it made me very humble about the idea of disability.
I've been working with Actual Lives [an arts project involving people with disabilities creating their own performance pieces], and it's so interesting how people talk about their lives and how they want to represent their lives. For a long time, Glass Menagerie was all they had, Glass Menagerie and The Miracle Worker. And those aren't bad representations, actually. I love The Miracle Worker. It's one of the most violent movies I've ever seen. I love the energy of it. And how much more intimate can you get? [she mimes Annie Sullivan wrestling with Helen Keller] How much more intimate can you get?
Also, working with Actual Lives, you can assume lots of things about the body, you can assume lots of things about disability, you can assume them theatrically and metaphorically, but it's interesting to me how the actual thing reflects and doesn't reflect. Within this group of people who can call themselves crippled, there's joy and humor. I remember one woman in a chair, she said, "I haven't laughed about my disability until I got here because all my life the expectation was that I would mourn it, that I would be sorry." And I think, no. Be happy. Have some guts. Fuck it. Because in the end, whether what we're going through is metaphoric or realistic, life is tragic. The flesh is horrible. It turns upon us. It's wonderful and delightful, and it kills us in the end. So I like that Dinah rips herself apart and that, before she can reach any conclusion, she is stopped. In the end, she puts herself back together, and to me that's a triumph. Just to go on. For me, that's what it's about.
Lardo Weeping runs March 21-23 at the Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo. Call 476-RUDE.
The Glass Menagerie runs through April 7 at the State Theater, 719 Congress. Call 469-SHOW.
Blur runs March 21-April 13 at Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd. Call 479-PLAY.