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Nobody Here But Us Chickens?

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Letter from the director:                                                        June 9, 2008

May 22, 2008 I watched Nobody Here But Us Chickens.  It is hard for me to express the amount of grief and anger it caused me.  I went to see it with an open mind.  I hoped I could leave feeling that production did something to further the audience’s awareness of disability even on a small level, as the reviews suggested it might.

When I arrived I was scolded for sitting next to an empty seat rather than climbing more stairs to a single chair.  My knees hurt when I climb stairs.  The house manager assumed I was not disabled.  Why didn’t she receive any training on disability awareness?  Why didn’t they have a plan for seating more people with disabilities? 

I held my ground and stayed in that seat, but ultimately I wish I had just asked for my money back and left.  What I saw was the most inaccurate portrayal of people with disabilities I have seen since my childhood, when my peers tried to imitate my spastic arm and talked in a halting voice, calling me retarded.  This play left me with the same feelings of isolation and pain that those children left me with. 

I want to see community responses to this production on the web and in newspapers, so that the next time someone is considering producing or directing this play they will find our feedback.  The script itself is so out of date and flawed, I hope that companies will stop producing it.

Below is a longer version of the op-ed that was printed in the Portland Tribune June 19, 2008.  

-- Curtis L. Walker, Director of Impetus Arts

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Portland’s Commitment to Disability Equality is ChickenSh!t

Portland Tribune’s review (Eric Bartels, May 2) of Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s production of Peter Barnes’s Nobody Here But Us Chickens

promised a play with “subversively original thinking about our

assumptions regarding human frailty.” But in actuality, by reinforcing

inaccurate myths and stereotypes, and excluding disabled people from

the stage and the  audience, this production reproduced inaccurate and

outdated thinking that permeates Portland’s treatment of disabled


A good farce challenges assumptions; Nobody Here but Us Chickens only perpetuates alienating, stereotypical one-dimensional portrayals of disabled people.   Why did Third Rail choose such an outdated, ignorant play? Chickens is one example of the systemic oppression of disabled people. We are forcibly segregated in public and in private by inaccessibility, poverty, fear, and institutionalization. These everyday realities were reinforced by our interactions with this theater company.  In Chickens, the lives of the thousands of people institutionalized against our will were down-played, distorted and turned into what might be seen as a fun experience that one can choose to end.  Shock treatment, forced medication, torture, and death that are still daily occurrences in this country and abroad.  In the play, these realities were used as fodder for a brief joke or completely ignored.  In another sketch from the play, blind people were inaccurately portrayed as being incapable of distinguishing between the front and back of their pants and inept at finding their way around their own bedroom.

Chickens suggests it is absurd that disabled people want to take a martial arts class and ridiculous for two disabled men to dance together. This angered and saddened us because in Portland today we are fighting hard for opportunities to train, learn and perform in ways non-disabled people take for granted.  Dance training largely happens in the Pythian building, which has stairs blocking the entrance for disabled dancers.    The some dance companies inside have settled for shabby and even dangerous half measures such as offering to lift disabled users up the stairs or use an inadequate and risky ramp.  Not only are these measures unsafe for those that may choose to accept them rather than not dance, they are impossible for other disabled artists that cannot be lifted or make their chairs go up a steep incline.  Just this month, people with disabilities have been told we cannot take Pilates classes because we are a liability and were prevented from attending City Repair workshops held in an inaccessible venue.  We are excluded either by inaccessible spaces, outdated policies and/or flat out refusal to teach us.

City Repair made a mistake in excluding people with mobility impairments from their community building events this year. And when called on it, they issued a public apology and agreed to discuss including accessibility projects in their efforts for next year’s Village Building Convergence. On the other hand, when asked why he did not cast disabled actors, Chickens’ director S. Scott Yarbrough said he felt the script would be too rigorous for disabled people. However, it takes much less effort for someone with Cerebral Palsy to move naturally, than for non-disabled performers to writhe in the inaccurate way chosen.  More important, this paternalistic decision not to cast people with disabilities was made by non-disabled people without the involvement or consultation with disabled artists.

In the same play Third Rail ignorantly selected a blond white woman to fake what we assume was meant to be a Japanese accent.  This is a racist way of using something people are oppressed and harassed for—their accents—to get cheap laughs. Initially, the director of Chickens invited people with disabilities to sing cheerful songs between pieces, rather than play ourselves. This invitation to be a sideshow, segregating people with disabilities from the “real” actors, was tokenizing and insulting.   Speaking with an accent or being unable to stand up straight does not make one a clown, a spectacle, nor does it render us undeserving of telling one’s own story! 

Regardless of what you think of the play’s demeaning portrayal of us no excuse for this production’s exclusion of people with disabilities from participating in or even attending the play. How can Third Rail call this “a celebration of community,” especially when audience members were turned away because only one space was set aside for wheelchair users?    In a publicly funded theater space such as IFCC, it is outrageous that there is only one seat for wheelchair users, and surprising that Third Rail and IFCC did not work out a more appropriate way to accommodate wheelchair users before this play about disability was scheduled.  IFCC, has offered to work with Impetus Arts to make the theater more accessible, but that does not undo the isolation that choices related to Chickens have caused.  When one of us chose to sit next to an empty seat rather than climb 4 more stairs, which were causing him pain, the house manager snapped at him. It seems the company learned very little from producing this play about the experience of living with disability.Chickens playwright Peter Barnes makes the false claim in his program notes that “everyone is disabled.”  Not everyone is excluded from daily life by physical, social and other systematic barriers, because of their physical and mental abilities.  This production reinforces exclusionary practices by its use of caricature, by the refusal to hire disabled actors, and by not providing adequate access for the audience.There are beautifully funny and real aspects to being a disabled person.  We are not asking to have our lives only portrayed in a serious light.  Nor do we want Portland theaters to avoid plays dealing with disability.  We are asking for accessible theaters and to have our lives accurately portrayed by us, not non-disabled people who do not even take the time to learn the truth about who we are.  We want Portland’s city officials, funders, and arts community to support us in accessing equitable training and funding so that we can tell our own stories our way and participate in community life on our own terms.

Why produce an outdated, demeaning production like Chickens, when Portland is the home of cutting edge work in disability arts and culture: including visual arts, theater, dance and performance. To get a more realistic and modern view of local disability art and culture, check out Impetus Arts (www.impetusarts.org),

the Disability Art and Culture Project (www.dacphome.org) and Carole Zoom

Visual Arts (www.carolezoom.com).

-Curtis Walker is the director of Impetus Arts, and a dancer and actor with cerebral palsy.

-Cheryl Green is a former theatre educator, currently  a service provider; she studies

integrating drama and speech therapy.

-Carole Zoom is a printmaker who has also been a community organizer since 1983, involved in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

-Erik Ferguson is a performance artist and teacher of

improvisation who has been active in the disability arts movement for

the past 5 years.

-Kathy Coleman, MSW, is the Co-Director of the Disability Art and Culture Project and is a dancer, performance artist and disability culture educator.

-Jane Gravel, PhD, participates in the disability art and culture movement primarily through grant writing and as a board member of the National Minorities with Disabilities Coalition.

-Yulia Arakelyan is a local, performer, dancer and teacher.

-Altaira Hatton, disabled anti-credentialist.

-Alexis Jewell is a disabled performer, mixed-abilities choreographer, and is also owner of the organization Manifest Dance.

-Thank you to all the other people who contributed ideas and effort.

Impetus Arts