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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Disabled NYC actress challenges stereotypes

“You have to call in sick.”
“Why?”
“I don’t know. I can’t be alone today.”
“What’s wrong?”
“I have no idea. .  .  . I can’t move.” Ann Marie Morelli, an actor, stage manager, and administrative associate atTheater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), an inclusive theater company in New York City, lay paralyzed in her midtown Manhattan apartment this past October, unable to eat, drink…or get out of bed. She was having an episode related to her Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a disease that causes the immune system to attack the central nervous system. Morelli was officially diagnosed in 1995, after eight years of sporadically experiencing symptoms, including some temporary vision loss.
That October evening, she sat up for three hours, forced herself to eat some spoonfuls of plain oatmeal, and swallow some sips of tea. She asked her husband, Nick Viselli, to help her get ready for bed. As he was carrying her to the bathroom, she passed out in his arms.
When she arrived at the emergency room, she had tachycardia (a fast heartbeat), a fever of over 103 degrees, and an elevated white blood cell count. “ . . . Obviously I had an infection,” Morelli says, recalling the ordeal over tea in the lobby of the ART/NY building in Midtown. “But they didn’t know what. . . .They just said, ‘It’s not in any of your major organs.’”
This mysterious infection caused her to miss performing a short play at a Disaster Risk Reduction presentation for the United Nations. She and Viselli, who is the Associate Director of TBTB, had conceptualized the idea of the play. Morelli eventually recovered, but this is just is one example of how MS can take over her life at any moment.  “Now, if anything weird happens,” she says casually, “. . . whatever.It’s a disease.”
Physical barriers
Due to MS, Morelli became a wheelchair user in 2007, but has been working with TBTB since 1998. She began as an able-bodied actor who would read scripts to blind/low vision actors. She says that disability doesn’t affect how she practices her art, but some physical obstacles are undeniable. “I used to be a master of the quick change. I mean, I was good. I was fast. I can’t do that anymore….”
Another challenge Morelli faces as an actor with a mobility issue is navigating inaccessible venues. “ . . . With ADA compliance, the concern is making auditoriums and performance venues accessible [for the audience]. . . . But they never talk about making the entire venue accessible, meaning backstage, on stage, all of that,” says Viselli, frustration evident in his voice.
The couple has to work around many inaccessible theater spaces together. Space restrictions make stage-managing especially difficult.  They had to arrive early to one venue so Viselli could carry Morelli up steps and into the stage-managing booth. “Once I was in that booth, I was held hostage, I was like Rapunzel,” recalls Morelli. She rarely stage-manages anymore.
Societal barriers
Physical limitations are easy for disabled actors to overcome compared to other challenges. The struggle they face to get cast, even as disabled characters, has become a popular topic in the media recently. In a “Conservative Home” column, Adrian Hilton argued why all actors have the right to play disabled roles, while Scott Jordan Harris maintained these roles should be exclusively for disabled actors in a “Balder & Dash” blog post for Rogerebert.com.
Sighted actor J.K. Simmons was cast as a blind man in the new sitcom ‘Growing Up Fisher’, over blind/low vision actors who could’ve played the part more authentically, which caused frustration among disabled actors. “It’s like we take two steps forward and then three steps back,” says Anita Hollander, National Co-Chair of SAG-AFTRA Performers with Disabilities, of the casting choice.
2013 TED talk given by comedian Maysoon Zayid, addressed the struggles she faced as a disabled actor recently went viral. “Disability is as visual as race,” Zayid says, “If a wheelchair user can’t play Beyonce, then Beyonce can’t play a wheelchair user.”
StillMoreParts188
Morelli (right), with Christine Brunoin the Theater Breaking Through Barriers production of “Still More of Our Parts”, June 2013
LIR photo credit: Courtesy Ann Marie Morelli
For Morelli, the idea of putting any role in to a one specific box is frustrating. “I get a little disgusted with the ‘Well you know, you need to portray disabilities’. I do portray disability, just [by] the fact that I’m in a [wheelchair].” Morelli feels that disabled actors should be playing able-bodied characters, from Shakespeare’s Juliet to Miller’s Willy Loman, along with disabled characters.
Working at TBTB has afforded her the opportunity to play a wide variety of roles in her chair, from Hermia, the woman caught in a helplessly complicated love triangle in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” to Gloria, a fearless instructor of a women’s sexual empowerment class in Bekah Brunstetter’s “Forgotten Corners of Your Dark, Dark Place.” These opportunities are rare for disabled actors, especially in more mainstream live theater companies.
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