Alie B. Gorrie. Photo credit: ASC/ABG
Actress and dancer Alie B. Gorrie has set out on a mission to change the world of show business. Gorrie, known for her work in the recent Off-Broadway hit Bastard Jones, as well as the national tour of Seussical The Musical, and as the founder of the non-profit philanthropic organization Songs For Sight, wants the television and film industries to take a more inclusive and embracing look at differently-abled artists.
To achieve this goal, Gorrie, who is visually impaired herself, has teamed up with Kallen Blair— an established New York film and theatre actress whose brother has nonverbal autism and cerebral palsy— to develop a new television series they're calling ABLE.
“ABLE aims to fill a gap of missing conversations within the entertainment world. In a series of quirky webisodes, our hosts (Kallen Blair and Alie B. Gorrie) join various figures in theater, film, television, and entertainment with real experiences in and with the differently-abled and neurodiverse communities to discuss how storytellers can create more representative and truthful narratives,” the series' Indigogo site states.
Dance Network spoke with Gorrie and Blair about their hopes for the series, representation on stage and screen, and how they want to change the conversation to focus on a more forthright and honest depiction of differently-abled artists.
Dance Network: As a dancer, actress, and artist with visual impairment, can you tell us a little about the inspiration for ABLE? How did you and Kallen decide a television series would be the best vehicle for your project?
Alie B. Gorrie: I have to give my co-producer, Kallen, all the credit here! She approached me this summer with the idea, and we haven’t stopped since. Last fall, I took Kallen to a new musical called SAM’S ROOM about a nonverbal teen, and this was the first time Kallen saw someone like her brother represented on stage. Both of us knew in that moment that theatre had to continue to tell stories like these. We were both committed to seeing a more inclusive stage. I have felt strongly about advocating for better inclusion in the arts since I saw Spring Awakening two years ago. Because of my vision impairment, I couldn’t tell which actor was deaf and which was their hearing counterpart (everyone was signing). In that moment, everyone was on an equal playing field, collaborating to tell a beautiful story. I knew I had to be a part of or create work like that.
We both realize there is a lot of pushback around disability inclusion in the arts, and we felt a series of interviews would best help educate and empower our audience. Sometimes, there is a certain level of discomfort or “not wanting to say the wrong thing” around disability. We hope these interviews will normalize the diversity that is all around us.
Kallen Blair: I keep telling people it really was a perfect storm of events — and for me, that perfect storm started with my brother Joel, who has nonverbal autism and cerebral palsy. I can pinpoint the exact moment I first witnessed injustice towards him (an ignorant kid being an ignorant kid at the mall), and I can still feel the gut feeling that followed. It's the gut feeling that drives me to celebrate humans in the face of ignorance.
There have been so many stereotyped portrayals of disability in media, where the character becomes more of a digestible archetype rather than a real person. As an actor, I see breakdowns that come out — I hear "disability is so trendy right now”— why a trend and not a lasting reality? Additionally, around 95% of character's with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors, when there are a plethora of talented actors with disabilities. In many cases, the opportunities and even the audition rooms and materials are not made accessible to them. It's time!
In discussing format, we decided a series was the way to go for a couple of reasons. 1) We can keep a series going. There are so many stories to be told and we want the ability to keep adding them. And we aim to! 2) A New Media series is very accessible and easy to spread. If we want to normalize these conversations they need to be seen!
We brought our friend Cassidy Cole into direct because we trust her talent as an artist and filmmaker — but most importantly we trust her heart.
DN: There’s been a significant movement— and yet still much to go— toward the representation of gender and race in television, film, and theatre— so, why do you think it’s been slower for a better representation of artists with disabilities?
ABG: Oh, there are so many reasons. One of the main reasons we are creating ABLE is to show the entertainment industry— and the world— that people with disabilities get the job done. I believe there is pushback in hiring actors with disabilities because the creative and producing teams simply do not have the experience working with people who have disabilities. Many people see the person and the disability as synonymous, instead of seeing a person who just happens to have a disability. There must be a shift in the way disability is viewed, and that shift has been slow in our business. Directors, producers, and casting directors must learn to see disability differently. We want to speed it up by educating our audience. We hope to show that it isn’t such a risky move to cast artists with disabilities. In fact, it is a way to enhance storytelling and better reflect the world around us.
KB: What’s wild is that people with disabilities make up the largest group of minorities in the United States, but they really are the least represented. And if they are, someone is usually nominated for an Academy Award (hah only kind of kidding). To be honest, this is a question I hope we can find somewhat of an answer to through our conversations because I am not entirely sure. I do think entertainment can operate with a very product/consumer engine, and oftentimes consumers want to see stories about perfect people. I hope consumers are beginning to realize that the perfect stories are really about experiences different from our own — OR just like our own.
DN: We imagine it must be incredibly frustrating to see able-performers playing the role of disabled characters— how have you dealt with that in the past?
ABG: Oh, it is definitely frustrating. Especially if the characterization is based on a generalization about the disability. Two people with the same disability are going to experience the world radically differently. So, seeing an able-bodied actor make generalizations around the disability is even more frustrating. However, there is a slow shift, and I want to acknowledge the shift. In the past year, I have gotten five auditions that have been seeking a visually impaired actor. I have been to hundreds of auditions that are NOT for visually impaired characters— so it isn’t much, but change IS coming. We just have to speed it up!
KB: I can't speak to this, but I can speak of how interesting it would be to see Richard III played by a person with Cerebral Palsy, or Cyrano played by a little person, or Laura Wingfield played by an actress with a vision impairment (plugging both Alie B. and my dream role there).
Sometimes it seems as though too little creativity goes into casting typically able-bodied characters and too much goes into casting disabled characters
The cast of Bastard Jones, at the Cell in New York City. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg
DN: What do you hope to accomplish— on top of better representation of abilities on screen and on stage— through ABLE?
KB: Having really human conversations with really wonderful artists.
ABG: We want to break down disability stereotypes and perceptions. We also want to encourage inclusivity in storytelling. Often, we see people with disabilities portrayed as either the hero or the tragic character. Where in reality, we see people with disabilities every day simply living their lives…either working in a store, riding the bus with us, or in our families. The stories do not always have to be ALL ABOUT DISABILITY. We just want to see disability interwoven into all types of stories.
DN: Any beans you can spill to viewers on performers might make appearances in the series?
ABG: I will give you three clues. An actor who has been on Seinfeld, the first wheelchair user on Broadway, and one of the first ever autistic actors to play an autistic character…
For more on Gorrie and Blair, visit their respective artist websites: (www.aliebgorrie.com) and (www.kallenblair.com). To find out more about ABLE or how to contribute to the series development, visit the campaign site here.