Remembering John

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

About halfway through Back to Back Theatre Company's Ganesh versus the Third Reich the audience suddenly finds themselves in the metaphorical spotlight.

An actor who alternately plays Vishnu, the Nazi Dr. Mengele, and our meta-theatrical director suddenly looks out at the audience and says, "You, yeah you people, you people, you have come here because you want to see an aquarium yeah or a zoo, you, you, have come to see a freak show, haven't you?"

For a brilliant moment the drama happens in the audience. You can almost hear the audience's minds silently asking 'Have I?'

Then the actor goes on. "The thing is people have problems with us blurring reality and fiction because you are a group of people with intellectual disabilities."

This final 'you' is not the audience but the four other actors sharing the stage. You see, Back to Back Theatre, the Australian company that created the show is, in their own words, "a company driven by an ensemble of ... actors perceived to have intellectual disabilities."

Ganesh versus the Third Reich would be brilliant without this epic complication. The simple plot is Ganesh, the Hindu god with an elephant's head who's the 'Remover of Obstacles', has been sent to reclaim the swastika from Hitler. Interspersed with that plot line is the familiar meta-theatrical trope of actors breaking character to suddenly be actors rehearsing the play we're seeing. But rather than typical 'actor talk' the challenges are more fundamental.

Up until the moment the audience is accused of being voyeurs watching "a bit of freak porn," it felt like the dramatic challenge was onstage. It felt like disability was the actor's challenge: 'Does Mark understand what's going on? Does he get what's real and what's fiction?'

You can imagine someone in the audience, maybe even you, assuming, 'he shouldn't be onstage . . . he's disabled'.

belluso.jpgWe confronted the other side of that assumption at the Taper more than a decade ago when the brave and brilliant playwright John Belluso won an award. John used a wheelchair and the award was to be given on the Taper stage. Now, there were wheelchair seats in the audience but . . . well, there was no way for someone in a wheelchair to make it onstage. It had just been assumed that there wouldn't be a need for a person with a disability to make it onstage.

John changed that. Through his presence and his plays the Taper backstage is quite a different place architecturally today. He changed our collective assumption.

That's the alchemy that John Belluso shares with the magical moment from Ganesh versus the Third Reich.

What the audience discovers, what we discovered, is that we are the ones struggling with disability.

Ganesh versus the Third Reich played last weekend as part of UCLA's Center for the Art of Performance series.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

John Belluso (November 13, 1969 – February 10, 2006) 

Banner image: Back to Back Theatre