MY LOVE FOR THEATRE began as a love for reading. When I was little, I worried I’d never be able to read words on a page. When I proved myself wrong, I devoured as many books as I could.

My first real theatre experiences were in middle school, watching my friends perform in shows. I realized that theatre, like books, held a world of stories brought to life and that many plays and musicals even came from books.

I wanted to get involved, but I was unsure if my disability would allow me to, as my wheelchair limited me to certain spaces and my arms weren’t very strong. I wasn’t interested in acting, and I was unaware of other roles I could play. So, I focused on other interests until I entered high school.

Madison Parrotta

Madison Parrotta

When I was a freshman at Bordentown Regional High School, a friend convinced me to come to a theatre club meeting, where I met Stacie Morano, director of Thespian Troupe 6803. She offered me an assistant director position for the upcoming play Twentieth Century, which seemed like something I could handle physically and could mentally grow from. My duties ranged from ensuring that actors signed in when they arrived at rehearsal and feeding them lines during tech to keeping extensive blocking notes and giving actors feedback with Stacie’s guidance.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, I didn’t truly get involved until my junior year, when I took on the assistant director role again for that year’s play and musical. I also embraced more responsibilities, like proofreading programs and helping put them together.

When I was given the opportunity to direct two one-acts for my school’s annual One-Act Play Festival that same year, I metaphorically jumped (er, rode?) headfirst into it. All I knew about directing came from the watching and learning I’d done as an assistant director, so at first I assumed that was my directing style. Once I got comfortable enough to incorporate more of myself into my directing, I discovered that I liked to emphasize parts where characters develop and connect with other characters.

By the time I finished blocking the one-acts, I had been bitten by the directing bug. I had finally found a place in theatre, a job I felt I could do well without much hinderance from my disability. In short, I was thrilled. It felt like this was what I was meant to do.

During the rest of my junior and senior years, I continued to be as involved as possible, joining the International Thespian Society, directing another one-act for the New Jersey State Thespian Festival, and becoming vice president of my high school’s theatre club. As a senior, I directed my first full-length play, Charlotte’s Web, for our annual children’s production. In addition, I designed the set, worked with a costumer to design original costumes, sought out props the theatre didn’t have, created lighting and sound cues, directed crew members on where to place the set, and made the program.

Despite my excitement, something dampened my spirits. It became obvious to me that, while directing appears accessible from the outside, some aspects of the process were, in fact, inaccessible.

For example, when creating light cues, I couldn’t get into the booth in my wheelchair, so I was unable to manipulate the controls myself. While telling someone else what to do worked as an alternative, I had to give up some artistic freedom. It can be difficult to transform an abstract idea in your head into precise wording and still bring to life what you’ve imagined.

Another accessibility issue arose while watching the actors perform the play during later rehearsals. Walking around the theatre and watching the performance from different vantage points is essential to ensuring that everything onstage can be seen from any seat in the house. The stairs leading up to the terrace level of the theatre prevented me from doing this. The elevator would get me to the top, but the time it took would cause me to miss parts of the play I was trying to direct.

When you hear something is accessible, it doesn’t mean it is accessible to every disabled person. Accessible might mean, “This can be done by a disabled person with help from others.” That’s not true accessibility. I believe administrators of high school theatre programs (and of schools generally) should keep this in mind when thinking about access and inclusion. While I understand that accessibility can be expensive and theatre budgets are especially small, there are many instances where simplicity is the answer once explored.

Communication is also vital for accessibility. Open a dialogue with a student interested in theatre but unsure how to participate. If a student knows what interests them but can’t get involved due to unchangeable accessibility issues, directors should guide them to other resources, theatres, or contacts in the field.

If a disabled student is already involved in a high school program, it’s essential to create an environment that is inclusive but not suffocating. Do not show them special treatment. Treat them as you would any other student.

These points also apply to the general theatre world. There is much progress that needs to be made, and high school theatre programs can help pave the way and set the standard for industry professionals. In making theatre inclusive for all, they’re allowing many more students to discover the magic of theatre.

Being a disabled theatre artist is far from easy. You’re not only required to perform your job duties but also to navigate degrees of nonaccessibility and ableism — and that’s if you can even get a job. Getting a job in the theatre industry — or any industry — as a disabled person has been incredibly difficult. I’ve worked hard to build an impressive résumé (and been acknowledged for it). Yet when I am interviewed or disclose my disability, my skills, previous positions, and references don’t seem to matter against common disability stigmas.

I was incredibly lucky to find a niche in my high school theatre program, thanks to the help of staff and students who took me and my ideas seriously. I was also fortunate that my college career allowed me to discover dramaturgy and literary management, which more closely aligned with my love for words. As a proud owner of a B.A. in theatre and English writing, I now find myself interested in intersecting the worlds of dramaturgy, theatre, and publishing and in making a place where disability is welcomed for its diversity and accessibility is second nature.

I am still trying to find a place for myself in these spaces, but I am grateful for the experiences and opportunities that led me here, especially my high school theatre program.

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