By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“I live my life. I work. I’m married. I have a kid. I deal with the same things as anybody else.”
The voice on the phone from Seattle is amused. Teal Sherer is used to being “sentimentalized,” she says. “People come up to me and say ‘O, I’m so sorry; I hope you get better. Some people are, like, I’ll pray for you….”
The wheelchair is the trigger. But sentimentality is anathema to Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living, the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner that opens on the Citadel mainstage Thursday.
It’s one of the things that drew the Seattle-based actor and activist to it. Sherer, who uses a wheelchair as a result of a car accident when she was 14, plays a woman who’s recently been paralyzed in a car accident. Ani’s thorny relationship with her -ex (Ashley Wright), an out-of-work trucker who signs on as care-giver, runs in counterpoint to the volatile course of a another pair. John (Christopher Imbrosciano), who has cerebral palsy, is a wealthy and spoiled Ivy League grad student whose care-giver Jess (Bahareh Yaraghi) needs the gig to make ends meet. The definition of disability is spread out among the four characters.
“As a person with a disability myself and as a disability advocate, that play was on my radar ever since its run at the Williamstown Festival in 2016,” says Sherer, who’s smart and funny and good-natured in conversation. “Society tells us to turn away when we see a person with a disability. Don’t look. Don’t ask questions…. Cost of Living insists that the audience look at disability onstage, see our bodies, hear our stories. And that’s powerful.”
“People get to see that disability is a complex thing, and that we’re human.”
For Sherer, the ring of the real is one of the attractions of the play, by the Polish-American writer Majok, who arrived as a first-generation immigrant and worked as a care-giver. Another is the rare dimensionality of the characters, Sherer says. “They feel so authentic, so human to me, complex and layered. And you don’t often see that…. Very often disability (is represented) in caricatures, stereotypes.”
Sherer eludes those kinds of categories. And she’s also not one of those kids who grow up wearing a theatrical calling like a cloak. “I grew up in a small-town in Tennessee, and theatre wan’t even an option,” she laughs. “I didn’t start acting until I was in college” (at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta) when a drama course, as part of her communications major, changed everything.
“I started acting in plays, and at the same time, dancing with an integrated dance company in Atlanta (Full Radius Dance). And it felt like I was home!” says Sherer. “It just made me more confident with my body, my disability, my ability to express myself, and share that with an audience. And hopefully do what I can to change people’s perceptions about what disability is….”
Her professors started casting her, and often in non disability-specific roles. “Why not?” There are university productions like The House of Bernarda Alba and Antigone on her resumé. But the so-called “real world” was tough. “They’re, like, ‘she can’t play the lawyer; she’s in a wheelchair. She can’t play the mom. She’s in a wheelchair, and we’d have to explain her disability’….”
“No, actually you don’t,” declares Sherer. “I can just be a lawyer or a mom…. It’s getting better though. You’re starting to see more representation in roles where wheelchairs don’t even come into it. It just adds another layer to the character.”
She was in the HBO Emmy-winning movie Warm Springs with Kenneth Branagh, Cynthia Nixon and Kathy Bates. And when she moved to Los Angeles, she not only produced and starred in a production of Proof, she launched her own online comedy series My Gimpy Life, based loosely on her own life. It has an appealingly wry, eye-rolling sense of humour about the challenges and attitudes of the world (have a peek on YouTube).
“You don’t set out to be an activist,” Sherer says. “But you have to start advocating for yourself.… So many places aren’t accessible. Acting classes aren’t accessible. Casting offices aren’t accessible. You have to have a voice. That’s one reason I created My Gimpy Life…. I just realized I have to create my own content and get it out there.”
The play and its cast have already had an impact on the physical lay-out of the Citadel, where Ashlie Corcoran’s production arrives after a run at the Vancouver Arts Club. The Shoctor Theatre has had a $130,000 refit to make it accessible for actors and audience members who use mobility aids.
Majok’s play demands the casting of disabled actors in the roles of Ani and John. “That’s a powerful thing,” says Sherer. “A lot of the time, (theatre) doesn’t even know we exist. And the great thing is that disabled actors all over the world are getting to play these roles.” She permits herself a small sigh. “You’re so limited in opportunities. At least let me get in the room. At least consider me….”
The climate is gradually changing. When her friend Ali Stroker won the Tony for her performance as Ado Annie in the new production of Oklahoma!, “that was big!” declares Sherer. “That role is not disability-specific at all! It’s motivating, wow! It energized me, seeing that could be achieved.”
Playing Ani in Cost of Living, “a dream role!”, has been fascinating. “There’s a lot I can relate to. Like her, I was in a car accident. But there was a lot I had to figure out and make specific for myself. Getting injured at 14 is very different than getting injured at 41. She’s newly injured, her relationship with her husband, who’s now with another woman, is very complex. She’s going through a divorce. Her care-giver doesn’t show up…. There are so many layers: she’s sad, she’s angry, she’s combative. But there are these great moments of vulnerability and sexuality.”
There’s an erotic bathtub scene, for example, that has left audiences breathless. Sherer especially appreciates her easy rapport with Wright, who plays caregiver Eddie. “I can really challenge myself, be vulnerable, and feel so comfortable with him…. I feel so safe.”
She points to the differences between Ani and John. “Being wealthy and disabled is a lot different than being disabled when money’s an issue…. Sure, disability is in it. But this play is about class, human connection.”
“It makes you think. And, this is so great, it’s funny, in a human way…. People are shocked by how funny it is. With all these serious, sad, angry moments, you can laugh. That’s so real.”
Cost of Living
Theatre: Citadel, Vancouver Arts Club Theatre
Written by: Martyna Majok
Directed by: Ashlie Corcoran
Starring: Teal Sherer, Christophe Imbrosciano, Ashley Wright, Bahareh Yaraghi
Running: through Feb. 2
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com