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Taper Workshop Develops ‘Other Voices’

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Disabled people come in many different shapes, sizes, colors. They also come with a variety of voices.

“The bottom line of ‘Other Voices’ is developing a disabled culture--in Los Angeles, all over the world,” said actress Victoria Ann-Lewis, project director of the Other Voices Writing Workshop. The group will present a scene reading, open to the public, Monday at the Music Center Annex.

“The disabled minority is not geographical, yet it’s very repressed,” she said. “It’s not about one-upsmanship--'Who’s the most ashamed?'--but it is an experience one is loath to accept: to say, ‘I’m disabled and I’m proud.’ Ten years ago, nobody would’ve thought of saying that. Now it’s changing.”

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Although her own disability--a limp--appears slight, Ann-Lewis (who plays Kevin Dobson’s secretary on TV’s “Knots Landing”) notes that a day doesn’t go by that someone doesn’t stare at her leg.

“The roles are limited,” the actress said bluntly. “Twenty-eight is considered old. I don’t get to play hookers, because I don’t have (good) legs and I can’t wear high heels. I’m in a netherworld--difficult to cast because I’m not dramatically disabled.”

Exclusion began early. “I was so isolated growing up,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to know anybody who was disabled--I wasn’t like them! I mainstreamed, went to regular schools. I basically denied the experience, though it got tremendously in the way of my career, and in terms of my being a woman. I wasn’t expected to marry; I got a good education because I was going to have to take care of myself. I was refused admission to drama school. They said, ‘You’ll never work, so why should we teach you?’ ”

Ann-Lewis credits the film “Coming Home” (in which Jon Voight, as a paraplegic veteran, was the romantic lead) and the women’s movement for inspiring a surer sense of herself.

“When we started working here, (the wheelchair-bound) couldn’t get from the Music Center to City Hall,” she said. “There were no curb cuts. Now, that’s a concrete, material issue: it’s what it means to be disabled, to be excluded from life--from decent jobs, decent training. Socially, you’re really in the margin. For me, those issues are very important. But the bottom line is that I’m an artist, and I want to be able to translate those experiences into art, into myth.”

Ann-Lewis began developing her own autobiographical material while touring Europe with an experimental theater group--then followed up with a book, “No More Stares,” which included interviews with hundreds of disabled women. A grant from the California Arts Council to teach acting to people with disabilities brought her to the Taper, and Puzzles and Solutions (now renamed Other Voices) was formed. Out of that came two televised ensemble pieces “Tell Them I’m a Mermaid” and “Who Parks in Those Spaces?”

“A whole group of people are expressing themselves for the first time,” she said. “We’ve been talked about and explained by medical people and artists and religious people for centuries. Now we’re saying, ‘This is what it’s like from our point of view.’ In the Middle Ages, they burned people who gave birth to disabled children. We don’t like to think about that now, because everyone likes to be nice to the handicapped. But there are deep fears and prejudices connected with the issue.”

As Ann-Lewis expanded the workshops, developing work with teen-agers and labor groups (the common denominator being “disenfranchisement--the experience of being other in this culture”) she began to sense an interest in writing as well as performing. “The material I had was person-specific,” she noted. “The real person had to do it. But there’s only so far you can go with that--then you want replicable work. You want other people to be able to do it.”

Three years ago, Ann-Lewis invited a group of writers to the workshop; of those, playwright Irene Oppenheim emerged as the writing instructor.

“I wanted to give people the freedom to create characters who don’t have disabilities,” she said. At first, they want to ignore it, write science-fiction things. It was so freeing for them to be able to do that. But after a while, they began to realize that one of the most valuable creative assets was their perspective; it made them unique.”

Oppenheim believes the workshops are empowering psychologically as well as artistically.

“We focus the workshop around the creation and completion of a scene. People have interrupted educations or are frightened of failure; creativity isn’t something that’s taught to people with disabilities. But when they’re taken seriously--or they hear people laughing or being moved--it gives them a great sense of accomplishment, which I think carries over to the other part of their lives.”


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