Your World, His View
The body politic. It’s a phrase that takes on new meaning in the person and work of playwright John Belluso.
At 31 years old, with an activist’s mind-set and half a dozen plays to his credit, he is fast emerging as an important new voice in the American theater. Yet this isn’t just another young playwright breaking through. As a representative of disabled Americans, Belluso speaks eloquently for a group seldom before seen or heard on the American stage.
Belluso’s “The Body of Bourne,” now in previews at the Mark Taper Forum, premieres June 7. Directed by Lisa Peterson, the play portrays the life and times of the social critic and public intellectual Randolph Bourne, who was disabled.
Like his subject Bourne, Belluso has chosen to work in a public arena. “I’ve always felt that there’s a theatrical element to being disabled,” Belluso says. “When I get on a bus, all the heads turn and look, and for that moment, it’s like I’m on a stage. Disabled people understand the world in a different way. You understand what it’s like to be stared at, to be looked at, and in a sense, you’re always performing your disability. So I feel it’s connected to this impulse to write for the theater. It’s my way of taking that stare, that gaze, and spinning it. I think it’s about shifting from people staring at me to, in a way, staring back at them.”
Belluso challenges perceived notions of what it means to be disabled, writing about the topic in fresh and disarming ways. “It was always my impulse to examine this experience through my writing,” says the playwright, a gracious man whose literate conversation cannot help but betray a voracious reading habit. Tastefully dressed in shades of gray and black, he is speaking in a Mark Taper Forum rehearsal room down the hall from his office, where he is co-director, with founder Victoria Ann Lewis, of the Other Voices Project, a program devoted to theater artists with disabilities. “It’s something that obviously affects my world day to day, minute to minute, so to be able to grab it and try to stage it is a way of trying to understand it.”
Staring back quite effectively, it seems, if his distinguished fellow theater artists are any judge. “John is amazing, talented and a really extraordinary person and writer,” says “Angels in America” playwright Tony Kushner. “He’s incredibly smart and has a real gift for trying to balance his erudition with the unconscious processes and the emotional, erotic, less rational energies that are the lifeblood of drama.”
Belluso, like Kushner, is that rare American playwright who can be political without sacrificing a sense of play and theatricality. “He has an outsider point of view on American values and culture, and that’s the motivating reason why he writes,” says director Peterson. “But what’s interesting is that he’s also a very instinctual writer and a poet really, and his best moments in his plays are really personal, quirky, oddly funny observations.”
Both Kushner and Peterson describe Belluso’s writing as not only well-crafted but important. “Theater has not dealt very much with the issues he’s addressing, and it’s tremendously theatrical terrain,” Kushner says. “It’s all about the aestheticization of bodies. The theater indulges in that kind of body fascism almost as much as any other form of entertainment. And there’s no place better than L.A. to raise these issues.”
What’s more, Belluso is leaving his mark on at least one American theater in another important way. His presence in the Taper organization and the premiere of “The Body of Bourne” have prompted the downtown venue to improve its accessibility. Recent renovations have increased the audience seating area for wheelchairs, as well as made the backstage area wheelchair-accessible, with two new dressing rooms and a stage door access ramp. As Kushner puts it, “How many playwrights physically transform the theater they’re working in?”
“The Body of Bourne” is a panoramic drama that portrays both a writer and his epoch--specifically Bourne and the cultural renaissance of the early 1900s. An essayist, orator, poet and playwright, Bourne died in 1918 at age 32, felled by a flu epidemic. Yet he has lived on in American intellectual and political life through books and essays that speak to concerns ranging from pacifism in foreign affairs to what would today be called multiculturalism in American society. Bourne was disfigured at birth and later, because of tuberculosis, his spine curved and his shoulders and back hunched.
Far beyond the shared experience of disability, Belluso was attracted to Bourne’s broad-based social activism. “He wrote so eloquently back in 1911 about the handicapped man understanding the plight of others as well as his own plight, and trying to empathize with what he called ‘the queer and the crotchety’ of the world,” Belluso says. “It’s definitely part of why I identified with him so much--the curiosity about why the world reacts to his body the way that it does, not in any bitter or angry way, but in a genuine spirit of wanting to understand the world.”
During the latter years of his life, Bourne became particularly enmeshed in radical politics. And while Belluso’s concerns are typically less doctrinaire, he admires Bourne’s belief in the possibility of change.
“We’re very much adrift in our notion of what America can be and how to get there,” Belluso says. “We’ve lived through holocausts and genocides, and Bourne didn’t. It was clearly a different time, and there was a great spirit of optimism and belief in social progress.”
“I think, as hard as it is, we do have to be optimistic,” the playwright continues. “We do have to still believe in social progress and that the world spins forward. We have to hold onto these concepts, even in a dark and cynical time.”
Indeed, Belluso’s own life is an example of the power of tenacity and belief--in the self, and in society--in the face of less than ideal conditions.
Born in Warwick, R.I., Belluso and his two older sisters were raised by his mother. His parents divorced when he was 3 and he never really knew his father.
The body of Belluso, like the body of Bourne, was subject to misunderstanding almost from the start. Until he was a teenager, he suffered not only the social misapprehension typically experienced by those with physical disabilities, but a clinical one as well. “They had diagnosed me as [having] muscular dystrophy, which is progressive, but I wasn’t getting any worse, so they figured, well, it’s not muscular dystrophy,” he says.
“Then they took X-rays of me, and another doctor happened to be walking by and saw the X-rays,” Belluso continues. “He diagnosed me on the spot as having this rare bone disorder, which limits muscle strength but doesn’t completely paralyze muscles.” The condition that Belluso had in fact had all along turned out to be Engleman-Camurdrie syndrome, which is neither progressive nor fatal.
Belluso attended public schools in Warwick, but with increasing dissatisfaction. He dropped out of high school the year before graduation. “I felt like I was not being challenged, and I felt really not at home in school,” he says.
He chose instead to become a kind of autodidact. “I took a couple of years off and just read, digested a lot of books and a lot of theater,” Belluso says. Eventually, he decided to take some classes at a local community college. “I took a theater class, and we were assigned to go see a play at Trinity Rep, and it was ‘Julius Caesar.’ ”
His interest piqued, Belluso began taking more theater classes. “Pretty soon I had taken all of the theater classes that they offered there, and so I applied to transfer to NYU, and I was accepted.”
In his early 20s, Belluso traded tiny Warwick for downtown Gotham. “It was a major leap,” he says. “There was this real fear of leaving your small town and going to the big city. When you’re in a wheelchair, moving to Manhattan of all places, it’s doubly scary. But it was also great, exciting, freeing. I could take the bus all over the place.
“It really tested me and tested how much I could do,” adds Belluso, who completed his undergraduate study as well as an accelerated one-year master’s program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he graduated in 1996. “You need patience and a Zen-like approach to everything, waiting for the bus, getting through crowds. It was scary at first, but it was great. I got to see all the theater and go to museums. All these great things that I was in my room reading about I was suddenly seeing.”
At NYU, Belluso studied with a number of noted American theater professionals, including Kushner. “Tony was the first person to tell me that writing about the topic of disability was an important thing to do,” Belluso says.
Kushner and Belluso share an activism, not only in their writing, but also on a day-to-day basis. “When I began to work with John as a student, almost any time I went to a demonstration, John would be there,” says Kushner. “He’s on the barricades and I think it has an enormous impact on his writing.
“It’s all too easy, in the absence of that kind of participation, to become cynical or despairing,” Kushner continues. “John is a person who really lives his politics, both in terms of being a person with disabilities and having an activist understanding of what that means. It’s incredibly exciting when someone with that kind of understanding of their own experience comes to the theater.”
While at NYU, Belluso first heard about the Taper’s Other Voices Project, which was founded in 1980 by Lewis, who has a disability caused by polio, and led by her until she and Belluso became co-directors last year. “I remember I sent a query letter to Vicki Lewis and she sent me this program that had, in the notes, a little quote from Randolph Bourne.”
As Lewis and Belluso began to get to know one another by phone, Bourne’s name came up in conversation, triggering Belluso’s interest in the writer. Lewis suggested some possible sources and Belluso spent much of the next two years, amid work on other plays, researching Bourne. In particular, he made use of the Columbia Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, where Columbia alumnus Bourne’s papers are housed.
As Belluso was developing “The Body of Bourne,” he made several forays out to the Taper to work on other projects, including his earlier play “Gretty Good Time,” which was given a workshop at the Taper’s New Work Festival and subsequently went on to a workshop at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and a production at Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York.
“The Body of Bourne” was developed by the Other Voices Project and first presented in the New Work Festival in 1998 and 1999. “‘Bourne’s scope and ambition are epic,” Peterson says. “He wants to not only show you this man’s life, but he’s also trying to capture the moment in American history when certain ideas were born. But the moments that are remarkable are personal moments--between Bourne and his mother or Bourne and his fiancee--and that’s really where John’s talent is palpable, in observations of strange generosity and odd kindness, things that are paradoxical.”
Belluso and Peterson have been collaborating on the play since the piece was first presented. “John and I spent a lot of time one-on-one,” she says. “The challenge has been to try to balance the historical setting and the actual documentary material--Randolph Bourne’s actual essays and letters--with the personal take that John has on this man’s life.”
Peterson also directed the premiere of Belluso’s most recent work, “Henry Flamethrowa,” at Trinity Rep in January. The piece was commissioned and developed by the L.A.-based A.S.K. Theater Projects. “It’s loosely based on a story about this young woman named Audrey Santos in Worcester, Mass., who’s in a coma and is supposedly visited by miracles,” Belluso explains.
“People who come to her, pray to her, a lot of them are essentially disabled,” he continues. “I think it’s my way of examining this notion of what it means to be healed and why people seek out healing--that and, again, issues of faith and cynicism.”
Belluso’s persistence and talent have not gone unrecognized. In 1999, he was given the Taper’s annual Sherwood Award, an honor bestowed on notable emerging theater talents. Yet given the particular constraints of the Taper at the time, Belluso almost wasn’t able to reach the stage to accept his award.
“The stage wasn’t accessible,” he recalls, “so they built a lift and had me up there to get the award. It’s the first time the stage was ever really accessible. So that was just temporary, and now it’s permanently accessible.”
Indeed, no matter how “The Body of Bourne” is received, the physical improvements to the Taper will be part of Belluso’s legacy. “You have to have optimism and you find allies,” he says. “You keep pushing forward and someone who’s in a powerful position, like [Taper artistic director] Gordon Davidson, sees and hears and literally changes the landscape.”
Such achievements aside, though, Belluso is still adjusting to life on the West Coast, where he has only officially been a resident for a year now. “Right now I’m feeling a similar kind of feeling of when I moved to New York,” he says. “The world is sort of small, but it’s gradually getting bigger. I’m learning the bus system, and I’m taking driving lessons.”
The key, he says, is to have not only faith and optimism, but also a sense of humor and fun--about things as large as social change and as quotidian as the daily commute. “I live right on Bunker Hill, right down the street, so I just wheel home down this giant hill,” Belluso says. “It’s the strangest thing, because nobody’s on the sidewalk. All these cars drive by, and there’s people staring at this guy in a wheelchair going 100 miles an hour down the hill. I’m totally popping up and down the curb. I love it!”
If this isn’t quite what you expect to hear from a man who has had it less than easy in life, that’s the point. “I’m in a unique position where what I bring to the table as a writer is a level of authenticity in writing about the disability experience and what it means to be in a wheelchair,” says Belluso. “So many of the representations that I see of being in a wheelchair and being disabled get it wrong. There’s this assumption that life is dark and gloomy--even the term ‘wheelchair-bound’ that people use--and it’s not the case. I think what I can bring is humor and lightness and a different perspective.”
* “The Body of Bourne,” Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. Opens June 7. Regular run (beginning June 6): Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Additional matinee July 11, 2:30 p.m.; no evening performance July 15. Ends July 15. $30.-$44. (213) 628-2772.