Victoria Ann-Lewis' students are talking about emotions. Fear and joy. Life's frustrations--like car insurance; or watching your homework be torn to shreds by classmates, who tease you for having a disability; or the agony of watching--from a wheelchair--your mother dying of brain cancer.
In "Puzzles and Solutions," her new workshop for young disabled people at the Mark Taper Forum's Theater Annex, the emphasis is on answers. Everyone won't make it in theater, Ann-Lewis reminds her students, "but I guarantee you'll learn about yourselves. There are a lot of stories to tell."
Among the tellers is Ann-Lewis herself, a woman who heard in 1969 that she would never have a career because of the polio that made her limp. Now a regular on CBS' "Knots Landing" (in a small but recurring part as Kevin Dobson's secretary, Peggy) and the developer/co-performer of two television specials ("Tell Them I'm a Mermaid" and "Who Parks in Those Spaces?"), Ann-Lewis has not only proven her doubters wrong, she has shown both the disabled and non-disabled that the "handicapped" don't have to be victims.
"I feel acting is wide open for the disabled," Ann-Lewis said after Monday night's opening session. "There are talented disabled people and non-talented disabled people. It's the same as anything else.
"But there's still a lot of resistance in the acting profession to the disabled. Producers complain that the talent pool isn't big enough--that there aren't enough (disabled) people with experience. To some extent it's correct. We have to work at that now--develop training, so we can be competitive."
For the first time in five years of teaching at the Taper, Ann-Lewis is combining both teen-agers and older people in the program--a change she finds "very exciting . . . It's like having the 19th and 20th centuries in one room."
(Deaf and partially hearing students have also been integrated in the workshop for the first time, as Ann-Lewis' words are mirrored in the faces and sign language of three assistants, or "shadows.")
Her students are clearly excited as well. Peggy Oliveri may belong to the "19th Century" half of the class, but she feels the future may be more open to wheelchair users like herself than in the past:
"We need somebody who's on TV every week--a disabled Archie Bunker. We should see disabled people doing everyday things--brushing their teeth, going to McDonald's." Besides, she added with a grin, "I want a sitcom."
A younger member, 25-year-old Darryn Brooks, also wants to help destroy social myths that the disabled are incapable of "normal" lives. Acting, he believes, is a way to defeat restrictions: in "Who Parks in Those Spaces?," to help overcome his stutter, Darryn "created a character that didn't stutter--you work yourself into a different character."
To Ann-Lewis, such self-attitudes constitute a mini-revolution.
"Just interviewing these kids," she said, "I got a feeling that was very different from when I was growing up. They're more angry."
Some self-consciousness--especially on first meeting--is inevitable for teen-agers, and during Monday night's introduction students reacted with a mixture of nervous laughs and frankness as Ann-Lewis led the group through exercises.
"Go ahead, look really dumb," she said, mugging as the group moved to the beat of a stereo.
Such openness, Ann-Lewis feels, is rarely reflected in the media. In her opinion, television has done the most to help disabled teen-agers find role models: "Theater is working more glacially. But TV hasn't done much yet for depth in characterization. I'd like to see disabled people writing scripts, and creating their own projects. No one is doing much 'color blind' casting, yet."
Most commonly, she notes, most disabled actors on television (Ann-Lewis included) appear as secretaries--"and after I'd learned not to type so I wouldn't have that option! I like it that Peggy (on 'Knots Landing') isn't characterized as disabled. She's integrated into the office, and works hard."
If theatrical films have largely skirted the disability issue, Ann-Lewis feels the movie "Coming Home," did considerable good for the cause, particularly in dealing with sexual myths: "Seeing it in my 20s was a great relief for me. I thought, 'Oh, I get it--you can be sexually attractive and you can be disabled. I can be the things I want to be, and be the thing I am .' "
Ann-Lewis is reluctant to predict the future for the disabled in theater and other media: "I'm not a visionary. But I do think in the next 10 years disabled people are going to take charge of themselves more and more. My motto now is 'Linda Hunt'--it's exciting to see the roles being developed for her. That's not happening for us, yet.
"Some disabled people believe that if they're having problems, they're not trying hard enough; but a lot of it is societal," she continued. "I feel the parameters for beauty are broader in other parts of the world. But on the other hand, as a disabled actress, this is the most exciting place in the world to be."