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Transcript for "Help! SHARK!"

A Conversation with Lawrence Carter-Long

Speakers:
Lawrence Carter-Long, Ken Struve


Ken Struve

We’re here today with Lawrence Carter-Long, movie critic, dancer, and advocate. My name is Ken Struve, I’m with City Access New York and this is the first of a series of conversations with people who have interests in disability and access. We couldn’t think of a better person to kick this series off with than Lawrence Carter-Long. So Lawrence, thank you for being with us today.

Lawrence Carter-Long

Thank you, Ken. My pleasure.

Ken

As I was getting ready to talk with you this morning, I learned that you were very much in the public record. I wonder whether that’s more than a public role if it’s something personal to you as well, and connected to your own interest in disability and access.

Lawrence

Well, when I was a wee lad of five years old, I was a poster child, what they used to call a poster child, for the United Fund, which is now the United Way. And the job of a poster child is pretty darn easy, you know. You basically make an appearance on stage, you hit your mark, you say your line and you hope that people give money.

My role when I was five was to walk out on stage and say “Thanks to you, it’s working. Thanks to you, I’m walking.” And hopefully people would open up their checkbooks.

What I learned at that point we can dissect sort of the politics of poster children if you want but what I learned then is that being in the public eye has a certain power, has a certain authority to it. So I thought, if you want to get the most bang for your buck, you’ve got to have a presence, and you’ve got to get your message out there in a way that people can actually hear. So you know, while it might have served their purposes when I was five years old, I’ve certainly done what I could to serve mine, and hopefully the greater good since then.

Ken

Were you recruited, or did you volunteer for this poster child?

Lawrence

No, I was drafted. (laughter) It was one of those situations where they came to the Children’s Hospital where I was doing rehabilitation I never quite understood how you were re-habbed if you were never habilitated to begin with but they went there while I was doing physical therapy and those sorts of things. It didn’t come across there, but I have cerebral palsy. And so I think they found the kid, you know, the typical sort of, blond hair, big mouth, kind of -

Ken

- a good looking kid -

Lawrence

- Yeah, yeah. The one that goes, “Oh, that’s what we want to represent what we do.” And so they sort of picked me out of that crowd, and we went forward from there.

Ken

Do you still have any I’m curious any continuing relationship with United Way?

Lawrence

Well, it’s very interesting. I was five, and I’m 41 now. As I look back, one of the founding organizations that started the Disabilities Network [of New York City] came from a survey that the United Way of New York City did, looking at a needs assessment for people with disabilities.

And they found that unlike, let’s say, developmental disabilities or mental retardation, people with physical and sensory related disabilities let’s say mobility and sensor, someone who’s blind, has low vision, is deaf or is hard of hearing do not have an infrastructure in the way that OMRDD exists…to really take those issues and put them into a policy arena. And so the Disabilities Network was formed to address that need, which is the organization where I work as Director of Advocacy.

Ken

The Disabilities Network of New York City? That can be found online?

Lawrence

The Disabilities Network of New York City can be found at www.dnnyc.net So just do the initials, Disabilities Network New York City.net and you can find out any information you’d like to know about what we do. The mission of the Disabilities Network is to shape policy, build community and expand access and opportunity for people with disabilities in all five boroughs of New York City.

Ken

With a focus on people with physical and sensory disabilities, or have you broadened the mission?

Lawrence

Well, it doesn’t preclude us from doing work with, let’s say, people with cognitive disabilities, intellectual disabilities, folks that might have psychiatric disabilities. There’s a lot of overlap within those populations. But what we found that, where there are infrastructures within the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disability, for example, that have existed for nearly 40 years and, you know, they have a budget that is funded by the State that’s about four billion dollars there is nothing akin to that that addresses the specific needs for people with physical disabilities or sensory disabilities.

So, the idea was not to sort of takeover, or to not do what they’re doing, but actually take that model and find a way to apply that. So that the needs that weren’t being addressed, and the needs that aren’t being addressed, can be addressed.

Ken

That’s interesting. The Disabilities Network based its program model on OMRDD’s already existing model?

Lawrence

Well, we didn’t base our model on what OMRDD is doing or was doing. But we took a look at the needs that were being addressed, and the manner in which they were being addressed, and the survey that was conducted by the United Way said “What isn’t being addressed, what’s being left out of this equation?”

And they found that, unlike folks that are affected by intellectual disabilities or mental retardation, that there was this huge gap for people with mobility related disabilities and sensory related disabilities. So the idea was, where are people falling through the gaps? How can we fill in those gaps?

And that was where the idea, the genesis of the Disabilities Network of New York City came from. And I was intrigued by that model because I hadn’t done disability advocacy as a career for since almost the time that I was five. I mean I was, you know, I was poster child and I did some advocacy stuff around the time the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. But after that point, I thought, “Well, we passed the law, I can go and focus on other things.”

Ken

All is well.

Lawrence

Yeah. And that was youth, I think. And maybe the optimism that comes with youth that informed that decision. I’ve since learned that it takes a little more than that. You can put a lot on the books, but without the will to enforce it, you’re not going to get much done.

And so, there was a conscious decision three-and-a-half years ago that I made to come back to disability work. And I looked at the mission of the Disabilities Network and the way in which the Disabilities Network was wanting to do that… which was by [working with] people who have physical disabilities, that have sensory disabilities.

There were already organizations out there like the Independent Living Center, or that were condition-specific groups let’s say your United Cerebral Palsy, your Multiple Sclerosis Societies, your Muscular Dystrophy Associations that would focus on that particular society, or those particular needs. And a lot of that was needs-based, on what equipment do you need, what surgeries do you need, on an individual basis.

There was no real organization out there that was looking for systemic, common problems that people had. So let’s say, employment is an issue for people, across the board, who have disabilities. Even since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, it’s up around 70-75% unemployment.

How do you get to bring those people together and say, yes, I know this is important to people with muscular dystrophy, but it’s also important to people who are blind, also important to people who are deaf. Let’s come together, hold hands, sing Kumbaya and find some solutions by coming together. Let’s say, well look, there is strength in numbers.

Ken

Did you say it was 77% unemployment?

Lawrence

The numbers that I’ve been seeing that are common since the time of the Americans with Disabilities Act unemployment rates for people with disabilities, if you take blindness, if you take in all the different disabilities, is about 70%.

Ken

That’s incredible.

Lawrence

Yes.

Ken

Incredibly bad.

Lawrence

It’s incredibly bad. Right. And what that showed me, in looking at those numbers, was to say, wait a minute, but is it really getting into, let’s say, the living room? Is it really affecting folks in a manner that’s meaningful? So we can change the law, but we’ve got to get down to perceptions. We’ve got to get down to attitude about people with disabilities.

Ken

Attitudes in the workplace, those people who are actually making the decisions about whether to hire and whom to hire?

Lawrence

Well, sure. People with disabilities, as you well know, are your co-workers, are the people you sit next to in the coffee shop, the people that you go to class with, the people that are on the subway with you. But we often don’t see that reflected within society, you know.

People with disabilities are generally painted with monotone colors. You’ve got black and white and maybe occasionally a shade of gray. But you’ve got, what you normally see, are tragic figures and heroic figures, but you don’t see that spectrum of experience that people actually live. And so I think what we need to do is sort of broaden that out, add a little color to that palette and give people a sense of what having a disability actually is.

Because if we only see those limited parameters, if we only think of disability as something where people need handouts, they need your charity, where disability becomes a charity issue or a medical issue, we’re missing out on the bigger picture and we’re missing out on opportunity.

Ken

Lawrence, you just talked about representations and how people can be pigeon holed by society and I wonder if this is a good time to shift paths and talk about the “Politics of Popcorn.” (laughter). Which is the title of an editorial you wrote a year or so ago? And which I was very interested in reading over.

Lawrence

Sure. One of the things that I learned when I made the conscious decision to come back to disability and to do work in this arena and when I started working for the Disabilities Network I tried to take the first six, eight months, and to the degree that I was able, keep my mouth shut, my eyes and ears open. To get an assessment of what the landscape was like, who was doing what, and how were they doing it, what the real situation was on the grounds. So that I could assess where I would be most effective in doing the work that I wanted to do.

Bringing in sort of my history doing marketing work and public relations work and a lot of work with media literacy before coming to the Disabilities Network, I was the Communications Director for a non-profit called the Animal Protection Institute. And this is relevant because as part of my job there, I was asked to be on the screening committee of something called the Genesis Awards. Now, the Genesis Awards was then The Ark Trust. Gretchen Wyler, for some of you who might know her, was a Broadway dame, with legs up to her ears, who was in Guys and Dolls and just a fantastic person. She was on the board of the ASPCA in the late 60s, early 70s. And she eventually was with a group called Fund for Animals, but in the mid 80s started this project called the Genesis Awards.

And the idea behind the Genesis Awards was to find people that were doing positive stories, important investigative stories about animal issues, because animals were seen as commodities. It was as if anybody who did anything about animals was that old stereotypical “crazy cat lady,” or little old ladies in tennis shoes. And it wasn’t thought of as much bigger than -

Ken

- the Kennedy cousins on Long Island -

Lawrence

- Right. It wasn’t much broader than that. And she wanted to expand that palette in much the same way that I talked about with disabilities. She knew then that the way you did that is that you applied it in your words and you thanked people that did what you wanted. You didn’t stand on the street corner with a placard that said, “I don’t like this.” What you did was you say, “We want more of that.”

And, so Gretchen would start out with a VCR and a TV in one of the meeting rooms of a hotel somewhere in Los Angeles in ’85. It grew into, now 25 years later, red carpet, black tie in the ballroom of the Beverly Hills Hilton, giving awards to everything from the New York Times to Newsweek to Time Magazine to the Discovery Channel and beyond.

And that was my experience on the Genesis Awards and on the selection committee for the Genesis Awards, where I initially went because I was the Communications Director for the Animal Protection Institute and because I was the communications guy. The Executive Director said “Lawrence, since the media is your bag, we’re sending you down this year.”

And I was a skeptic, I was a pessimist. I went down there and I thought, “What is this red carpet, black tie Hollywood crowd going to tell me about animal issues that I don’t already know. Grumble, grumble, grumble. And I went down there, being a dutiful employee, and was turned around. Was blown away by what I saw in that room.

So you have hundreds of people and what happened was you saw the guy from the little Fort Lauderdale newspaper, next to the guy from the Los Angeles Times, next to the news reporter from a local CBS affiliate, next to the ABC Evening News and CNN. What might have been a one day story where they were working on deadline, let’s say, about the abuse of elephants in circuses, when that’s stacked up with, and told with, a story about dogs and cats getting out of shelters, or the effects of how animals are abused and animal experimentation...

All of a sudden, each of those issues had more gravity. Each of those issues had more weight, and you got to see that, because you’re there in the room. You’re captive for three hours and while everyone’s getting it, you get perspective and you get a sense of how they’re all connected.

And so it became much bigger. The idea was, okay, advocacy has often been thought of as complaining about what we don’t like.

And so, The Politics of Popcorn came from an idea that okay, we can, we can grumble and we can gripe about things that we don’t like, but how do we put some time and energy and attention which I think is just as important into what we do.

And doing the policy work with the Disabilities Network, I’d find, you’d go to elected officials and you’d give them all the facts, you’d give them the figures, you’d give them the statistics, and after awhile their eyes would glaze over and they would kind of nod their heads, and they’d shake your hands.

Ken

Sure.

Lawrence

What really worked with them though, which is the same thing that works with everybody, is that when you tell them the story. How do you tell them the story in a manner that they can hear that story, in a manner that makes that story resonate and authentic? And one of the easiest ways to do that is you depict it. You show it.

You know, if you look at the numbers out there, let’s say with regard to disability, less than 2% of the characters that you see on TV and in movies, are characters who have disabilities.

Ken

We know that? Was there a survey?

Lawrence

We know that. There was a survey that was done by the Screen Actors Guild in 2005. And we also know that less than .02% of those lines that are spoken are actually by actors who have disabilities. So, we go back to how people are stereotyped, those monochrome colors.

If one, you don’t see disability much; but two, when you do see disability, on, say, a telethon or some story where somebody is an athlete and they’re disabled which is far beyond the experience of most disabled people… Most disabled people aren’t going to the Paralympics.

You don’t see yourself within that equation. And so what we wanted to do was start asking, “How can we use this medium as a way to celebrate good art as a means of giving people access to stories, great works, cinema that they wouldn’t be seeing otherwise? And hopefully fulfill our advocacy agenda as well?” Because by opening their minds, maybe they’re then more receptive to the facts and the figures and statistics.

So what then happened was we started this little project. We didn’t have any grant money, we didn’t have a space. I didn’t exactly know how we were going to go about it. We started a film series.

Ken

What’s it called? And when did you start this?

Lawrence

The film series is called the “Dis This” Film Series… And that was intentional. It’s sort of a raised fist with the tagline, “Disability through a whole new lens.” And it started at DCTV and it was in the spring of 2006.

Initially we had 20, 25 people come, you know, but every month we started getting more and more. We didn’t have a budget to advertise, it was all word of mouth. But I had a goal of [not] screening anything there that I wish I didn’t create myself. That’s the criteria. I wanted to see in a similar way to what Genesis was doing could we grow an audience? Was there an audience out there for the kind of edgy, envelope pushing material that I thought was important to see?

And we found that there was. You know, if you look at the depictions of disability, again, more often than not, you’ve got sort of the tragic disabled person and the heroic disabled person. Occasionally, you might get Phantom of the Opera or a Hunchback of Notre Dame. Right?

And if you’re not a homicidal maniac, and you can’t play sports, and you actually want to live your life, and you don’t want someone to kill you, where do you fit in?

And so I thought, I know those people are out there, and I know this work is being done. So, it started out as “Dis This”. And before there was a “Dis This,” we were asked through a theater group called The Visible Theater that every year does a wonderful program, they do some sort of disability outreach and advocacy, in addition to the theater work if I would do a lecture and a talk about disability, and if we had anything we could show, a film that we could show.

I had just gotten a, I heard about I don’t think I had even seen it at that point about a program called I’m Spasticus. Spartacus in mind. And I know you were a music guy. (laughter) Ian Dury and the Blackheads, if you remember any of that. British punk singers. And it basically is a cross between the old Candid Camera show and MTV’s Punked, where you had people with disabilities out on the streets of London this is a British production pranking out an unsuspecting public. An able-bodied public.

And it starts out you’ve got sort of a seaside town in, let’s say, the shore of New Jersey, right, where you’ve got a guy that’s an amputee in a wetsuit. He’s got one arm, coming up out of the water, splashing like crazy, screaming “Help! SHARK!” (laughter) “Shark! shark!” And he gets up on the beach and he runs down the beach -

Ken

- Unkind!

Lawrence

Here’s what happens, though. And then about three seconds later you see a guy in a stuffed shark suit walking down the boardwalk, right. And everybody’s looking, right, turning their heads and wondering what this one-armed guy is doing running down the boardwalk.

And it reformats your brain somehow. Like, you go, “Woo hoo, what’s happening here?!” (laughter) And I think what we need to do in terms of how disability is seen, perceived, understood, is cause that kind of reaction.

Ken

Give it a good shake.

Lawrence

Give it a good shake. So that you can re-think. And my favorite bit out of this whole program was, you’ve got a guy who’s blind. He’s got his seeing eye dog; he’s out next to the tube station or the subway station asking for directions.

People are coming up and being very polite and giving him the directions. Then it takes another turn. After they say, “Go two blocks right, take a left,” whatever, he instructs them to tell the dog. (laughter)

The beauty of this it’s not even that he tells them to tell the dog it’s that, without missing a beat, without blinking an eye, without being shocked by this request whatsoever, they do. (laughter) And, and…

Ken

This is priceless. Where do we get this?

Lawrence

I’ve got it. Even better than that, they’ve got this dog outfitted on the collar with a little transmitter. So you’ve got a guy who’s recording this in a van off to the side, who then has, via the voice box, has the dog repeat to them (laughter) the instructions that they just gave. Again, they don’t really seem nonplussed by this at all.

Ken

I don’t know what to say…

Lawrence

One of the questions I had was when I’d go to the forums that the Disabilities Network held, and during any of the outreach that we did where are the people with disabilities, let’s say, under the age of 30? I know they’re out there. They weren’t showing up to the meetings that we were holding. So I thought, well why is that?

I think there are a lot of reasons. You know, young folks have been able to benefit from the work that a lot of the older folks have been doing. So the need for community, the necessity to organize, the necessity for what people galvanized around and came together to make let’s say, the buses accessible in New York City, which happened in the mid 80s, or to fight for curb cuts in the 70s those things are there. They are a common everyday part of life now. So the need isn’t as great in terms of, let’s say, overall physical access, so [people think] maybe there’s not the need to organize…

Now what one was missing though, as a result of that and this is someone who’s looking back at the 20 years of advocacy that I’ve been doing, or if you include the poster child stuff -

Ken

- I think we have to.

Lawrence

Yeah. You know, the 35 years of advocacy that I’ve been doing what you miss is that community. What you miss is learning from the insights and the experiences, and what just living all that time can sort of teach you.

No way of getting that unless you get it, right? But I wasn’t seeing this fertilization, this cross-fertilization between younger folks and older folks. And what each can gain from that [community], that it’s not a one-sided equation, you know. Younger folks have a perspective, have a freshness, have an optimism, have the energy (laughing) both physically and mentally and emotionally that people that have been around a long time often don’t have. The people who’ve been around a long time have perspective, and you can’t beat perspective.

Ken

Are you saying that initiatives like “Dis This” and your day-in-day-out work with the Disabilities Network of New York City really has that as a motivation? You’re trying to catalyze these young people, to get them out of their homes and into the public forum?

Lawrence

Well, I know that it’s important. In coming back to doing disability work and finding disability community as a result of that, I find that I gain a lot of strength, I gain a lot of insight and I’ve gained a lot of understanding through being part of that community.

And I didn’t see many opportunities for other people to get that. I didn’t want other people to wait until they were, you know, in their late 30s before that happened.

So I thought how can we facilitate that? And so the idea behind “Dis This” was really two-fold. There’s the community at large. Let’s, for the purposes of the podcast here, say non-disabled, the non-disabled public. So how do you shake them up? How do you get them to see something that’s going to force them, just by being different, to re-think or re-frame disability in their own heads?

And then, as a community organizing tool, as a community building tool, how do you create a space where people actually want to come together? Where they want to commune, where they want to spend time, not just complaining about the stuff that they don’t like, but being jazzed by the stuff that they do.

Ken

People have to want to be there. Not because it’s the right thing to do, but for some other reason that they have, to want to be there.

Lawrence

That was the goal behind it. And so what we did was screen Spasticus for The Visible Theater. And lo and behold, there was an audience of about 25, 30 people, and I think except for three of us, one of which was the woman I was dating at the time, everybody was under 30 (laughing). And I thought, “Oh, wait a minute, what’s happening here?”

I mentioned that Spasticus had a lot in common with MTV’s Punked. It’s because I was using a medium at The Visible Theater, I was using a vehicle that somebody who is 25 would identify with, that was edgy and provocative and funny, so that somebody who was 25 would go, “Oh, I am of that generation, that’s appealing to me.” It was then that I started thinking, okay, how do we take this, how do we leverage it, how do we capitalize on it and optimize what this could be, and “Dis This” just sort of grew out of that.

Ken

Is “Dis This” still with us?

Lawrence

“Dis This” is still with us. We had to take a break, an unintentional break, during the fall of 2008, because we lost our space. But that one of the silver linings it forced me to get creative and say, okay, where do we go? We know that we started out, you know, in a small room in DCTV with 25 people, and the last time we did a screening there was in June of 2008 and we had 65, 60 there…

Ken

Your audience was doubled.

Lawrence

And we couldn’t fit anymore in, right. So we were outgrowing the space and I thought this is great the community is coming together. You know, we would do surveys at “Dis This” asking, “Are you disabled, are you non-disabled, how did you come to us?”

And we found that for the majority of screenings, two-thirds of the audience, oddly enough, were not people who identified as disabled. They were coming because of the quality of work that we showed. Because the idea was to show festival quality stuff, things that were being shown at film festivals, things that were recognized for the work, for the art that they were.

And this is why I’m pleased. We were in a bit of a crisis last fall. Where are we going to be, because we lost the space? So then I said well, where do we want to go, where do we need to go strategically speaking? And we began talking to the folks at NYU and the Council for the Study of Disability there and found that, you know, NYU has Tisch and has The Film School and it has Gallatan. It has all these different disciplines, be them academic, be them social… You look at who’s been in that film school, Scorsese, Spike Lee, you name it. That’s the kind of space where you can breed some ideas and you can cultivate some growth.

And you know, the last film that we screened at DCTV was a documentary called “Heavy Load” and it was a film about these guys that have been together 12, 13 years. Three of the individuals this is a band, it’s a punk band three of the guys are cognitively disabled, intellectually disabled. Two of the other guys in the band, out of the five people in the band, were their support workers at one time. And so they got together and they found they had this common interest.

Ken

They’re paraprofessionals I guess that’s the jargon, is that right?

Lawrence

Yes, exactly. That’s the phrase we use states. I’m using the English, when it’s a British documentary. And so they found they had this common interest in music. They all loved music. So they put together this band and initially they were doing disability events in community centers and just a few years ago they started sort of moving out of the silo, the little, the kind of more sheltered community into the public arena. And they thought, “We want to make a go at this. We actually want to be a band and we want to see this work.” And so this documentary filmmaker, Jerry Rothwell, saw the band, and was blown away by the band.

Ken

Heavy metal, you said head bangers?

Lawrence

No, punk. They owe a lot to the Ramones (laughter). And everything that that entails. And what I loved about this is, they started this campaign called the “Stay Up Late” campaign. What is “Stay Up Late”? They found that they’d be gigging and of course a lot of their audience would be folks who have disabilities, who’d be interested to see what this punk band’s about –and about 9, 9:30, their audiences would dry up.

And they thought, what’s up with that? And it’s because their paraprofessionals, the people that were there, their caregivers, wanted to go home. The shifts would change, right? And they said, “No, no, wait a minute. I’m paying you, right?” (laughing)

So this gets to the heart, I think, of self determination. That if you want to go out and go to a club, go to a gig, drink, whatever you want to do, that’s your life, you know, that’s your choice. And because the systems in place aren’t actually structured for you to live your life it’s not about just going to the doctor, right? we had to shake that tree, right?

And so the idea from behind this “Stay Up Late” campaign was to give people that opportunity to actually live their life in a manner that they wanted to live their life. So before I even heard a note of music that the band did, I loved the idea behind “Stay Up Late”. Because people, particularly with intellectual disabilities, you know, [representations] have been internalized, and the depictions that you see, if we go back to media, are often of the perpetual four year old. You know, they owing nothing to the experience of someone who, let’s say, has lived 40 years.

You may not be able to read. But if you’ve lived 40 years, you know what it’s like to be stared at on the bus. And you know what it’s like to be laughed at, and you know what it’s like to have joy and pain. So reading isn’t a part of that equation and you shouldn’t place somebody as a child or see somebody as a child, simply because they have a cognitive disability.

What I liked about “Stay Up Late” was that it shook me up, it got me thinking about, is there anything akin to that in the United States, and if there isn’t if we pride ourselves in being the most progressive how do we get it there, how do we create it?

So, we partnered with the Independent Film Channel, which showed Heavy Load on the cable channel there. We brought in Heavy Load, we gigged with them and we had them on the radio shows. So there were a lot of different things that we were able to do. And we couldn’t fit another person in the door.

Clearly there were opportunities that go beyond what we initially started out with, which was going to be a one year experiment, which we’ve now been able to get funding for, which we’ve been written about in the New York Times Style Section. The ones who kicked this off were the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. So, props go out to them for really seeing what the value of something like this was.

And understanding that in order to see it grow, and to have that kind of change within society, that you’ve got to put some money behind it. So, since that time, we’ve received money from the Screen Actors Guild, we’ve received money from, you know, the Arts Council in New York. So it’s gone beyond advocacy, to also including arts funding because people understand -

Ken

- That’s really terrific -

Lawrence

- That art and advocacy can actually join together. And that you can fulfill both goals, that you can have works of art that are important, that are good, and you can change the public consciousness along the way.

Ken

Lawrence, you want to tell us a little about Gimp?

Lawrence

Gimp. It’s a word that’s provocative. It’s a word that certainly causes, anytime you say it, people’s eyebrows to raise and that’s intentional. Gimp is a dance project that has evolved from Heidi Latsky Dance. Now Heidi Latsky is a choreographer who worked with Bill T. Jones, who is with Bill T. Jones’s Company, for anybody who knows about dance, for quite a long time.

I started working with Heidi and I have been a performer in Gimp now I started working with Heidi, let’s say in the spring of 2007. We performed my piece, what was probably the first piece I did with Heidi, called “Two Men Walking”, myself and the artistic director of her company, Jeffrey Freeze, in July of 2007.

Ken

I’m sorry, did you say who choreographed that piece?

Lawrence

Yes, Heidi Latsky, L-a-t-s-k-y. And that started because I never would have thought at 40 years of age that I would embark upon a professional dance career (laughter), to starting the project. I probably would have asked them what they were smoking and where I could get some. It was just something really outside of anything that I could conceive.

But that’s also why I had to do it. And what happened was we screened a film at “Dis This” called “The Cost of Living.” That was done a film adaptation of a dance work done by a company in the UK called DV8, so the letters D and V and an 8, DV8. And it blew my mind. It did all those things that I want “Dis This” to do for everybody else.

One of the principal dancers in the piece has no legs, this guy named David Toole. And so the question comes to mind, if you can conceive, how the heck do you dance without any legs? The guy’s amazing, I mean he just blew my mind. The pieces themselves were incredible. And so I went to a film festival in London, it would be the winter of 2005, saw this movie, 35 minutes long, and got me thinking about dance. Why have I never danced, right? It was one of those situations where, in my own mind, I thought, “Well, that door was closed. Sort of like saying, okay, I mentioned before that I have cerebral palsy and it affects the way that I walk.

Ken

I was just going to ask you to explain and you did.

Lawrence

Yeah. So I have a particular shuffle that is pretty common for people with cerebral palsy, called the “CP shuffle.” And so seeing “The Cost of Living,” seeing David dance, had me go, “Wow, what’s this about?!” And shook me up in the way that I want to shake other people up.

So, I got word of a dance company in California, San Francisco area, called AXIS, A-X-I-S. Again playing on words, AXIS, and which does integrated dance, mixed ability dance, so people with disabilities and also those without dance. And they had a week long intensive. And they basically just throw you into it, and here’s your crash course dance. And I thought, what the heck, I’ll apply.

Ken

Are they still around?

Lawrence

Yeah, they’re still around. They’ve been around 25 years. Amazing and I support them wholeheartedly. And so I applied. There was an application process, and I was accepted, and went. Not knowing anything about dance, outside of what I saw. And that’s what I wanted. So I went, just saying, how am I going to react?

I’ve learned to rely on wit and sarcasm and language as the sort of the means that I used to communicate. But what happens when I am forced to go out there and try to communicate something without words? So I just wanted to see personally, as a personal challenge, what that would be like. And it was doing that intensive, I met a woman named Lisa Bufano, who had begun working with Heidi. She -

Ken

- I’ve seen a clip or two of her dancing. It’s amazing.

Lawrence

Yeah, Lisa’s incredible. She’s a bilateral amputee, so she has amputations on all limbs. And she’s gorgeous, absolutely stunning. And she had gotten a Furniss grant and had hired Heidi to choreograph a piece for her.

Lisa, she’d been a gymnast, a performance artist who’d had never danced before. And so she sort of threw herself into the void, if you will. She was talking about Heidi and there was a situation where we were doing these exercises, and just learning how to move, and at some point during the AXIS Intensive, they said, “Alright, find a partner and come up with something.”

And Lisa and I just looked across the room and went, “You look cool,” and started talking and getting to know each other. And so Lisa came to New York Lisa’s from Boston she came out to New York City for a few months to work with Heidi in developing this piece. And they asked me to help get the word out because of the Disabilities Network and our email list and the arts connections that I have. And they premiered the piece, which was called “Five Open Mouths”.

Ken

“Five Open Mouths”?

Lawrence

“Five Open Mouths”. And to great response at Judson Church. Heidi and I got to talking we met at the premiere of that and Heidi and I were just philosophizing and talking about how to promote the work and those sorts of things. And at some point, Heidi said to me, “I’d love to work with you.” And I thought she meant in a PR capacity. And I said, “Oh I’d love to, but I’ve got more work than I know what to do with and I don’t really have the time,” etc.

And she said, “No, no, no, no, no as a performer.” And having seen Heidi’s work, I was thrilled. But also terrified, because I’d seen Heidi’s work (laughing). And so it was a situation where again I thought, “Well, you threw yourself into this intensive, and the door opened.”

I thought, you know, having sort of talked to Lisa and, using the magic that is Google, finding out about Heidi’s history and her reputation and the reviews that she’d received I know people that are dancers, who have been working for 20 years that would come close to homicide to work with Heidi.

How could I pass on this opportunity? This is the kind of stuff that you say you want to do. You want to throw yourself into it? So here’s your chance, do it! And now here we are, almost two years later, and I can’t imagine not doing it.

 “Two Men Walking” was the first piece. It’s now evolved you mentioned Gimp into the project called “From the Limb.” It was sort of an examination of how bodies move. My piece with Jeffrey Freeze was “Two Men Walking”, very visceral kind of thing. There are points within “Two Men” where we’re throwing each other all over the stage, and it’s pretty aggressive.

But we use the initial pattern. I’d walk this pattern around the stage, where we use my gait and the particular way that I move. What I liked about Heidi’s approach is the idea was, people see the way that I move, and there’s actually a neurological basis for this for why people stare. The number of limbs somebody has, or the particular gait that they have. It’s generally the same, there might be gradations, but it’s a very limited spectrum.

You know, the way that I walk is very different from the way that most people walk. And so there’s a neurological basis your brain is actually trying to figure out why, what’s different about that guy? And if you see somebody who has, let’s say, one leg or one arm we normally see people with four limbs. So, your brain is used to that.

It’s become conditioned to that, so when it sees something different, you stare. Because your brain is trying to make sense of it, and trying to sort of fill in the gap where it doesn’t exist, which is interesting to me. So what Heidi does, or did, with “Two Men Walking” was, she made me walk the stage and the idea was to get people used to the gait. To give them a minute to go, “Oh wow, yeah, look at the way he’s moving, that’s different.” And soak that in.

Ken

It’s a dare to stare.

Lawrence

It is a dare to stare and it’s about being looked at.

And it’s also about looking back and what happens when you throw disability into the mix there, right? Often, out on the street, people aren’t encouraged to stare. If you stare, even if you’re biologically wired to do so, your mother, your teachers, everybody around you grabs you, shakes you by the shoulders and says “No, no, no, don’t do that.” Right?

And so, what might be normal and natural we have this competing of socialization that says no, no, no, don’t stare, and so we’re taught that staring is bad. So the person with the disability or the difference is thinking, “Oh my God, I’m weird, I’m strange, everybody is staring at me.” And the people who are staring are compelled to stare, but they think that they shouldn’t.

So there’s this whole conflict where you don’t just meet people where they are, right? You create all these systems and structures and all this baggage around it that actually prohibit you from communicating.

Ken

The theater stage throws that norm out the window.

Lawrence

It takes what’s become the norm and it tosses it on its head. “Okay, you want to look? …You want to look? …Have a good look…look.” Right? And you know that if you pay your $20 to go see a performance -

Ken

- By God, I’m gonna look.

Lawrence

And so rather than stopping that process, it invites it. And I was intrigued by that process. I was intrigued, in terms of performance, to see what the alchemy would be, to see how that dynamic, taking that dynamic, recognizing that dynamic and saying, we are consciously going to mess with it.

None of us knew, none of us knew exactly how that would play out, because with disability what you normally get if you did anything remotely creative you know the ways that were taught to react to that is to say, “Wow, that’s brave. Wow, that’s courageous. I am so inspired.” Because I believe the standards for people with disabilities are so low that if you show up and don’t wet your pants (laughter) people kind of go wow! (laughter) So if you raise the bar…

And you say, “Look at this for what it is, and I’m not overcoming anything.” This is not about, you know, sort of surpassing the disability. This is the stuff; this is the clay I mold with. You wouldn’t ask, let’s say, Spike Lee not to tell a movie, not to create a movie based on the things that he knows – the experiences he’s gained as an African American man. So don’t ask me as a performer, as an artist who has a disability, to sort of overcome that stuff which is central to the work that I create.

The idea behind the disability component within Gimp, in calling it Gimp in and of itself, puts it out there. It says “Yeah, boom, here we are!” What’s interesting in the reason that we chose the word “gimp” is that it’s got this myriad of definitions. One is definition is one who limps or hobbles. Okay, you got me there. That’s pretty darn accurate, just not in surface.

Then you’ve got “interwoven fabric.” Girls at summer camp would create these little bracelets that they would call “gimp.” There’s another definition in there that’s “trembling with ecstasy.” We’re all fighting for that spot in terms of the performance! (laughing) So we thought, how do we take these definitions and play with them? How do we incorporate all these definitions into the piece itself? And the definition that I didn’t bring up that I think is central to it is “fighting spirit or vigor.”

Ken

Gimp?

Lawrence

Gimp. If you look in the OED, it’s an archaic usage. It’s not out there anymore, but one of the -

Ken

- Let’s bring it back.

Lawrence

(laughter) Exactly, I thought, if I’m going to be tagged with a label one who limps or hobbles with fighting spirit or vigor I can live with that. And more than live with it, I’m going to claim it.

So, the idea was, let’s take these definitions that people may not be aware of it’s three performers who have disabilities and three performers who at least visibly do not and blow the dynamic out.

Jeffrey Freeze, my partner in “Two Men Walking” you don’t see a disability, you know. He’s shorter, he’s very stout, very compact, very strong, I’m very light and lean, so physically we’re very different. So you put us on stage together and I think, by design, you’re forced to reflect upon the differences between us. I think it highlights both of them. And then you create a relationship between the ways that we move.

I’m on stage first. And I’m moving first and then Freeze comes on and he’s this fury. He is just moving all over the stage with this furious, fast pace. And so the juxtaposition in and of itself is very strong. And you’re struck by it audiences have told us during the discussions we’ve done afterwards. …I don’t know that in its essence it is necessarily comic, but within the evening itself, I can tell you there are comedic elements, just by showing up.

You don’t, you generally don’t think of disability and dance within the same sentence. And so, what we’ve started talking about with Gimp is that it basically re-invents, or re-envisions, everything you never knew about disability and dance (laughing). So it takes these concepts that you might, somewhere in the back of your mind, think you know something about and it throws them together… In a way, the collision, I hope, forces you to re-think them both.

Ken

Could we see any of this performance or other performances?

Lawrence

Absolutely, there is a promo of it up on the website. It’s become a whole outreach project now, which incorporates public talks and workshops and the dance performance itself. You can go to www.thegimpproject.com.  You can find all the information out about performances, where we’ve toured, where we’re going, and see video of the performance itself.

Ken

So, Lawrence…poster brat (laughter)…I’ve heard you say that sometimes you gotta you’ve just gotta go Billy Jack.

Lawrence

Yes.

Ken

I remember Billy Jack and it seems to me it still makes my stomach queasy thinking about the movies, way back in the day it seems like it was about revenge. Is that right, or is it something else?

Lawrence

Well, I think it’s about I think it’s about justice.

Ken

Justice.

Lawrence

You know, when I first saw the Billy Jack films people will have to go and use their browsers and Netflix here, probably, to know what we’re talking about. But I first saw the first Billy Jack film long before Rambo, there was a guy who’s basically, quote unquote, a half-breed. He’s a half Native American, half Caucasian-Anglo guy who’s a Vietnam War vet, who came back from the Vietnam War disillusioned and disenfranchised. In Arizona a lot of folks are Native Americans, and it’s about how the native folks were treated, and how the standard was to be good, you’ve got to be white.

I didn’t know anything about racism in those days. I probably had never heard the word. But I certainly knew right from wrong. And I certainly knew when people weren’t being treated fairly. And I think part of that was informed by some of the reactions people had to the way that I walked, or didn’t walk, at that stage.

Even though he was a former Green Beret, even though he was a former military guy that experience as a military guy taught him the horrors of war. And the impact of the effect of violence. So he didn’t want to be violent, he didn’t want to fight. But he had this rage about injustice that burned in him.

There was a struggle there’s a scene where they, where the town boss…his son has just poured white flour all over this Native American girl to make her white, and therefore, acceptable.

And he comes in just after this occurs, after these folks from the school have been abused by his son, and he sort of has this tussle with the son. He throws him through a window. There’s a whole big fight.

But he goes out into the square and he’s circled by these town rednecks, if you will. And they’re going to beat him up. And he’s got nowhere to go. And he says, “Looks like I can’t get out of this.” They say, “You know, we’re going to get you.” “Well then,” he says, “you know what I’m going to do, just because I can?” …Very calm voice, doesn’t raise his voice at all. “I’m going to take this foot and I’m going to whop you on that side of your face” (laughing).

Ken

I remember the scene.

Lawrence

Right, right. And the -

Ken

- I want popcorn!

Lawrence

And the arrogant guy goes, “Oh really?” And he just gazed a steely, icy gaze, looks him right in the eye and goes “Really.” …Boom! Right. A kick comes out of the blue.

Now I’m not advocating violence, but what that sort of showed me is, yeah, if you’ve got that urge, if you’ve got this passion, if you’ve got this sense of justice, you probably can identify with that struggle.

What Billy Jack did I’m not going to give away any spoilers to the end of this film -

Ken

- Don’t tell us the ending.

Lawrence

But, what the film did and I sort of revisit the movie every year (laughing). It’s my own Mecca, my own trip to Mecca, if you will. It showed the effect of the violence. You can have the urge…but it also shows us the repercussions of those urges, you know, if we act them out.

And I think that‘s unique. I think that’s unique within the spectrum of film, cinema, movies the teachings that we have within our society in general. And it’s something that still resonates with me today.

And so, yeah, you might want to go Billy Jack. But then the question becomes what is that? Is going Billy Jack resisting the urge to kick somebody upside the head? Is it going with the urge? Is it recognizing that that urge comes out of a deep sense of desire for justice? What exactly does that mean?

It’s something philosophers and those much more wise than me have tussled with for centuries now. But I think that, for me, that’s the stuff of life. And I knew that at six years old, watching that film…it forced me to ask myself one question that has been central to my life since.

Do I want to be one of the good guys, or one of the bad guys? Do I want to fight for what’s right or do I want to be part of the problem? So even before I could articulate that question, I knew that that was central to what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to be.

Ken

Advocate. Dancer. Movie critic. Thank you, Lawrence.

This has been fascinating and I hope that you’ll squeeze us in again, in the future. Come back and talk again?

Lawrence

Anytime that you’ll have me. It’s been a pleasure.

Ken

I feel like we just scratched the surface, honestly. Thank you.