What's the toughest Broadway performance

The unlucky ones

Anyone who plays in a show on New York's Broadway has made it as an actor. It seems almost impossible for artists with disabilities. They still fight for their dream and don't give up.

Again it didn't work out. As so often, Rachel's acting performance has become a minor matter. That always happens when the jury notices your prosthetic leg at a casting. “You are so inspiring. Thank you very much for coming. You're hearing from us! ”Of course, in those moments Rachel knows that she will never hear from them again.

This was also the case with her recent audition for a Broadway show: the crook comedy "A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder" for the role of Phoebe (Role Description: beautiful, virtuous, forthright, romantic, comically earnest, with a backbone of steel!). It was now more than half a year ago. The 27-year-old had seriously raised hopes this time. "My singing teacher knows the director and it's a role that my voice would fit perfectly," she says resignedly. But Rachel cannot, does not want to and will not give up. Because she has a dream.

This dream lives in Times Square in New York. There where colorful advertising flashes from the facades, where yellow taxis honk like angry rubber ducks and where people scurry between skyscrapers like ants. Here is the world's most famous theater district, full of dazzling shows about lion kings, opera phantoms and magic lamps.

25,000 actors want to make it

Rachel notices that she is not the only one dreaming this dream every time she stands in meter-long queues for auditions with hundreds of competitors. It is estimated that well over 25,000 professional actors live in New York. And associations such as the Asian American Performers Action Coalition criticize the fact that white actors are overrepresented compared to Afro-Americans (16 percent), Latinos and Asians (3 percent each) on New York stages with 77 percent. Rachel is white. With her disability, however, she belongs to that actor minority whose tiny size has not yet been counted here. It should go to zero on Broadway.

It was only four years ago that the young woman from New Jersey had the best chances in the overcrowded rehearsal rooms of the auditions. Rachel had just moved to New York at the time, with a top Princeton degree in musical and opera performance under her belt. A passionate dancer. She proudly reports that she quickly found roles in smaller New York theaters. "Directors knew my name," she says, and adds with conviction, "I was on Broadway."

That was all over the second when Rachel saw her torn foot lying next to her body after a car accident in March 2012. Despite all the pain, she still thought of two things: “First of all my parents, they had to know what had happened.” And immediately afterwards: “I will never play on Broadway again. All of the hard work was in vain. That was the toughest moment of my life. ”But Rachel doesn't want pity now. That would only be bad for business in an industry that is all about happiness and perfection.

The legs are well hidden

At the moment she is sitting not far from the Aladdin venue in one of the trendy organic fast food restaurants. The legs are well hidden under the set table. It's full here. And loud. It is difficult to understand one's own word over the rattle of dishes and conversations. Nevertheless, her trained voice triumphs: “Nice to see you! How are you? ”A necklace glitters over the white sweater, the long brunette hair frames a face with elegant pallor and brown eyes. One can easily imagine her in her previous roles. She played Eliza in My Fair Lady, Queen Anne in Richard III. or Snow White in the fairy tale.

In the car accident on a New Jersey highway, Rachel was on her way to an audition, of all places. The dream of the next role turned into a real nightmare, from now on an invalid. And that could end the story of actress Rachel Handler here. The curtain fell over the last set that shows her in the hospital bed. A bandage wrapped around the rest of her left leg. Weeping when the director called, who wants to promise her a role, but doesn't yet know anything about the accident. Misery like a character from Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables, accompanied by the song of the deadly sad Fantine:

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now, from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed

I dreamed my life was
a fate outside of hell.
God gives no room to wishes
nothing remained of my dream.

The next act

But Rachel's story doesn't end there. The next act begins 40 blocks south of Times Square with a scene from a documentary. Where Broadway is no longer a dream factory, but just a thoroughfare. A woman of around 50 in a thick coat trudges through the snowstorm, her hair short and her voice gruff but warm. She looks like someone who says to you after a bad breakup: Come on, stop crying! There are so many other fish in the water! The woman's name is Stephanie Barton-Farcas and she is a director. 14 years ago she founded the city's first inclusive theater project: the Nicu’s Spoon Theater Company.

The name of this theater goes back to a Romanian orphan boy whom Stephanie took care of while doing social volunteering in the 1990s. Nicu was mentally and physically handicapped, always amazed at the reflection of the sunlight in his tablespoon. He soon died of AIDS. But his life lasted long enough that Stephanie could never forget him and henceforth stood up for people with disabilities in their industry.

The Romanian orphan boy Nicu inspired director Stephanie to give actors with disabilities a chance. Photo: Victor Ilyukhin.

Almost two decades after Nicu's death, Stephanie is walking through a documentary by a young Russian filmmaker. "Two and Twenty Troubles" is about how the director wants to bring a Chekhov play with a handful of disabled and non-disabled actors onto the stage of a small New York theater. Not as therapy. Not as a charity. But as a good play. Also there: Rachel Handler.

It's been a year and a half since she lost her left lower leg in the car accident. More surgeries are pending, and if Rachel isn't careful, she could lose her thigh too. So why does she do the grueling theater rehearsals and even a film shoot?

“It was the strangest coincidence of all,” she says looking back, “that I was in Stephanie's performances even before my accident, without even knowing that the projects were inclusive for actors with disabilities.” She learns from Stephanie that she is astonished not despite but because of her disability could get a role in the Chekhov play. Rachel doesn't have to think twice: “My career wasn't over. That thought gave me new strength. ”It will be the most tragic moment in the entire film when she finally has to stop rehearsals because of an urgent operation.

Zombie roles because of disfigured face

But Rachel doesn't know anything about that in that scene when she swings through the small rehearsal room on crutches and, as housemaid Dunjascha, is allowed to pronounce the film title by calling her unlucky fiancee on the stage a "bad luck raven".

The real Rachel could mean herself. Or their colleagues in the rehearsal room. For example the man who only gets zombie roles because his face was deformed from birth and has been operated on several times. Or the woman whose hair fell off her head at the age of six. Or the other main protagonist of the documentary: Anthony M. Lopez, who like Rachel only has one healthy leg. All these seemingly unlucky fellows are at the center of Victor Ilyukhin's film.

For the young filmmaker from Russia, however, they are more than that: "They are people who, despite bad strokes of fate, do not want to give up, who keep fighting for their dreams," he says in his small office in Manhattan. For him it's a universal topic. But investor interest in actors with disabilities is low. In any case, Victor, whose assistant job is just enough to make a living for a well-known artist, had to finance his film through crowdfunding and self-exploitation. The play was also not performed on Broadway, only off-off-Broadway: the more off, the further away from the dream factory in Times Square.

Minority of which anyone can become a member at any time

But why is it like that? After all, heroes who fight for their dreams against all odds are the classic theme from musicals, films and theater. The late playwright John Belluso gave an answer: The audience is afraid of the disabled, "because they are the only minority of which anyone can become a member at any time." A car accident like Rachel's is enough and you are involuntarily in a community that is in the eyes of many is characterized by exclusion and the need for help. Nobody wants to be reminded of that.

On the other hand, characters with disabilities are fascinating. They can trigger strong emotions in the audience. Actors even joke that for an Oscar you either have to act in a film about the Holocaust or in a handicapped person. Dustin Hoffman succeeded in doing this Rain Main, Daniel Day-Lewis in My left foot or most recently Eddie Redmayne with his portrayal of the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. All of these actors have one thing in common: they play a disability, but they don't have one themselves. Her roles are touching metaphors about life. The audience can breathe a sigh of relief when they see the stars unharmed on the red carpet again. Not that bad. It was just an act.

One of those who are disturbed by this distancing is Anthony M. Lopez. Next to Rachel the second leading actor in the unlucky ravens. He also wears a prosthetic leg, but was born with his disability. After many setbacks, the inclusion theater was an attempt to revive his acting career - and the attempt was successful. In the past two years, Anthony has received more and more jobs, was finally able to quit his job as a social media manager and now lives in a hip apartment in Brooklyn between books and paintings. While the view of Manhattan opens from his roof terrace, he tells how he succeeded.

“No matter if you have a disability or not, the most important rule for an actor is: know your type!” The 30-year-old is lanky, bald and always looks a bit too stern through his red hipster glasses. “I'm the kind of idiot, sometimes the nasty one, too,” he says without changing a face. His prosthesis cannot be seen from the outside. The limping gait alone gives it away. For him, it's not as bad as it is for leading role types, says Anthony. He even sees it as an advantage because he gets jobs in the disabled and non-disabled world. He makes a living doing commercials, TV roles, web clips, voice acting and off-Broadway shows. On the other hand, he is critical of the dazzling Broadway industry, which still pays theater and musical actors best with at least $ 1,800 a week. Mainly because of stories like Daniel Radcliffe.

Daniel Radcliffe as "cripple"

You have to know: Broadway is not only a dream factory, but also a money machine. In the past week alone, the 25 current shows grossed over $ 24 million. And like a car's gasoline, this machine needs stars to attract paying viewers. Such as Daniel Radcliffe, who became world famous as Harry Potter. Last year he starred in the Broadway comedy "The Cripple of Inishmaan". The critics celebrated him, among other things, for his credible portrayal of the disability of "cripple" Billy, whose body is partially paralyzed. Broadway and Hollywood work by the same rules here.

Difficult ascent: Despite his disability, Anthony can now make a living from acting. Photo: Markus Huth

“I'm sure Radcliffe was wonderful,” says Anthony with a stern look, “but I know talented actors with disabilities who could have played this role. Shouldn't only actors with disabilities be allowed to play characters with disabilities? ”Anthony, who was raving himself, thinks: Yes. It is a debate currently being led by an increasingly confident performing community of disabled actors in the United States. This goes as far as the comparison with the so-called "blackfacing", in which white actors put black make-up on their faces, for example to mimic the dark-skinned Shakespeare general Othello.

Will it work out?

Rachel is alien to such radical criticism of the entertainment industry. In doing so, she admits that, despite some roles, she cannot make a living from acting and has to work in an event agency on the side. On the other hand, she becomes enraged when asked whether she doesn't want to reconsider her dream after a certain number of unsuccessful castings. “Never ask actors in New York to give up Broadway! Those who live here are chasing this dream! ”She just hasn't been good enough for Broadway so far. That's how she sees it.

That's why Rachel now wants to take even more lessons, prepare even better for the next casting, wait for her big chance and play on smaller stages - soon again with Nicu’s Spoon Theater Company. She is sure: at some point it will work.

This woman, who is disappearing from the restaurant into the bustling crowd in Times Square, seems to be unable to stop anything. Despite or because of their disability.

Disability, Broadway, Society, Art, Markus Huth, New York, Actor, USA.