Is Disability ‘Culturally Unique’? Interview with Paul David Power
Interview with Paul David Power
Tell me a little about yourself and what drew you to the theatre and arts.
I was born with a disability that requires the use of leg braces and crutches. I’ve had this since birth.
I graduated from University with a degree in English drama and then did journalism in Toronto. It was through University I took an elective acting class along with directing stage craft. From there I started going out for auditions and was lucky enough to meet many forward thinking directors who cast me. I also I just fell in love with being different characters and the camaraderie of theater.have always been involved in some kind of writing. I wrote my first play when I was 24 because I noticed there was a lack of representation of people with disabilities on our stages. So I wrote characters and storylines that incorporated disability themes.
What is the mission of Power Productions and your role/title?
Power Productions has been in operation, informally, since 2016. Led by myself as Artistic Director, early activities focused on my own works as a playwright and performer including development and performances of “Roomies” and “Crippled.”
In 2017 I held table reads throughout Atlantic Canada as part of the development of his show “Crippled.” These table reads, supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, included community discussions about diversity in the arts in Atlantic Canada in St. John’s NL, Halifax NS and Moncton NB. The end result was a report submitted to Canada Council to the Arts entitled “Crippled: Atlantic Region Table Read & Community Discussions Final Report.” The report highlights a number of common issues and challenges throughout the Atlantic Region that impacts the representation of persons with disabilities in local theatre. These issues include accessibility, audition and project inclusion, information sharing and opportunities to develop skills. The report also offers a number of recommendations to address some of these ongoing issues. A main recommendation was the need for a community leader to ignite change. Hence, Power Productions was born.
Power Productions was incorporated in 2018 as a non-profit organization with a board and formal artistic team. Our organization’s ongoing work includes producing diverse theatrical works, raising awareness about accessibility for both artists and audiences and supporting community projects that reflect the goals and priorities of Power Productions.
What are the origins of your play, Crippled? What has the response been like since its official world premiere in February 2018 and in subsequent productions?
Well, I’m an artist, and as an artist it’s important for me, or I have this need to express what I’m feeling through creation. Not always for the public eye. But, four years ago my partner Jonathan passed away and I found myself doing a lot of things to deal with that grief – video productions, drawing, poetry, and journaling – just to get those feelings out. Then, the playwright in me resurfaced and the journey started from there. It’s an important story to tell for me, but I think it’s a strong story that people can connect to as well. If you’ve ever gone through loss, this thing we call grief, it’s a journey in itself and you change but you do survive. I think that’s the crux of what I wanted to share. And then the disability side – well it’s part of my identity, so sharing what it’s like to live with a disability just stemmed from being truthful about life experience.
Interest in the play has been great since its premiere. Reviews were really positive and we are booked for more performances in Canada.
When the Exit Theatre contacted you about the possibility of staging Crippled in San Francisco, what was your reaction? What did you want to share with the arts community in the San Francisco Bay Area about your work and the play specifically?
The artistic director at Exit Theatre saw a working version of the play at a French festival here in Canada. She fell in love with the play and invited us to come down and perform the following year. It was a fantastic feeling that someone liked my work as a playwright and actor. Most of all I loved the interest in bringing a play that focuses on that disability identity and experience to a larger audience. I wanted to share my own experience living with a disability in a rather small community on the East Coast of Canada and Newfoundland. I wanted to share my story and the universal themes of grief to a larger audience. Most of all I wanted to demonstrate that a play about the disability experience and a disabled character is a viable product for touring.
Please describe the process it took to apply for permission to come to the United States as an artist. What did you and the staff at the Exit Theatre have to do?
It’s a very difficult process to perform in the United States if you are not a million-dollar selling artist. You have to choose a visa classification to apply if you are coming to perform. The three artist categories to apply under what’s called a P3 Visa – that’s for artists – either you are a internationally recognized artist or group, you can do a artistic exchange we are each company visits the others country with similar artistic presentations, or you are a culturally unique group with experience and the ability to give insight and teach about your culture. We chose the third option as the most relevant and spent several months preparing our visa application along with evidence of why we felt we were culturally unique as a Disability story and character. Evidence including gathering letters of recommendation from major artistic leaders here in Canada Familiar with my work and the play “Crippled.” We submitted our application and homeland security responded they needed further evidence to determine if the plane and the story was culturally unique. We went through the process again of gathering more evidence including recommendations and letters. And re-submitted our application. We then got word that we had been denied because the project wasn’t deemed culturally unique which we disagree with. At this time we have filed an appeal. We are currently waiting for that outcome.
On February 2, 2019, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) rejected your petition for a I-129 Nonimmigrant Worker visa because they deemed your play wasn’t “culturally unique” enough. How did those words and that decision affect you as an artist? Do you feel that ableism was an element behind the decision by USCIS?
I feel the decision is biased and uninformed. There are many unique cultures in our world beyond the narrow definition Homeland Security seems to be working with. As a disabled man and performer I strongly believe I have lived experiences that represent a unique community, the disability community. Adding to that, is the experience of growing up with a disability in Newfoundland which is a very small populated island on the eastern edge of Canada. I feel it’s inappropriate for Homeland Security to make a judgement on the work. I also fear the decision makers have a lack of understanding of theatre and disability and the growing movement of diverse entertainment – especially when it comes to what we refer here in Canada as disability, Deaf and MAD arts. It’s a growing sector. Adding insult to injury the response also seem to brush aside a letter from the United States actors union that stipulated we are unique and not infringing on any employment opportunities for United States citizens. I really can’t fathom what the reason would be to not let the four of us come to the United States to perform for two weeks. Myself and my crew are legally entitled to enter the United States as visitors or tourists so it is not an issue of security. We are not taking any type of work away from other United States artists as indicated by the union. So the only thing I can gather is lack of understanding that disability and those that live with a disability represent a unique culture with valuable stories and lessons to be shared.
There are still many people, both disabled and non-disabled, who do not believe that disability culture exists. How do you describe disability culture from your perspective as a writer and performer?
Personal lives with a disability especially like myself a physical disability has a unique perspective on the world because they have to live a unique way. Our world is made for those who do not have a disability. Our world is made for the 6 foot model. Our world teaches us to aspire to be that 6 foot model. It creates a physical social and mental barrier to being accepted and accepting yourself. Barriers that you have to live with every day. That creates a unique insight into life and even day-to-day tasks. It’s a life someone without a disability cannot really understand fully. That is why it’s so important we have stories like “Crippled” and we are given the opportunity to share these stories.
How will these types of restrictions and rejections by (USCIS) hurt the cultural exchange of artists at festivals and other events? What are the implications for US audiences in terms of what is lost?
I feel especially between the United States and Canada there should be much more artistic exchanges. We are supposed to be friendly neighbours and while our countries are very similar there also very major differences. I don’t believe it it’s difficult for United States artists to visit Canada. I understand the need for homeland security but I don’t understand the restrictions when it comes to artistic product. In the long term they could really hurt artistic exchange. As an artist from Canada you almost feel not bothering to try and go to the United States or accept an invitation because it’s too difficult.
What’s the future of Crippled this year and in the future? Are there other projects you’re working on that you would like to share with me?
There’s a local theatre company here called Perchance and we’re doing a summer season with them with Crippled and we have some dates here in eastern Canada and we’re trying to build on that tour for 2020.
How can the performing arts community become more accessible and inclusive to disabled artists and audiences?
We really need to think more about accessibility on stage and off. That means being thoughtful when it comes to where you hold auditions, your ideas for casting, your ideas for the types of stories to tell all the way to your audience. We had great success here with Crippled offering such things as audio description sign language interpretation relaxed performances and ensuring performances and accessible venues. There’s entire sectors of our population that our theatre world is missing out on and that’s a shame.
Paul David Power has spent the past 20 years working as a writer, actor, director and communications professional in various mediums and for diverse organizations including dramatic script for the stage. His formal training includes holding a BA in English with a concentration in theatre and a BAA in Journalism. Paul has worked across Canada and has a long history in raising awareness and understanding about disability issues through his work as a playwright, columnist, director and actor. He is currently the Artistic Director for Power Productions (www.powerproductions.ca) a Newfoundland Canada based theatre company that focuses on the development of disability, Deaf and Mad arts works and artists who self identify as living with a disability.
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