I've hit a wall. And I may not get over it
By denying Paul David Power's play Crippled from entering the U.S., authorities have denied a dream, he writes
I've spent my life hitting walls one time or another.
Being a man who lives with a disability requiring leg braces and crutches to get around, walls of all forms, both physical and figurative, have always been challenging for me.
"No" was usually the word I heard when I wanted to ride a roller coaster with my friends — I might hurt myself, they said.
"Why don't you just cheer on the team instead of getting in the way of the floor hockey game?" was the advice of one gym teacher.
"This isn't a play about disabilities," was a response when I tried to sign up for an audition with a theatre company in Calgary.
My biggest wall came in 2013 when my partner of nine years suddenly passed away.
The wall of grief. It surrounds you in an emotional limbo of desperation, depression, anger and lack of drive. It's a circular dungeon you feel unable to climb out of.
But after three years I started the ascent.
An invitation that changed everything
Part of this climb was finding solace and healing in writing a play called Crippled. The show put a spotlight on what it's like to grow up with a disability, what it's like to suddenly lose someone to death, and how to possibly continue living your life after loss.
As a writer, it was a way to release a lot of built-in emotions.
To my surprise, the show was a hit, with both audiences and critics.
The show played at the Fundy Fringe Festival in New Brunswick. An artistic director for a theatre in San Francisco was so captivated by the story, she invited our team to come to her city to perform.
It was a dream come true.
Besides being a great opportunity, the invite also demonstrated a genuine belief from a professional theatre company that this show about disability and grief was something people would want to see.
That's still a remarkable thing in this day of endless talk about the importance of diversity.
Because talk is cheap. Trust me.
There's still a giant wall in the theatre world holding back stories about and told by people with disabilities. Opportunities are still scarce.
Especially an opportunity like this.
Hitting the wall
The stage was set. We had the invitation. We had the accolades from professionals and audiences alike. We had financial support to travel from the Canada Council, who believed in the project.
I'm a big believer in doing things the right way. Despite many artists giving me advice that the best way to perform in the U.S. — and avoid a maze of confusing bureaucracy — was to fly under the radar, I opted to follow the right processes.
Myself, my three fellow actors and my stage manager applied for a special visa allowing entrance to "culturally unique" artists or groups to present their work in the U.S.
This visa asks for testimony and evidence your presentation is indeed culturally unique.
We set out to plead our case with recommendations from a who's who of Canadian theatre and disability advocacy. Our formal supporters included national arts leaders, provincial leaders of disability advocacy groups, and internationally published academics on theatre and disability culture in the arts, along with glowing reviews about how Crippled demonstrates the physicality and social ramifications of living with a disability.
Homeland Security's response?
It wasn't enough to show we were culturally unique.
We were asked for further evidence. We obliged. We gathered further recommendations and media pieces. And prepared to submit the request for further evidence.
And then we hit the wall.
We even hit Trump's wall
The U.S. government was shut down in honour of President Trump's unwavering dedication to make his own personal wall happen. All processes were at a standstill. We waited for a month for the issue to resolve so we could move forward.
Once the government was reopened we received our response to our additional material swiftly — denied again!
We had not proven our cultural uniqueness, nor had our advocates, our national artistic leaders, researchers, academics, authors and proven experts in the field.
These were heavy hitters, folks — but not to the U.S.
The response to our application was insulting. It was insulting to the disability community, insulting to our artistic and advocacy leaders, insulting to our Canadian culture that has made great strides in diverse casting and theatrical projects, insulting to artists from Canada looking to share their work.
Most importantly, it was insulting that a play about disability performed and written by a person with a disability is not considered culturally unique.
Behind that application was a dream
We proved we are a legitimate theatre company with a multitude of professional supporters, encompassing a team of four individuals legally entitled to enter the U.S. as visitors.
We have a formal invitation from an American business that wants to share our performance about disability and believes much can be learned from our production.
Our application, I'm sure, was one of many crossing the desk of someone at Homeland Security tasked with providing a quick yes or no. Fair enough.
But behind that piece of paper was a dream, one that encompassed the notion that disability artists and theatre has finally come into its own when it comes to being respected as a unique cultural representation. it was a dream this type of art is not only valued — but wanted to be experienced on an international scale.
I've hit a wall.
But for the first time in my life, I don't think it's one I'm going to overcome.