An Action Quarterly
Descanting Disability: Richard the Third in a Wheelchair

The whole notion of a guy in a wheelchair playing the bellicose "Black Prince", might seem startling until you recall the Gift Theatre's Othello, featuring Michael Patrick Thornton as an Iago who disarmed able-bodied men twice his size and whose chair concealed an arsenal of covert weapons. (Hey,  with the right combat choreographer, Stephen Hawking could kick your ass!) What makes the story of Thornton's upcoming appearance noteworthy, however, is not only how Steppenwolf Theatre offered its Garage Studio to save the production when the original sponsors folded their tents unexpectedly, but the introduction of benefactors from outside the regular arts community.

"The original production was to be directed by Jessica Thebus and the way it suddenly collapsed was maddening, to say the least," explains Thornton, "Tracy Letts reached out to us, saying, 'This is terrible. Something should be done about this.' So Jessica and I sat down with him and talked about what we wanted it to look like and who could produce it. We also had some long conversations with Erica Daniels and Martha Lavey, who said, 'If the Gift Theatre will produce it, we want it in our space'."

That's not all, though. "We also have a major, major sponsorship from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, so our Richard will look a little—different from what he’s looked like before. We figured that if Richard was disabled, he would probably be housed in the dampest, coldest part of the castle and left with a lot of time on his hands. Now, there’s amazing technology being done these days with exoskeletons to help paraplegics and quadriplegics walk that are worn kind of like a suit. So what if Richard creates this 'Iron Man' kind of armor for himself, to compensate for his disability? An institution as global as RIC isn't afraid to talk about that side of the experience. Usually you’re never supposed to espouse rage, but both Jessica and the Rehab Institute were very interested in that 'I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair' anger being a part of Richard when he's played by a real-life disabled actor actively trying to get out of the chair."