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Myth Universe

As the theater world weighs its progress toward accessibility on the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, disabled actress Katy Sullivan embodies womanhood in TheatreWorks' fantastical modern take on the Greek tale of Pandora
FIRST WOMAN OF THEATER: Katy Sullivan stars in a benefit Zoom reading of Laurel Ollstein's new play 'Pandora' this week, as the title character in a wild modern take on the Greek myth.

When Ali Stroker became the first person in a wheelchair to win a Tony, for her performance in the recent Broadway revival of Oklahoma!, her speech at last year's ceremony was moving. "This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena," she said. "You are."

Stroker's win was praised as both deserved and historic, considering the awards had gone 73 years without even nominating an artist in a wheelchair. But at the same time, the Tonys came under massive criticism for an ironic twist in the ceremony: it wasn't wheelchair accessible. Instead of making her way to the stage to the applause of the theater world like her fellow winners, Stroker had to emerge from backstage to claim her award. The situation generated next-day headlines like "Ali Stroker's Tony Win Was Monumental ... and a Huge Slap in the Face."

Katy Sullivan has been there. An award-winning theater and television actress herself, Sullivan is a bilateral transfemoral amputee who was born without lower legs and has walked using prosthetics for her entire life. Sullivan first received international attention for her achievements as a Paralympic athlete—she broke the world record for the 200-meter dash at the 2007 Paralympic National Championships, and became a four-time national champion in the 100-meter dash, also breaking the American record for the 100-meter at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

After that, it was her acting career that put her back in the spotlight. Though she'd been appearing in theater and TV roles since the early 2000s, it was her starring role in Martyna Majok's play Cost of Living, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018, that earned Sullivan her first major recognition. For originating the starring role of Ani, a quadripelegic, in Majok's play about the interactions between a small group of disabled and non-disabled characters, she was nominated for several prestigious awards, and in 2018 won a Theatre World Award. The incident with Ali Stroker definitely hit home for her.

"I have been in that exact same position," Sullivan says. "I've had to have conversations beforehand with people at award shows—not at the Tonys yet—to say 'Is there a hand railing? Can I get up on stage?' The last thing you want is to be getting recognition and then struggling up a flight of stairs."

But she also has a far more sympathetic view of how the Tonys handled the situation. "I know Ali, and I know that they had tons of conversations about how to do this," she says. "We are people who are problem solvers, and I'm certain that part of the answer was, 'Why don't I just be backstage?'"

This week, Sullivan stars as the title character in TheatreWorks' presentation of a Zoom reading of Laurel Ollstein's new play Pandora. Though 2020 has been a devastating year for theater, thanks to the Covid pandemic, Sullivan's starring role in this nascent version of the play—which is expected to be a full-scale production when that becomes possible again—is a particularly interesting one because Ollstein wrote it with Sullivan in mind for the title role: the first woman, as described in the Greek myth.

"What I love about what Laurel did is that Pandora is the ideal woman," says Giovanna Sardelli, Pandora's director. "So Katy will be the ideal woman. And it will just be so."

The text of the play itself does not incorporate or mention Sullivan's disability, and the fact that the reading is on Zoom means it won't even be seen in this version. Still, the political and social implications of Ollstein's choice for her Pandora are especially evident given that this year is the 30th anniversary of the American With Disabilities Act, and many industries are grappling with how to better make themselves accessible to disabled people—including theater. In that regard, Ali Stroker's Tony represented both how far theater has come, and how far it has yet to go.

"There's never been a ramp up to an awards show stage, because we've never needed them until Ali won the Tony," Sullivan says. "So that is the world we're currently living in. We have to examine where we are, and make sure that the largest minority in the country is being represented."

THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX: Playwright Laurel Ollstein conceived 'Pandora' as a feminist take on the ancient tale of a woman who supposedly unleashed the ills of the world with her curiosity. Photo by Patrick McPheron

The Untold Pandora

Before Ollstein wrote her first play—a one-woman show about Dorothy Parker called Laughter, Hope and a Sock in the Eye—she was an actress, an original member of Tim Robbins' Actors Gang who worked with the company for 15 years. So she knows about acting chops, and she knew Sullivan had them from the first time she saw her. It was at an event put on in 2015 by the Writers Guild's group for writers with disabilities, which is run by Ollstein's friend Alison Dale. The point of the group isn't to write stories about people with disabilities; the goal is to write pieces that are not necessarily about disability, but be able to use actors with disabilities.

"I went to that scene night years ago, and Katy was in my friend Alison's scene, and she was fantastic," Ollstein says. "When I see an actor who blows my mind, I think, 'I want to work with her.' I don't know where, I don't know when, but I put it in the back of my mind."

A year later, shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, Ollstein was invited to pitch an idea to the Getty Villa for their workshop series, which exclusively produces works based on Greek and Roman myths.

"Pandora's Box came to mind, and it just seemed to me like that myth was now," she says. "And the other thing was I didn't know any plays based on it. I even googled it, and there weren't any plays based on it. I found that shocking, because it's a myth that everybody uses as a cliché all the time. Although people don't really know the backstory. All they know is Pandora opened the box and released all the horrible things into the world."

When she dug deeper in the story, she discovered all of the things people don't know about it, like its connection to the story of Prometheus—whom Zeus punished for bringing fire to mankind by chaining him to a rock and having his liver eaten by an eagle over and over—and his brother Epimetheus.

"Zeus continued to want to punish mankind, so he created Pandora, the ideal woman, for Epimetheus to marry and gave them the box with all the ills of the world," Ollstein says. "And gave her curiosity, so she would open it, so he could blame everything on her. Which seems so far to go to blame women. I found it fascinating, the depth of the story. And it was just so far for Zeus to go to blame her for things that I assume were actually already in the world. So that was something that intrigued me. And also I wanted to write about women saving the world. We need that. We need some female energy to save the world right now."

The Getty Villa loved the idea, and gave her a workshop slot in 2020 ("which seemed like eons away," she says). She set about starting to shape the play, including giving it a modern, fantasy setting on an island where Pandora is the only human and is surrounded by thinly disguised versions of Greek gods and Titans—Zeus, for instance, is Dr. Z. And she started thinking about a cast.

"I like to write with actors in mind, if possible, because it just makes things better," Ollstein says. "I can write to their strengths, then they bring things to the part that I wouldn't even have thought of, and go beyond what I could do. So the earlier I can involve people, the better. I love collaboration."

She decided to bring in five actors to a rehearsal space and work on the scenes she was writing.

"I sort of was doing my own workshop," she says. "And all of a sudden it hit me that Katy would be a fantastic Pandora. She has a quality about her as an actress that can be so vulnerable and open and positive and wonderful, and also a depth of understanding about life. Pandora being the first human woman—she's human, she's humanity. I loved the idea of Pandora being Katy and not talking about her disability at all. This is just who the first woman is. It just made sense to me that she was Pandora."

Sullivan didn't hesitate to accept. "As an actor, that's the biggest compliment, to have someone say that they saw your work and created something with you in mind," she says. "I think it's really interesting that Laurel saw a performer with a disability and said, 'She should play this character.' The myth of Pandora is that she's the first woman ever created, and she's meant to be sort of the perfect woman.

"And I think what's beautiful about that even in the idea of the perfect woman, there are imperfections. We're all flawed. We all have things that are our Achilles' heel, if you will."

Play Time

Sardelli, who has also served as TheatreWorks director of new works since 2017, began talking to Ollstein in January about possibly producing Pandora as part of a New Works Festival. Then, when the company's production of Ollstein's play They Promised Her the Moon—also directed by Sardelli—was forced to close down after its opening weekend in March due to Covid, she was determined to at least get a reading of Pandora online. It was recorded in May, but Sardelli says Sullivan set the tone from the day rehearsals began.

"Katy comes in and is working at game-day level," she says. "She's passionate about this play. And she's also somebody who is fiercely determined. She comes in the room and everyone sits up and goes, 'OK, great, we're doing it.' Not, 'We're planning for the day when we're doing it.' We're actually doing it right now. I love that quality in actors." Of course, doing it over Zoom presented some challenges. "It was so funny, we did 12 hours of rehearsal, and I would say four of those were spent just with technological hurdles," Sardelli says. "'Oh, my script disappeared.' 'Oh, so-and-so's internet connection is out.' You realize very quickly what you can and can't do."

However, as the cast bonded, they began to experiment—and crack each other up. "This reading is so playful, and the actors kept surprising me, because they would learn from each other," she says. "We'd joke about, 'Well, I guess you could play with a costume,' and the next day somebody would come into rehearsal and surprise everyone with what they had made that night."

"I think it comes from the world that Laurel created, but it also comes from Giovanna giving us that space to play, and then bringing together a group of actors who were willing to just dive right in," Sullivan says. "Not to mention the humor that Laurel was able to write in. It's magical and it's silly and there are really touching moments, and then all of a sudden you're like, 'Oh my god, we're in the middle of a Greek tragedy.'"

ANGUISHED SCREENS: Giovanna Sardelli, who directed 'Pandora,' says there were plenty of technological hurdles to overcome in rehearsals. Deborah Lopez

Beyond Ramps

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which was largely modeled after the civil rights legislation of the 1950s and '60s, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability—including physical, medical and mental conditions.

It was a landmark law, and an update in 2008 included important clarifications, expanding the number of people it protects. Still, Andy Imparato, executive director for Disability Rights California, says it is a work in progress.

"We still have work to do in creating the kind of liberty and justice we deserve," he says.

Strangely, the ADA is still perceived in mainstream culture mainly as a series of arguments over where or where not to put ramps. While that's certainly an important aspect of the legislation, it barely scratches the surface of the fight for disabled rights. Rarely talked about, for instance, are the ways in which the ADA supports a disabled person's right to artistic expression—although Sullivan says that is changing.

"I feel like people are starting to notice it more," she says. "Obviously, being in the community, we've been banging that drum for a long time that we want to be included and we want to tell our own stories. I think we've had breakthrough moments, but there hasn't been a consistency. I feel like we're at a tipping point, or close to it, where people are interested in authenticity, and people want to hear people's stories without the filter of someone else. And I think people are starting to realize that there are performers out there—people who have trained and have degrees in acting—who live their lives from this perspective, under the umbrella of disability."

Ollstein is encouraged by productions like the 2017 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, in which the character of Laura Wingfield was played by actress Madison Ferris, who has muscular dystrophy and is thought to be the first actor in a wheelchair to be cast in a lead role on Broadway.

"I couldn't breathe. I was so taken aback by it, because the play actually made sense to me for the first time, on a whole other level," says Ollstein of seeing the production. "Usually it's like, what, Laura has a limp, right? And you're like, 'What's the big deal? I don't get it! 'Poor Laura, she's shy and she has a limp.' But no, this girl was severely disabled, and the mother's going, 'Oh, you'll be fine!" Not recognizing that the daughter has a difference. That hit me. It reinterpreted the play for people, I think. But to me that was more the play than I've ever seen."

For Sullivan, every step forward is important. She can relate to Ali Stroker's Tony acceptance speech about disabled kids who don't see themselves reflected in our culture, because she was one of them.

"I grew up in a world where I didn't exist. I couldn't turn on my television and see anyone who was like me. I didn't see anyone who looked like me on television until I was on television," she says. "I don't want that to be the case anymore. I want people to feel seen and not feel alienated. The time for us to be quiet about inclusion and telling authentic stories is over."

Jacob Pierce contributed to this story.

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Presents 'Pandora'
Theatreworks will stream a benefit online workshop reading of 'Pandora' by Laurel Ollstein from Thursday, Sept. 24 at 6pm to Monday, Sept. 28 at 6pm. Tickets are free, but donations are encouraged—all donations up to $10,000 will be matched by TheatreWorks trustee Pat Bresee. In addition, 20 percent of the proceeds will go to Theater Bay Area's Performing Arts Worker Relief Fund. Sign up to receive a link to the 'Pandora' stream at theatreworks.org.