Ryan J. Haddad is queer. And has cerebral palsy. But he neither needs nor wants your pity. What he does want, however, is your attention and occasionally a shoulder to lean on as he navigates through a world not particularly accessible to someone with a disability.
Actually, what this playwright and actor really desires at this particular point in time is to make audiences think and feel—which he manages with ease through a series of well-crafted vignettes often laced with humor and wit—in his new play Dark Disabled Stories, which officially opens March 9 and has been extended to April 2 at Off-Broadway's Public Theater.
Haddad, who uses a walker, shares the stage of the Public's intimate Shiva Theater with two other artists, who also get a chance to explore their Dark Disabled Stories: Deaf actor Dickie Hearts and Alejandra Ospina, who has cerebral palsy and is a wheelchair user. Together, the three offer a performance that is described as an "experiment in accessible theatre and integrated access," featuring Artistic Sign Language performance, captioning, audio description, and relaxed performance conventions built into each and every show.
"I just say I'm a disabled actor or a disabled person, I just use the word. I use identity-first language," Haddad told Playbill the afternoon following the play's first preview, adding, "Disability is not a bad thing. It's just a fact of life. For many of us, it's a cultural identity that we're very proud of."
The Ohio native was previously celebrated for his solo show Hi, Are You Single? and was a stand-out performer earlier this season playing a gay teenager who loves Barbies in Victor I. Cazares' american (tele)visions at New York Theatre Workshop. Haddad has also been seen on screen in The Politician, Bull, and Madam Secretary. But Dark Disabled Stories, which explores the intersection of queer identity and living with a disability, marks his Off-Broadway debut as a playwright.
In the interview that follows, Haddad shares his evolution as an actor and playwright, how his disability has affected his career, the genesis of Dark Disabled Stories, and what he hopes audiences, those with and without disability, will take away from his play.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
When did you start performing?
I was crawling around the living room when I was two and three years old—before I moved into walking with my walker—and putting on little shows by myself. So it's been a while—all through my childhood.
Did you perform in school productions?
Sure, I did community theatre and high school theatre. Sometimes at my schools [and] sometimes I would go to fill in the male roles at a Catholic all-girls school. So all kinds of things, but nothing truly professional until I moved to New York.
When do you think you knew that you wanted performing to be your career? When did it change from a hobby into something you wanted to do to make your living?
I think that the little boy who put on plays with his family in the backyard at five and six and seven years old knew that that was the dream, so I had that dream for a long time. And when people would sort of insinuate that it was a hobby, I would balk and be offended. I sort of knew that this is what I was destined to do, but I didn't know how to get there. I didn't know how one made a career in New York in the professional performing arts. I didn't come from a family that had any sort of performing arts background at all, [although] I have dear lovers of theatre and the arts in my family. And I was exposed to it, especially after everyone realized that this is what my passion was. But how to translate that into a working actor, writer, performer was unclear to me. And then you add the layer of being disabled. And, you know, in my true youth, it didn't dawn on me that that was going to create another barrier to entering [the performing arts].
Then I tried thinking about other things, what [else] could I do. I did always love writing, and I had a passion for that—separately, not knowing necessarily that it was writing for the stage.… My dad's a dentist, he has an MBA. My brothers both went to business school. And the other brother is also a dentist. I’m raised by people who have very practical careers, and so those doubts also creep in. They want you to have stability, they want you to be secure. My parents were incredibly supportive. And, my whole family was doing plays with me in the backyard—and I'm not talking about once or twice, we did them like 10 times over eight years. So it was a real event and became a tradition. So they were extremely supportive.
But then we turned the corner into, “You're growing up, you got to decide where you're going to school and what you want to major in, what you want to do.” That's when it becomes, well, you want to have a fallback. And I just sort of humored them and said that my fallback would be creative writing, which is an absurd fallback, an absurd fallback to have.
I think I was really just determined; there was no other path that I saw for myself. I didn't know where I was going to fit into the fabric of the theatre or the arts at large, but I knew I had to be here. And I stuck to that.
So skipping forward, tell me how the idea for Dark Disabled Stories came about.
I'm primarily an autobiographical playwright, and I had had one sort of substantial piece, a play called Hi, Are You Single? That sort of was my calling card into the industry, and people kept saying, “What are you doing next? What's next?”
Then in the fall of 2017, I was invited to do a festival curated by Jess Almasy at the New Ohio Theatre—which, of course, we've just learned is shuttering in its current form… I knew that I could show up and do a scene or two from Hi, Are You Single? But I knew there was more that needed to be unearthed. The tone of my previous work wasn't going to fit this particular festival, which I was going to do for 15 minutes for one night.
So I got up with a Post-It note of some recent stories that had occurred in my life, which is how I generate new storytelling material, autobiographical material: I sort of get up and tell the story. And, I told a sequence of stories that are now in this play for the first time out loud to anybody.
I could just feel the air in the room change. I could feel the audience really with me and that they were scared, and I was scared at the same time, and I thought, "Oh, there's something here."
How did the idea come about to have two Ryan Haddads in the play, with one played by a Deaf actor?
After that first moment of inception, for the next several years we were developing it. I was traveling, developing it with my director, Jordan Fein—who is absolutely stupendous and has made this production so much richer and deeper and more beautiful and fabulous than I could have ever dreamed. We were developing it as a solo play, like my other solo plays. And we had all these questions about, “What does it look like? What's the set going to be? What is the stage picture? Where are we? What is the universe of the design?”
I was learning, simultaneously, about deeper, more integrated access in the arts—specifically disability arts. I wasn't seeing this kind of thing in mainstream theatre at all anywhere, except for one open-captioned performance per run. Or one ASL-interpreted performance if you’re lucky.
But in disability spaces, you show up, and they're always there all the time. There's audio description, and the room is relaxed—everything is always available because it's seen as a priority in disability spaces. I was learning primarily by going and attending pieces in the dance world and in the visual art world, not so much in in theatre.
So the pandemic hit, Jordan and I resorted to Zoom, and we had weekly sessions for at least the first full year. And we had two workshops over Zoom over that time. We realized we’d been working so hard on what is the design of the show. What if the design was the access? What if we built access and integrated it in, in a way that is not new, it's not revolutionary at all? We wanted to integrate—we knew we wanted audio description for blind and low-vision audience members, we wanted captioning and ASL for Deaf and hard-of-hearing audience members.
We also were excited by the idea of having a Deaf actor embodying these stories, as opposed to an interpreter—who might have just come in near the end and started interpreting. We thought it would be more exciting and more compelling to give an opportunity to another kind of disabled performer, a Deaf actor, to bring his experiences. We wanted it to be a queer man, and we wanted their experiences to shine through the piece as much as mine do. And, so we found Dickie Hearts, who is sensational, and we collaborated together to craft a story of his own that I wrote from interviews and conversations that we had. It's fully in the show. We're so excited by it!
And yet, he's also fully playing a character, and the character is Ryan. He's living these stories, he's living these stories as me…He's fully integrated in the staging. Our blocking, our staging is totally dependent on each other—several times, truly, we physically depend on each other. We are basically mirror images of ourselves. So when we have these moments of introspection or moments of looking inward, instead of taking that alone, we’re looking to each other: “Why did I behave this way? Do I really feel this way?” And, “Might I want this or that?”
It's fabulous because it's written as an autobiographical monologue that could easily be performed as a solo, but instead, we're doing it as a duet. This is thrilling for me because for years, people have said, “When are you going to give your work away to have other disabled actors perform it?” I'm not ready to sort of divorce myself yet and totally step away and say, “You're Ryan, and there's no other Ryan.” But this is sort of a way to be able to—I'm literally watching someone else play me. And, he's doing it so fantastically and richly and deeply, and we're doing it together.
Because I come primarily from solo work, it’s so grounding and refreshing, and, frankly, very supportive to have another actor there to lean on emotionally and, also, sometimes physically.
In the play you share many instances where your disability has played a factor in your daily life. How do you think it has affected your career. Do you think theatre or film or TV is more inclusive than the other?
Oh, interesting. Well, of course, I think that it affects every disabled actor’s career because I think there's a void of opportunity. There are simply not enough roles written for disabled actors, and there are not enough chances for disabled actors to be considered and audition for the roles that are available to non-disabled actors. So we don't have enough roles written for us. But if I try to audition for the friend, or the neighbor. Now I'm 31, so I could play someone's dad if it’s a young kid—but we don't get to [audition]. Often disabled actors only get called in when the disability is explicitly asked for.
And I'm at a point, because of my television experience, where I'm getting more and more auditions for non-disabled roles, but I'm not really booking those roles. Not because casting directors aren't excited by me or my tapes and don't send them forward to creators and creatives and producers. But because, ultimately, I think a lot of people are precious about the work that they make. And they go, “Well, that's not what I envisioned. That's not what I intended, a disabled person is not what I intended.” And, they think somehow it changes the story. Well, in my very subjective, totally biased opinion, I think it changes the story for the better and makes it more exciting, and makes it more active and makes it more nuanced and layered, as opposed to detracting from the story.
There aren't enough roles written for the disabled: There aren't enough disabled characters written to be played by disabled actors. That's number one. Number two is that sometimes when there are roles written, that are disabled characters, they go to non-disabled famous people. And, number three is, wouldn’t it be nice if we had the opportunity to play roles that weren't written immediately with disability in mind—we were just seen as our whole selves, and could inhabit any role, in any sort of community or circumstance, even though disability wasn't immediately called for?
How do I think it's affected my career? I knew by the time I got to college—and was on a scholarship at a liberal arts college in Ohio—but was still struggling to be cast in roles. If I want to be successful at the thing I've dreamed at forever and ever, I have to harness my own story and my own work, and I need to showcase myself. I'm very passionate about my writing now, and I fully identify as a playwright.
My mentor in solo performance appeared out of thin air: My fabulous fairy godmother, Tim Miller, a staple of the New York downtown scene in the '80s and '90s...he showed up to Ohio Wesleyan for a week-long workshop, and he basically said, “You don't have to sit around and wait for anybody to give you permission to take the stage and ultimately take space."
That was pivotal, that was instrumental. By the end of my sophomore year, he told me, "You have to graduate with a full-length piece." And, I did. By the time we got to senior year, I declared that I was going to make my own solo piece, and that was Hi, Are You Single?, which I've performed around the country, most recently at Woolly Mammoth [in Washington, D.C.]. Tim said, “You have to perform about your disability. You can't just perform about being gay, and you can't just perform about being disabled—you have to find the intersection of your identities because that is the uniqueness that you bring. And the stories that you bring are going to be different than any other disabled person or any other gay person."
There are, of course, other gay disabled people, and there are other gay disabled performers and storytellers. But he basically gave me permission, and he also gave me the assignment: “You have to make something of yourself and for yourself.”
Where would you like to see Dark Disabled Stories go after the Public run?
This is my first professional production in New York, my first official Off-Broadway playwriting debut. So, for the career at large, I hope this opens doors for some of my other plays that haven't yet played New York—or even premiered anywhere—to get productions. For Dark Disabled Stories, specifically, yes, I would love for this to have a longer run, another life, whether it's commercial or different cities or possibly in London. My director lives in London with his partner.
My ultimate goal is I'd like to film it as a live special for HBO or Hulu or Netflix or Amazon or Showtime, or whoever does live specials, I hope they will come to see it. It is a play, which isn't often captured in the live special format, and it's also storytelling, and there are comedic elements. In the immediate, the best way would be to film what we've made. So that it is, first of all, accessible to more people, but especially accessible to more disabled people, who maybe can't travel to New York or don’t yet feel comfortable coming back into a live theatre.
What would you like audiences to take away from seeing this production, both those with and without a disability?
For the non-disabled audience, I want them to question what their relationship to disability is, and what do they feel, what is elicited when they are out in public and they happen upon a visibly disabled person? What are their reactions? What are their assumptions? What are their means of communicating? It’s not a show that panders to a non-disabled audience and says, “Let me tell you what it is to be disabled.” I'm not interested in that kind of show.
A couple moments in this play are literally just about strangers thinking that they should take it upon themselves to talk to me about my disability. I don't necessarily love when that happens if you're a complete stranger, you know what I mean? Just consider the ways you move through the world and the ways in which you interact with disabled people, who are also just simply trying to move through the world. And, being considerate of the fact that the world is not built with us in mind. So our day-to-day is, in some ways, very similar to yours. And in some ways, it's very, very different. But that doesn't make it better or worse, or worthy of pity or a means for your inspiration. It's just, like, if I'm at the grocery store, please leave me alone. It's not inspiring that I am buying groceries!
But I also think that this play is just as much for disabled people. I have cerebral palsy. Alejandra, who is our audio describer and also a performer and tells her own story in the show, has cerebral palsy, as well. But I use a walker, and she uses a motorized wheelchair. And Dickie is Deaf. All three of us move through the world differently. I think what we're offering you is: It's not everybody's story, it's our three. And I think that for the disabled audience, it’s about recognition, it's about relating to us, but also thinking about how I'm not the same as the disabled people in the audience. Our experiences are different, and if I saw a play about their life, it would probably deeply resonate, and also not.
It's not a monolith, disability is not all one umbrella.
I thought one of the most poignant moments was asking the audience whether they know what it's like to be stuck underground. It must be illegal for subway stations not to have working elevators.
Oh, it is. And they've been sued, and the resolution to that lawsuit was absurd: "We’ll be up to 90 percent of stations with elevators by," say it with me, "2055!" I swear to God, and it came out just within the last year, and the [city government is] thinking, “Oh my God, what a victory!” And we're all going, “What are you talking about? What are you talking about?!”
You know, there are very spry and youthful senior citizens who never sort of endure decline, disability wise. But they’re the rarity. The fact is, most people are going to age into some form of disability and be reluctant to call it that because people are so afraid of the word disabled. That is why [this show is] called Dark Disabled Stories and not Dark Handi-Capable Stories or Differently-Abled Stories. I hate all those words because they're just euphemisms to soften an identity that I'm very proud of and that the other two performers are also very proud of.
One final question. Since this is Playbill, do you have favorite musicals or performers?
Oh my God, of course! I mean, who doesn't love Audra McDonald? And, her Ohio State Murders performance just killed me. Absolutely killed me. Patti LuPone, I love Patti, I love Bernadette Peters, who doesn’t? I'm still gay!
In terms of the men, I have a soft spot for Raúl Esparza, who I just worked with on a limited series for FX that’s going to come out in the near future—it's currently titled Retreat. And, gosh, I love Norm Lewis. I love Bonnie Milligan, who's currently just killing it over in Kimberly Akimbo. Oh, my God. I have to objectively confess that she's a friend. I met her doing a workshop of another project in 2017 and was completely knocked out by her and continue to be. And to see this recognition that we've all known that she's deserved for so, so long is thrilling, absolutely thrilling. And, I love Michael R. Jackson, the writer and composer of A Strange Loop. I saw A Strange Loop seven times between Broadway and Off-Broadway. And, as soon as my show closes, I will be hightailing over to Second Stage to see White Girl in Danger, his new musical.