Gregg Mozgala Q and A. On Forward Fest and Broadway

If all goes as planned, Gregg Mozgala will be making his Broadway debut in the Fall,  three decades after the theater first “made me feel like a full human being,” as he explains in the interview below — not always the way somebody is allowed to feel who is born with a disability.

Mozgala, whose resume includes dozens of parts Off-Broadway and in regional theater, will reprise his role as the complicated character John in the Broadway production announced late last month of Martyna Majok’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Cost of Living,” the story of two characters with disabilities and their caretakers.

More immediately, Mozgala has been instrumental in the programming for  the first-ever Forward Festival for the Arts,launching tonight at Queens Theater, which will be presenting over the next two weekends a range of theater, dance, music and circus performances from across the country from Deaf and disabled artists. (See more about the festival, including a schedule, below the Q and A)

It seemed a good time to talk with Mozgala, now 42, who feels like “the twenty years of scraping and working hard has been worth it.” The interview has been edited.

Jonathan Mandell: What details can you tell me about the forthcoming Broadway production of “Cost of Living,” which has been announced for “the fall”?

Gregg Mozgala: I don’t know anything yet.

But you are definitely going to reprise your role?

Yes, that’s official.

Does this represent any kind of milestone for you?

I’m thrilled, but I’m superstitious, given what we’ve been through for the last two years. I’ll wait to celebrate until I’m at the first day of rehearsal, or maybe until it opens.  Then I’ll feel like the twenty years of scraping and working hard has been worth it.

Your character John in “Cost of Living” is a handsome, wealthy graduate student in political science at Princeton University, but also a bit of a jerk. How much of that character is in you? 

Quite a bit, I would say, although I’m not wealthy, and I’m definitely not Ivy League educated. What I like about that play is that it challenges the notion that disabled people have to be likeable or uncomplicated. John is a dynamic individual; he’s not two-dimensional

How much did you portray the disability of the character as distinct from your own disability?

Obviously, I too have cerebral palsy but there’s a huge spectrum of symptoms. I based the character physically and intellectually on three people I know. I was able to pull from my own experience, but he’s mostly a composite of those three people.

This may be a dumb question, but did you have to make his symptoms more severe than your own?

That’s actually a very interesting question. There’s a tendency for non-disabled people to equate disability with weakness or vulnerability. I guess that is true on some level. But people born with disability like me or John have had a lifetime to develop compensating ways of moving through the world. They have discovered the most efficient way to live their lives within the constraints of their body. John is actually quite skilled. My cerebral palsy gave me an understanding of that that most other people wouldn’t have had.

That’s a good argument for casting more artists with disabilities.

I’m happy in my small way maybe to serve as a model for anyone else. As a fourteen-year-old kid who loved theater, I never saw myself on stage.

What drew you to theater?

As an adolescent, you have all kinds of questions about your body and who you are as a person. Theater was a place where I could explore, where I could stretch myself, where I found like-minded people who accepted me for who I am. I didn’t get that in sports. I didn’t get that in academics. The performing arts were where I felt I belong.

Did you assume you would only be able to be a member of the audience?

No, I fell in love with acting. Nobody told me I couldn’t be in this world until I got closer to the professional realm. Then all kinds of barriers and obstacles emerged to my participation in this industry.

Do you see the arrival on Broadway of this play about two people with disabilities, portrayed by actors with disabilities, as a sign of progress?

Absolutely. I mean, there’s still a lot of work to do.  Our first Tony winner in a wheelchair wasn’t until 2018. Right now, off the top of my head, there is one disabled person on Broadway, in “Macbeth,” directed by Sam Gold, who has made the casting of people with disabilities a priority. There’s a Deaf actress in the revival of “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.”  I don’t know my history well enough, but “Cost of Living” might be the first original play on Broadway, not a revival, that features disabled characters portrayed by disabled actors.

What about “Children of a Lesser God?” starring Phyllis Frelich?

Sure, but that was forty years ago – and people in the community do make a distinction between Deaf and disabled.
In any case, “Cost of Living” is an incredible piece of work and I do think it moves the needle in terms of progress. Some of us have been working very hard for decades and decades for some change within the industry. Queens Theater is taking the right steps.

That’s the theater that’s presenting the first-ever Forward Festival for the Arts. Can you tell me the reason why it’s happening and what it’ll be like.

The community and, I think, general audiences, are hungry for the opportunity to see disabled artists on stage across disciplines. And that’s what the festival’s about. It’s got a little bit of everything — circus, dance, live music, theater. 

Excuse the question, but why should a person who has no special interest in the disabled community attend this festival?

The festival is focused on artistry. We’re trying to challenge the idea that the work of these communities  cannot be first-class. They can be just as rigorous, just as moving, just as entertaining as any other works of art.
Anything having to do with disability gets siloed. There’s a whole community of people here that have been historically excluded.  And they’re serious artists and they make serious work, and attention should be paid to it.
At the end of the day, I hope people have a great time and are entertained. 
What’s exciting to me is: What happens when you introduce the element of a different kind of body or neurology to a creative work? Does that make the work pop in a new way? I also think it will be incredible to see people from these different communities intermingling.

I was struck by the announcement that ALL events at the Queens Theater festival will be fully accessible; that includes  but is not limited to audio description, open captioning, and  ASL interpretation. Why can’t every theater provide such accessibility all the time?

That’s the 64 million dollar question, right? It’s not that those resources aren’t available. Excluding these communities in 2022 has become a choice.

It’s funny you assign a dollar value to the question, because that’s the argument, isn’t it? The expense of making theater accessible.

There is no doubt that there are costs associated with it.  But that’s another reason for doing this festival. There are plenty of theaters with the same budget as Queens Theater that haven’t made the same commitment. Queens Theater started writing accessibility into their budget five years ago . Maybe this can start conversations about why people aren’t doing this more, and spark some questions: Is it cost-effective? Is there a way to bring these costs down? Can there be accountability for people who aren’t providing these services on a consistent basis?
Why would we want to deny anybody full participation, whether that be as an audience member as an artist or as an arts administrator?
 I got involved in theater because it made me feel like a full human being. There’s no reason why, in the second year of the second decade of the twenty-first century theater can’t be a place for everybody.

The Forward Festival For The Arts

The Forward Festival features, for free, The Apothetae/New American Voices Reading Series of new plays by and about the Deaf and disabled,

The reading series has its origins in The Apothetae, a theater company Mozgala founded in 2012 dedicated to the production of works that explore and illuminate the “Disabled Experience.” He partnered with the Lark  theater development laboratory starting in 2015, for the first ever national convening about theater and disability, which led two years later to a playwriting fellowship. After the closing of the Lark, that fellowship has been rehomed at Queens Theater; the  plays by six of those playwrights will be given staged readings over the next two weeks as part of the Forward Festival.

One of them, “Say It Ain’t So,” by Nikki Brake-Silla was loosely inspired by Macbeth, focusing on a Lady Macbeth-like character named Sandra who was unapologetically ambitious to the point of murdering her business executive husband. Sandra’s sister Ranisha is Deaf as is one other character, both of whom will be portrayed by Deaf performers, signing in American Sign Language, at the reading on May 21 (and voiced by two voice performers.) 

Why has the playwright created deaf characters?

“For me as a Black woman with an invisible disability, I’m often silenced and I go through life unheard or being ignored,” says Brake-Silla, who explains that her invisible disabilities are rheumatoid arthritis and interstitial lung disease. “And then it’s really important to me that the deaf community and people with visible disabilities are pushed to the forefront of the narrative, because it’s something that we don’t see.”

Complete schedule

Friday, May 13th

  • Reading: We Will Never Reach The Shore by Tim J. Lord, 8 PM, The Studio at Queens Theatre

Saturday, May 14th 

  • Reading: The Tings We Carry by Oya Mae Duchess Davis, 5 PM, The Studio at Queens Theatre
  • Omnium Circus,  2 PM & 8 PM, The Claire Shulman Theatre

Sunday, May 15th 

  • Full Radius Dance, 3 PM, The Claire Shulman Theater at Queens Theatre
  • Molly Joyce, 5 PM, The Cabaret at Queens Theatre 
  • Reading: 3 Bodies by Jerron Herman, 7 PM, The Studio at Queens Theatre

Wednesday, May 18th

  • Panel Discussion:

In Conversation: Disability Artistry, 7:30 PM, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

Friday, May 20th 

  • Reading: Blanche & Stella by A.A. Brenner, 8 PM, The Studio at Queens Theatre

Saturday, May 21st

  • Reading: Say It Ain’t So by Nikki Brake-Silla, 5 PM, The Studio at Queens Theatre
  • Phamaly Theatre Company presents The Spitfire Grill, 8 PM, The Claire Shulman Theater at Queens Theatre

Sunday, May 22nd 

  • Phamaly Theatre Company presents The Spitfire Grill, 3pm, The Claire Shulman Theater at Queens Theatre
  • Reading: The Life and Times of Stephen Hawking by Magda Romanska, 5 PM, The Studio at Queens Theatre. I saw an excerpt of this at the Reverb Theater Festival online, and it was terrific.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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