by Dan Savage
on Fri, Aug 24, 2012 at 5:13 PM
Forgive me for taking so long to respond to the open letter you posted at AfterElton. I was in Iowa for family reunion when your letter was posted, then off on a long-overdue vacation with the HICBIA, and when we got back to Seattle last week we were distracted by preparations for a little dinner party we were hosting. Anyway, Zoe, you wrote...
When I read about Miracle!, your new Helen Keller-themed drag show, my first thought was to search for reactions from Deaf or Blind folks who had attended it. My next thought was to wonder whether you had made the show accessible to people who are Deaf and/or Blind (with audio-description and sign language interpreters), so that the people being mocked therein could judge it for themselves.
Then I read this: "As the audience walks in, there's a giant written announcement up on stage that warns 'this play will be deeply offensive to the deaf/blind community, so please don't tell them. Keep your hands shut!'"
So let’s recap: you, a non-disabled guy, put on a show devoted to mocking disabled people, a show which you intended to be hurtful and offensive to disabled people, and that show starts with you bragging that you care so little what disabled people think about this, you don’t even want them to know. At this point in my letter I should give you some info about me: I’m disabled, I’m queer, and I’m pissed the hell off.
I'm going to answer your relevant questions—did we make the play accessible? what did Seattle's deaf community think of the show?—but first I have to challenge the wild assumptions you're making about my intentions and about a play that you haven't seen. (There's one more performance tomorrow night. I'm happy to get you a comp.) I did not write or direct a show that mocks disabled people. Helen Keller is not the butt of the joke in Miracle! What I did was place Helen Keller's story in a different and, yes, inherently comedic universe. But our goal was to tell Helen Keller's story, Zoe, not to mock Helen Keller. The very first discussion I had with the cast on the very first day of rehearsal was about the importance of maintaining Helen's dignity while we told her story. And I think we succeeded.
Why set The Miracle Worker in a drag bar? Why make Helen a drag queen? Why use drag and camp to tell Keller's story?
The story told in The Miracle Worker is one that audiences know so well—the play is so familiar; the film is so iconic—that most audience members don't really watch the play. They don't pay attention because they don't have to. They know who Keller is, they know her story, they know what happens at the end. So audience members sit back, check out, wait for the small handful of famous moments in The Miracle Worker (the breakfast/fight scene, the "Yes, Helen, water!" scene), and then congratulate themselves on the way out of the theater for going to see that play about the deaf-blind kid and her teacher. We set the The Miracle Worker in a drag bar for the same reason theater companies and directors set Hamlet or Medea on space stations or in the Wild West or during the Second World War: to make a familiar story unfamiliar. (For the record: we aren't doing an adaptation of The Miracle Worker. My play Miracle! is an original script.)
Drag and camp have the power to make any story seem new and strange. And by making the story strange and unfamiliar, by refusing to treat this particular play with unnecessary reverence (the play itself, not the person whose story we're riffing on), we forced audience members to actually sit up and pay attention. Since they didn't know what was coming next, or where we were going, audience members couldn't check out. And when we get to the "Yes, Helen, water!" scene—it's "Yes, Helen, vodka!" in Miracle!—the moment sneaks up on our audiences and they are genuinely moved. From the reviews:
"Dan Savage, writer of sex columns and coiner of obscene monikers for former presidential candidates, has drafted and directed what may go down in history as the most tasteless, hilarious and improbably heartwarming play about Helen Keller ever to grace any stage, anywhere."—Crosscut
"Perhaps the best things about this play (besides the line 'I will cut you and then fuck the cut') are [its] unique moments of realism and humanity, which would not be possible without its absurd, offensive premise."—The Stranger
"Strange as it may sound, given the show’s non-stop vulgarity, Miracle! is actually rather sweet. Ultimately, it’s about family, friendship, and love. And wigs. And disco. It’s not for the faint hearted. But for those who like in-your-face, take-no-prisoners comedy, it’s a most enjoyable ride."—The Examiner
"Jonathon Pyburn’s Hellen Stellar was a brave, believable work of physical performance.... Under all that artiface, Pyburn managed to peek through and bring humanity to the role—so much so that by the end I felt just a little bit weepy."—City Arts
At every performance of Miracle! when Annie finally manages to "shove a word in there" and we see Helen realize that "everything has a name"—at the moment when Annie ends Helen's profound and heartbreaking isolation—people in the theater tear up. Audiences wouldn't be moved or touched or weepy if they didn't care about our Helen and they wouldn't care about our Helen if our Helen was the butt of a cruel two-hour-long joke. (If you're looking for the butt of the joke in Miracle!, Zoe, look to the other drag queen characters in the play—and each and every one of Miracle!'s queens is a hearing, seeing, able-bodied gay man.)
Quickly: that sign on stage at the top of the play that you object to? ("The play you are about to see is deeply offensive to the deaf-blind community. Please don't tell them about it. Keep your hands shut. Thank you.") We are toying with the audiences expectations: we tell them that the play aims only to shock and then audiences are surprised when they're actually moved. The shock collar Helen wears when she performs her drag numbers? In The Miracle Worker Helen is controlled with food—with cakes and biscuits—and Annie objects to seeing Helen treated "like an animal." The shock collar in Miracle! makes audiences uncomfortable and it's supposed to. It is presented as an insult to Helen's dignity—they're treating her like an animal—and Annie, who objects vehemently to its use, ultimately rescues Helen from the shock collar and everything it represents. (And the person whose idea the shock collar was winds up getting shocked herself.)
As for your two questions...
Yes, we made the show accessible to the deaf and deaf-blind. There was ASL-interpreted performance of Miracle! last night and an ASL-interpreted talkback after the show. The deaf audience members at last night's performance—almost all of whom stayed for the talkback—loved the show. (They particularly loved the actor who plays Helen.) And consider this: Miracle! is one of four shows being performed in rep this summer at the Intiman Theater. There were ASL-interpreted performances of the other shows in the festival and twenty times as many deaf people came to see Miracle! as came to see the other shows combined. (I asked one of the deaf audience members last night what he thought of the sign—"keep your hands shut"—and he told me, through an interpreter, that he thought it was hilarious.)
I sent an email to the artistic director of the Intiman Theater, Andrew Russell, and asked him if they had received any complaints.
"We have had maybe 8-10 complaint emails in total," Russell wrote back, "but none of the individuals that wrote to complain have actually seen the show. We have yet to receive a complaint from an individual who has seen the show. When we did [the first] talkback for the show, we had 75 people, several of whom had been in tears.... I also had a detailed conversation with a theater-goer who has seen Miracle!, loves it, and has a deaf son. He said it was hysterical and did justice to the story of Helen Keller, and the heart of it. His only complaint was about the sign at the beginning. I explained that it was part of the journey—to start an audience off so offended and in a possible place of judgement, and then get them all the way to heart-melting. He got that, but otherwise was supportive and laughed a ton."
Mixed reactions to the sign—hey, maybe we'll lose it if we mount the show again.
And this should blow your mind, Zoe: there were people at last night's performance from Deaf Spotlight, a non-profit arts organization for the deaf. After the talkback session they asked me for a copy of the script. They want to stage it themselves—they want to do a staged reading/signing of Miracle!—so that more members of the deaf-blind community can experience the show.
So let’s recap: Me, a non-disabled guy, told the story of an iconic disabled person in a new way and non-disabled people are moved by my play and the disabled people who've attended it not only weren't offended, they enjoyed Miracle! and want to make sure other disabled people have an opportunity to experience it.