Published on August 6th, 2013 | by Dedee W0
Defensability Play Preview
An Interview with playwright Anthony Towler.
The day I heard my friend had scored the female lead in an ‘anti-romcom’ play, I was thrilled, but also a bit curious. An anti-romcom? What’s that? Sounds fun. When she later mentioned it was also a disabled comedy I was even more intrigued. This seemed like a rare thing indeed.
Defensibility, a new play by Anthony Towler, has been a long time coming. He started writing it a few years ago only to have it further delayed from its original run in April because of a fire at the Maidment Theatre. This caused upheavals and changes leaving some roles re-cast, but now it is finally here. Defensibility is what Towler calls ‘disabled comedy’ – a comedy about being disabled, bound to provide a few laughs and dispel a few myths at the same time.
Writer and lead actor Anthony Towler was born with mild cerebral palsy, so he uses crutches to get around, and has minor issues with his hands – his handwriting is shaky and he would take longer to do something like thread a needle. But other things such as typing are easy, as he learnt from the age of eight to make up for his handwriting at school. Having lived his whole life with this disability, he has much experience of the assumptions and misconceptions surrounding disabled people.
“I can’t remember the date I started writing Defensibility, but I remember the beginning of the idea. I was with Rajneel Singh, a director friend of mine, at the Classic (a comedy club on Queen St) and I mentioned I wanted to do a film about being disabled but I didn’t know where to start. He said to me, ‘Anytime you tell me something about being disabled it’s funny, so start with anecdotes and go from there.’”
The result was this, an ‘anti-romcom’ about the lives of two very different men with cerebral palsy. Anthony plays Kelly Denton, a disabled man who is seeking revenge on Paralympian Jared Owen. Owen has stolen Denton’s fiancée, so Denton attempts to poach Owen’s spot in the Paralymics.
The rareness of disabled comedies means people often assume disabled characters are always depressed. This is not true at all, there is a lot of humour in their everyday lives, says Anthony. There have of course been great dramas written about disabled people. One of Anthony’s favourite plays is Tribes, which he saw last year. “It was easily the best play I had ever seen. I connected with the characters and it was just an amazing experience.” Tribes follows the life of a deaf man whose family has discouraged him learning sign language all his life. He then meets a girl who is going deaf and teaches him how to sign.
The origins of Defensibility go back quite a long way.
“The need to tell this story goes back to 2001. I had just finished studying at South Seas [Film, Television and Animation school] and started making short films. I saw three shorts where there were disabled characters. These were stories by able-bodied people. At the end of those films the disabled character killed themselves, like that was all they could do. It pissed me off and certainly wasn’t a realistic reflection of living with a disability. Rollmance was my first attempt at disabled comedy. Rollmance is a short film about two paraplegics who want to be together. It has been called a ‘brave piece of cinema’, very ‘in your face’, and ‘confronting and sweet’. I just wanted it to be romantic and funny. So that worked and it gave me the confidence to write Defensibility. That and Julia Hyde who was in Rollmance and has been a good friend over the years – she reminded me I was funny and pretty good with romantic things. As a writer your first job is to entertain an audience. The second is to present ideas or thoughts that your audience may not have considered. My disability gives me a unique view of the world. The point of Defensibility is my world isn’t so different or scary.”
Of all his work so far, Anthony is most proud of Rollmance and Defensibility. “They were both a massive leap forward for me. The DOP [director of photography] went back to work at Attitude TV (a disabled TV network) after working on Rollmance and found he looked at the people in wheelchairs differently.”
The play’s examples of “surprise” faith healings and unnecessary supervised toilet breaks both come from Anthony’s own life. He tells me his record is nine faith healings in one year, often on his way home from his old midnight-til-dawn shift as a digitiser, working in the television industry. These impromptu faith healings were mostly performed by late night preachers or kids on their way home from youth church. Once four men even followed him into a café to pray;
“Then ‘Stairway to Heaven’ came on as they were doing it and I was really really trying not to laugh. I’ve had a faith healing in Burger King, I’ve had one on the corner of Victoria and Hobson St, I’ve had more than one in the middle of Queen St.”
But no success as yet.
“Clearly, God had decided that this is my lot, and this is where I’ll stay,” he says with a smile.
This is the first time Anthony has acted in something he’s written, but he felt it was important for the audience to see a disabled actor play the lead role, so they wouldn’t have to suspend their disbelief.
In 2005 he played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, rather an active and physical role. Puck is a fairy, constantly zipping round the stage. Anthony trained at the gym for this role, and studied wrestling videos to see how the men made a big entrance and their presence felt. Opting for a walking stick instead of two crutches on stage, he wondered why he always got less laughs in the second half. He later found out it was because no one knew he was disabled until they talked about it during the interval.
The title of the play came from something Anthony stumbled across on the Internet – ‘Defensibility’ courses on DVD. It was disabled martial arts. During his graveyard shifts a workmate had once asked him what his plan was for getting home and ‘self defence’. Towler Googled ‘disabled self defence’ out of interest and this is what came up.
“It doesn’t exist anymore,” he laughs, “It just struck me as being ridiculous, because if you were going to mug someone in a wheelchair, wouldn’t you just go up behind them and tip the wheelchair over? And at the bottom of his page he had all this advice on where to get a gun licence.”
Towler has never been that worried about defending himself though, having once broke a kid’s nose when he was twelve by swinging one of his crutches at him. It wasn’t purely by accident.
“He was dancing around in front of me yelling ‘cripple, cripple, cripple’, I just got a bit sick of it, so yeah, I thought that he would jump back! Most people would. I guess he decided to stand his ground, which was a mistake.”
Dropping in on rehearsals a week away from opening night, the progress looked promising. “Physical comedy is a main factor in this play”, adds Anthony, “Seeing a disabled guy doing physical comedy will be something new for people.”
On a personal note, I’m really looking forward to seeing how the audience receives this play. It will be interesting to see where they get the most laughs. Hopefully Defensibility will encourage more people to write this kind of comedy, where the audience is entertained as well as enlightened about life from a different point of view. The play has a short run with only five nights to see it, so go and check it out. You will definitely laugh, and you will probably learn something.
Musgrove Studio, 8 Alfred Street, Auckland
Book tickets here
Or, on (09) 308 2383