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    Posted November 18, 2012

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Theater Breaking Through Barriers- a unique Equity Theater Company

By Amy Threet

Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB) is what is referred to as an integrated theater company. Integrated, in this sense, as to its' use of able-bodied and disabled performers in both revivals, classics and new works. Imagine seeing Hamlet roll out in a wheelchair. You just might with this superb Equity Company!

Melanie Boland, Tiffan Borelli, David Marcus and Shannon DeVido in Samuel D. Hunter’s Geese, directed by Christopher Burris
photo: Carol Rosegg

The company was started as Theater By The Blind by two co-artistic directors in 1979. Ike Shambelan (who is sighted) and George Ashiotis, who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at the age of 5, and later became completely blind, spear headed this project. Before he lost his vision entirely Mr. Ashiotis performed in both Off-Broadway and regional theater. Ike (as he is called by most who know him) states that "my grandmom was blind. She went blind when I was 6 and lived with us til she died when I was 10. We went to the movies together and curled up in her bed to listen to LUX Radio Theater while I brushed her hair. So I always associated theater, love and blindness."

The company kept growing in artistic power and financially so that in 2004 the company was able to go on an LOA contract, making them officially Off-Broadway and paying actors weekly salaries with pension and health benefits. They also began to seek out new works, particularly ones dealing with disability issues. In 2006 the decision was made to include people of all disabilities, and by 2008 the name change to Theater Breaking Through Barriers, reflected the true integration of the company

One of the companies long term sighted actors, Nicholas (Nick) Viselli and his wife Anne Marie Morelli, also a company member (now has Multiple Sclerosis and is a wheelchair user) started working with the company in 1996 as "readers." Nick explains there was an ad in Backstage for auditions for "READERS-sighted actors to read for and with blind actors." Nick states of his co-stars "when you are deprived of one sense, your other senses take things in." He further says "that for me as an actor, working with this company is not so much different than working on any play."

In 2011 their board chair, Beth Blickers, who's a literary agent at Abrams Artists, suggested they do a 10-minute Play Festival and see who they could get to for write for them. This led to a series of seven 10 minute plays by various playwrights, "Some of Our Parts." The piece was described by Suzy Evans, in a 6/24/2011 in Backstage as "profound and affecting and disabling preconceived notions of the human experience." The play had an run Off-Broadway at the Harold Clurman Theater in NYC in June 2011.

One of the actresses, Shannon DeVido (wheelchair user), had been informed by Ike that Sam Hunter, one of the playwrights, had written a role for her in a short play. Her response was "you don't say no to that." She informed me that "she is honored that she got to be on stage with this cast. I had a blast working with these pieces and I think that shines through, to which the audience is receptive. TBTB allows the audience to relate regardless of your situation (able-bodied,disabled, alien...)."

The Kennedy Center was looking for artists to help them celebrate the 22nd anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Anita Hollander, currently The National Co-Chair of SAG-AFTRA Performers with Disabilities, an Equity actress who worked w/ TBTB, and an amputee, suggested TBTB. The company did one performance in DC on 6/24/2012. Ike states they "we're thrilled of course."

According to Ike the theater will continue to do its major work, a NYC Off-Broadway season. He shared this; "I would like to expand the season, do more plays, but that, of course, requires money. We have always worked to develop an acting company but now realize in addition we must develop playwrights and directors. As Kate Moira Ryan (one of the recent playwrights for TBTB) told me, if you want disabled artists out in the wider field, you need to get directors working with you as well as actors and writers. Directors cast and if they find actors they like they will get them out there."

Melanie Boland and Shannon DeVido in Bekah Brunstetter’s After Breakfast, Maybe directed by Christina Roussos
photo: Carol Rosegg

Nicholas Viselli, Tiffan Borelli and Shawn Randall in Neil LaBute’s The Wager, directed by Ike Schambelan
photo: Carol Rosegg

Josh Eber, Blair Wing and Donna Bullock in Jeffrey Sweet’s A Little Family Time, directed by Patricia Birch
photo: Carol Rosegg

Tiffan Borelli, Nicholas Viselli and Shawn Randall in Neil LaBute’s The Wager, directed by Ike Schambelan
photo: Carol Rosegg

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