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CripSlam ND talks about disabilities

Claire Stephens | Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Academic scholarship and fine arts performance collide Thursday in a unique three-part project at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center called CripSlam ND. The event includes a pre-talk about disabilities in movies and in society, a performance of John Milton’s “Samson Agonistes” and a post-performance panel and reception about the work.

The CripSlam ND project emerged when Professor Essaka Joshua invited Todd Bauer to Notre Dame to co-teach a session on “Samson Agonistes.” Bauer’s interesting perspective of studying the play inspired an entire project to be built around it.

Thursday is the culmination of two years of planning for this project. At the heart of the project are two classes that analyze literature and disability with Professor Essaka Joshua, the Joseph Morgan Director of the College Seminar in Arts and Letters. Joshua is a specialist in Romantic and Victorian British Literature.

There will be a pre-talk in the Browning Cinema by Professor Carrie Sandahl, associate professor of Disability Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Titled “Code of Freaks: Hollywood Images of Disability,” the talk will address the question, “How do Hollywood movies both reflect and create societal attitudes about disability?” Sandahl will present film clips from her feature length documentary film examining Hollywood images of disability from the 1920s to the present.

The performance of “Samson Agonistes” will take place in the Decio Mainstage Theater. “Samson Agonistes,” John Milton’s last major work, presents the story of Samson from the Book of Judges in a drama modeled on Greek tragedy.

The dramatic poem reenacts Samson’s final day as the blinded and imprisoned champion of the Israelites. He has his faith tested by visits from his father, Manoa, his wife, Dalila, and the Philistine champion Harapha. After passing these tests, Samson, empowered by God, pulls down the Temple of Dagon, killing thousands of Philistines and himself.

Students were an important part of this production. Joshua’s classes formed the production team, which was responsible for researching the play and its performance history, stage design, costumes, makeup, sound and lighting. Students also helped to manage additional crucial elements of a theater production such as marketing, budget tracking and guest hospitality. Co-directors senior Carolyn Demanelis and 2011 graduate Ryan Belock assisted Director Bauer and Producer Joshua.

Belock, a triple major in music, theater and graphic design, talked to The Observer about his experience with the project.

“This project emphasizes everything that a commitment to unique collaborations in creation at Notre Dame should be about: embracing community. The time and talent given by everyone involved in this production illustrates what it is to support the University’s mission to ‘heal, unify, and enlighten’ our cast, crew and audiences,” Belock said. “After witnessing the success and high energy resulting from this project, my hope is that more programs and opportunities like this arise to showcase the incredible commitment Notre Dame students have to collaborating with their peers, professors and professionals.”

Sophomore Stage manager Jessica Peek also gained a lot from the experience, intellectually and emotionally.

“As stage manager, I have been involved in many different aspects of the production. From dramaturge to light design, I have become immersed in the project’s aim and message,” she said. “I find myself seeing and analyzing disability everywhere, and it has really opened my ideas to what disability means. Not only has this been a great learning experience, but I’ve also had a ton of fun working with the cast and crew and will be quite forlorn when it is over.”

After the show, audience members are invited to discuss the play and the issues it raises with Joshua, Bauer and Sandahl, as well as Steve Fallon, Milton scholar and Notre Dame professor, and Mike Ervin, CripSlam Access project coordinator for Victory Gardens Theater.

Fallon told The Observer about the importance of the disability of blindness for John Milton and for his Samson and how it is relevant to audiences today.

“The play is a rich and complex work. Milton scholars debate whether Milton viewed Samson as a regenerate hero or as a despairing and suicidal bully,” Fallon said. “This debate has been tied up, particularly since [September 11th, 2001], with the question of whether Milton advocates religious violence.”

Producer Joshua explained how the production, unique in being the first production by a blind director, explores disability in multiple ways relevant for the Notre Dame audience.

“At Notre Dame we’ve been engaged in a Disability Studies initiative that has aimed at bringing disability to the forefront of a range of academic disciplines. Faculty and students have been focused on exploring, in our research and in the classroom, what disability has meant in the past,” Joshua said. “We hope to recover an important heritage and to stimulate debate about what disability means now and what it might mean in the future. CripSlam has given us the opportunity to bring both research and teaching together in a really exciting environment.”

On campus

What: CripSlam ND

Where: Debartolo Performing Arts Center

When: Thursday, Nov. 17, 6:30-10 p.m.

How Much: $10

Learn More: performingarts.nd.edu