Photo by Jenny Anderson
For students with disabilities (invisible or not), feeling out of place or unrepresented in narratives is not uncommon. One place in particular where this happens is in theater. Because there is a lack of shows that speak to the experiences of people with disabilities and include in their casts people with disabilities, the theater world can at times feel exclusionary.
Gardiner Comfort, an actor based in New York, is changing that with his new one-man show “The Elephant in Every Room I Enter.” We sat down with Comfort, an actor with Tourette Syndrome, to talk about his experience bringing this new show about his experience during a trip to Washington, D.C. for a National Conference for people with Tourette’s to Off-Broadway.
How did you get inspired to want to become an actor?
When I was in ninth grade, I went to a new high school that fit my precise learning disabled mind. I was doing characters at the dinner table, and my mom suggested I try out for the school play, All My Sons by Arthur Miller. I got hooked from the experiences of doing play.
In your TED Talk, you talk a lot about being hesitant to, in a sense, “come out” as a person with Tourette’s Syndrome. What factors led you to decide to be more public about it?
I was diagnosed when I was 7, and it’s been hard. There have been times while acting where my tics have been a problem. Directors have difficulty working with me. When I’m on stage, though, it completely goes away. Coming out was nerve wracking: if I’m known as an actor that makes these noises, I might not get hired. People said, “If you have this, why not be more open about it and this unique difference? Why not use it?” I realized I had nothing to lose, and eventually I listened, and now I’ve been writing my whole life.
What are your goals with your upcoming opening of “The Elephant in Every Room I Enter” at Next Door at NYTW?
Honestly, it’s been a labor of love. It’s exhausting because you have to do everything. I could talk for hours about how I and my collaborator Kel have put this show together. It’s incredibly rewarding to be up there doing it and to get the attention of NYTW: it just feels gratifying. We have the best opportunity to attract the attention of major producers from regional theaters. . Hopefully, it gives us more notoriety. It’s a very beautiful, unique show. It can change lives. Our main goal is to make a beautiful piece of art, but it’s such a personal story about something most people really don’t understand. I really think it spreads awareness in a unique way.
What made you decide to make “The Elephant in Every Room I enter” a one-man show?
I think I thought about doing a one man show more than doing a show about Tourette’s. My mother is a choreographer, so I was around dance and theater growing up and saw a lot of individual one-man shows. People like David Hawk inspired me. Even in high school, I was writing short pieces and performing them through college and beyond. Doing one about my life with Tourette’s just followed from that. There’s no one who can better tell my story than me. My collaborator has considered making a screenplay about this. I really enjoy the autonomy of doing a one-man show; I love the physicalness and telling the story and breaking out into side stories. As someone whose mind is always bouncing around the place, it’s useful and great to expand on the story. I enjoy the challenge of being myself.
What should people expect from the show?
I’m very close to the Tourette’s community. To hear people in the audience ticking while I’m doing my show and getting quite close–it’s a profound, moving experience. It can bring me to tears when I hear a young person affected by the show.
I want audiences to prepare for something that is very moving. There’s personal details in it that can be painful memories, but it’s also comedic. There’s the coin of trauma and tragedy. It’s funny. I hope, but quite moving. On top of that, I think the information is rare to see, and we also put these crazy projections on the wall that are a nod to the experience of Tourette’s. It’s like offering a view into my mind. It’s a show that’s really not like anything else. There’s nothing else out there like this.
What was the process of creating this show with co-creator Kel Haney?
It took a really long time. We were in a theater residency here in NY, and we thought we’d write a story about me growing up in NY, but we didn’t have big ideas. In Spring 2014, I went down to this conference in DC (the Tourette National Conference), and my mind was blown seeing hundreds of people ticking. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and telling people about it, and Kel realized that was the subject we could write about. We weren’t sure how to really write it at first; everything kept sounding like an essay. Then, we realized that we could use the method of me telling short stories. Kel would record me and take notes, and then she had an intern transcribe the recording. Over a year long period, we ended up with this story about my week in DC. It was something neither of us have ever done before — reforming these stories to fit this narrative of a week in DC with all of these details about me.
How do you see Broadway/the theater world in general becoming more open to showcasing characters with disabilities and highlighting issues related to feeling like an outsider?
I think things are finally starting to change. I know that there have been a number of shows that highlight disabilities like Curiosity of Dog in Night Time and theaters focusing on characters with hearing disabilities like Deaf West. It’s certainly changing. There’s a lot of argument with people advocating for the disenfranchised. There’s the Apothetae theater company which performs shows with disabled actors and supports helping them perform. How do we make it possible for people to have the same chance to be in roles, especially with theaters that aren’t wheelchair accessible? I’ve definitely felt that I could lose a job because of it.
What advice do you have for people with disabilities (invisible or not) who may feel isolated in their current communities?
It’s hard. It’s definitely a challenge. I think everyone faces their own challenge and everyone needs to meet that challenge on their own, and I think it’s important for people with disabilities to do what they love and excel at. As someone whose neurology is different, I know acting is something I can do. I know I was easily distractible, the class clown, but I’m lucky I had parents who took the time to let me find my creativity. I really believe that for people like me who think differently, you need to find what it is that you’re good at — even if doesn’t make a lot of sense.
I used to use an Etch A Sketch a lot. I wasn’t good, but I realized over time I could better “see inside” the device. It was a very meticulous, meditative experience. I got a better understanding of the machine, and it allowed my mind to work in a way that it intuitively wanted to.
When I meet young people with Tourette’s, I tell them: Don’t let the world make you think the way you think and interact is unacceptable. You don’t have to conform to every asset of the normal world — be yourself.
“The Elephant in Every Room I Enter” runs from November 9th to November 25th. Tickets to Gardiner’s show can be purchased here. He will be hosting talkbacks after matinee shows featuring different members from the Tourette’s community.