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The Penalty

nytheatre.com q&a preview by Gregg Mozgala
May 19, 2013

What is your job on this show?
Artistic Director, Actor, Producer.

What is your show about?
Inspired by the 1920 Lon Chaney silent film of the same name, The Penalty is the story of a legless criminal who has sworn revenge on the doctor who wrongfully amputated his legs as a child.

When did you know you wanted to work in the theater, and why?
The late playwright, John Belluso once said, 'that to be disabled, was to always be on stage.' As a person with a disability (I was born with spastic cerebral palsy), I am constantly dealing with people's gazes in my every day life and managing that negotiation between seeing and being seen. For me, the awareness of how that could translate to acting was in 7th grade when for the first assignment in my Speech & Drama class, I chose to perform Mark Antony's, "Friends, Romans, Countrymen..." speech from Julius Caesar. Suddenly, people were looking at me differently and I realized that through performance I could to some extent control my audience. That was how I entered this world but my reasons for staying have since evolved.

Complete this sentence: My show is the only one opening in NYC this spring that...?
Promises mutilation, romance and humor- all set to music.

How did you meet your fellow artists/collaborators on this show?
The playwright, Clay McCleod Chapman and I were actually roommates our senior year of high school at North Carolina School For The Arts in Winston-Salem, NC. I would go as far as to say that the seeds for this project were planted all the way back then. Clay would always invite people from our hall into our room to watch horror movies, most notably for me, Todd Browning's FREAKS. Watching that film and others like it really broke my eye open. Clay's love and appreciation of the genre was infectious. After college, we both ended up in New York City and would occasionally run into each other over the years. When I got the idea to start my company, The Apothetae, I knew I wanted one of the first plays to be an adaptation of the 1920 Lon Chaney film, The Penalty. Clay seemed like a natural fit for the project. I called him, pitched him the idea and he was the one who brought it to Dixon Place. It was Clay who suggested we make it a musical. The director, Kris Thor and I worked together last in 2011 on Ashlin Halfnight's play, Laws Of Motion at PS 122. Kris went to grad school with our composer, Robert M. Johanson. Rob is a member of Nature Theater Of Oklahoma, which presented "Life and Times Parts 1-4" at The Public Theatre as part of their Under The Radar Festival.

Which mythical character would like your show the best: Cyclops, Cupid, Paul Bunyan or the Easter Bunny?
Cyclops, definitely.

How important is diversity to you in the theater you see/make?
There's so much conversation about diversity in the theatre these days but the focus seems to be on ethnicity and sexuality. I very rarely, if ever, see disability enter into that conversation. The Penalty is the first of four plays that The Apothetae has commissioned, with the hopes that through the creation of new works that deal with disability, the "Disabled Experience" can be more accurately and sincerely reflected on stage and shared with a wider audience. We want to join the conversation, because we're not a part of it. What if people began to realize that disability puts the "D" in Diversity- not after the fact but squarely, undeniably, at the beginning. It's high time we took ownership for our own stories and history, and work together to ensure their inclusion in the canon of contemporary plays being produced in New York City and at large.