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‘Dark Disabled Stories’ Invites Audiences to an Experiment in Unapologetically Accessible Theater

The series of vignettes — written by and starring Ryan J. Haddad, directed by Jordan Fein and co-starring Dickie Hearts and audio describer Alejandra Ospina — dares American theater to reach the widest audience.

Almost everything about The Bushwick Starr and The Public Theater’s sold-out Off-Broadway production Dark Disabled Stories, written by and starring Ryan J. Haddad, has been an attempt at access-oriented storytelling. The single caveat to this needle-moving stage production is proudly highlighted by the show’s main character, a fictionalized version of Haddad. At one point during this series of vignettes, “Ryan” tells non-disabled audience members this is not, in fact, a story designed for them. “Not everything is accessible to us,” Haddad says. “So why should we make everything accessible to you?”

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The twist — and one of the major successes — of this series of autobiographical monologues is that it ultimately is accessible to all because accessibility is not just tacked on but aesthetic — a likely surprise to both disabled and non-disabled audiences in its ingenuity and utility. It’s a meaningful effort, especially for those who have been historically excluded from enjoying theater, but even for those who would argue access isn’t for them. The credit goes to Dark Disabled Stories‘ inclusive script as well as production and house design, from integrated audio descriptions and captions to a separate, but parallel ASL performance by Haddad’s co-star Dickie Hearts.

“It’s all very integrated. Those who need it will be able to latch on to the access and those who didn’t think they needed the access when they walked in the room, hopefully, will realize that it all is additive, and enhances one another,” Haddad says.

All the performances have a relaxed approach, meaning there is less dramatic lighting, no strobes or loud sudden noises, house lighting that is never completely dimmed to black and the ability to come and go as you need. Additionally, there is an entire first full row of wheelchair seating; a section for movement (where audience members can pace, move, stim, stand or sit); assistive listening devices; tactile samples of the set; a digital program that’s screenreader accessible; and masks available at every seat (in addition to weekly mask-only performances).

Audiences also have access to a guide on how to navigate the show — from where to sit if you have light or sound sensitivity, bathroom locations and accessible transportation options for getting to the theater. Even the ticket process is disability-friendly, with The Public’s website offering tools like a screen reader, contrast and saturation alongside text size and spacing adjustments, the ability to pause animations, and even make the text more “dyslexia friendly.”)

Directed by Jordan Fein and audio described (and featuring) Alejandra Ospina, Dark Disabled Stories is Haddad’s effort at making theater more — more intimate, more honest, more welcoming. It’s also about examining the inner and outer worlds of people with disabilities, especially “a gay, disabled, horny person of Lebanese descent whose family has been in Ohio 100 years.”

Dickie Hearts and Ryan J. Haddad
Dickie Hearts and Ryan J. Haddad in The Public Theater and The Bushwick Starr’s production of Dark Disabled Stories. Joan Marcus

When it came to the stories themselves, Haddad wasn’t interested in disabled people having their identities flattened. “That’s way oversimplifying,” he says while unpacking his reasoning for doing a show he calls a “bulleted list” of experiences so “weird” and “bizarre” he’s forced to question if they could have happened to anyone or only him.

“Numerous stories have these moments where disability is the catalyst and then it morphs into something that goes far beyond a single isolated story of disability,” he says while sitting outside a rehearsal room at The Public. “It’s about so many other societal things. And that’s what’s so fascinating and so juicy, I think, about the play. It really examines how we can’t put a person in a single category.”

It’s also a show with “no plot” — no real beginning, middle or end — that addresses “how assumptions are really messy.” It was born out of a process he says involved his typical approach to autobiographical monologue: playing with the raw, organic material of his life.

“I will take those sorts of stories and shape them into narrative,” he explains. “So with the 2023 version, I’m trying to tell this thread of stories about strangers meeting each other in the day or in the night and believing, based on appearance or based on assumption, that they know who the other person is, what the other person is, and having to contend with those assumptions possibly being untrue.”

For Haddad, someone with cerebral palsy, disability plays a major role in his life whether he wants it to or not. “I love all the aspects of what it brings to my life the way I have — and the way that many disabled people have — to adapt and work with the world that is here, even though the world doesn’t always want to work with us,” he says. “But there are times when I’m just trying to have coffee at Starbucks with a handsome boy and on my way, I fallen hit my face and that fall is saying, ‘Don’t forget, I’m still here.'”

It’s a jarring experience, he says, to live in a society where you always have to “account for the reality of my body moving differently through space.”

“It says something that I do, and that’s what the show is about — those little reminders; the people reminding you based on what they see. Then the mirror of that, which is what am I seeing when I look at people?” he continues. “When I’m being approached by someone, but then I’m also doing the approaching, I’m often making a snap judgment based on what I see. And I’m filling in the story, their story, in my mind, even though I don’t know them, and I’ll probably never see them again.”


Ryan J. Haddad and Dickie Hearts
Ryan J. Haddad and Dickie Hearts in The Public Theater and The Bushwick Starr’s production of Dark Disabled Stories. Joan Marcus

The 75-minute series of monologues was written explicitly about Haddad’s own experiences navigating things like dating or traveling around New York. But more than once — despite being the main character — they also feature Haddad as less “the story” and more an “observer.” It was something he had been developing for years, with the writer eventually attempting to put a version of this production via Zoom during the pandemic. From there he would begin, largely in reverse of the way other playwrights and theaters had, with its access points serving as the building blocks.

“We kept saying, ‘What did the play look like? Where is it set?’ This script never had that anywhere. There was no stage direction, it was just text,” Haddad recalls. “Finally, we were like, ‘What if the access was just in the design? What if the design that we’ve been searching for is, in fact, access.’ That brought in the slate of audio description, and then we thought we want to have ASL and captions.”

“From the moment Ryan and I began discussing this four years ago, I wasn’t able to separate these elements from the physical production. In fact, it wasn’t until the other actors, the captioning and the audio descriptions came into being was I really able to imagine what this piece could be,” Fein explains. “I think for both Ryan and myself it opened us up to possibilities that fueled our process. It was never a matter of rethinking but embracing and allowing the staging of ideas to come from the integrated access.”

Actor Hearts notes that the script — which was translated by director of artistic sign language Andrew Morrillinto into ASL — was constantly being edited during rehearsal alongside its technical elements. “We knew everything would be captioned, and we knew there would be descriptions of all relevant movements and visual gestures, but until the play was designed and staged, we didn’t know what would actually be there to describe,” Haddad says, using the show’s audio description as an example of those evolutions. “Sometimes there were placeholders, but they were very rough approximations and only written in to give a sense of pace and rhythm.”

As a result, audio describer Ospina became “a major force in the creation of that aspect of the show,” says Fein, from the script’s earliest days through its production stages.

“The pre-production script began with the stage direction, ‘AUDIO DESCRIBER is heard explaining the stage space. Live captions are projected around the space and match what she, and others, will be saying,'” Haddad tells THR. “[It] also had Dickie saying, ‘I will be playing ‘Ryan’ alongside Ryan, who will also be playing ‘Ryan’ … ‘Ryan has cerebral palsy and I do not. I am Deaf and Ryan is not. I’m not an interpreter, I’m an actor…'”

Dickie Hearts
Dickie Hearts in The Public Theater and The Bushwick Starr’s production of Dark Disabled Stories. Joan Marcus

Because that early script built in the “concept of the dual Ryans,” it was easier to understand earlier on “how ASL would live in the show,” Haddad explains. “The captions were going to match my English text and not the ASL text, which, in itself is already a translation difference. And there were going to be people in the audience whose primary language is ASL, so they could just be watching Dickie because that’s their language,” Haddad says while discussing the decision to include multiple access elements. “You can choose from different types of infrastructure.”

And while there were things that the playwright could prepare for, there were also things that simply had to be worked out in rehearsal. For other narrative elements, like the prologue where the whole stage set-up and design is described, it happened shortly before the show went into tech.

“Jordan would try a draft of staging, Alejandra would tell us what needed to be described, the whole room would offer suggestions for phrasing, and I would get final say over the exact language that went into the script,” Haddad said. “Jordan had worked so closely with the designers and knew the many different components that required description. Then we came together with the associate director, Kedian, and edited what he had written out. The designers themselves gave input so that their work was being accurately represented in the text, and Alejandra made adjustments because she would ultimately be the one saying it all.”

Fein says the team — which is a mix of disabled and non-disabled creatives and crew — also brought in outside audio describers who watched the show and helped them make tweaks to their language. Other elements like the lighting and noise reduction were design-based and weren’t written in as a requirement before the production started. Haddad attributes many of those contributions to Alison Kopit, the play’s access dramaturg. It was her brilliant mind, the writer says, who oversaw “the relaxed nature of the performance, sound and lighting considerations, the tactile objects at the entrance, the movement space,” as well as “the most gorgeous note in the playbill.”

“Her input on the script alone was profound — gently pointing out internalized ableism and imprecise language and pushing me to interrogate it — and made the play infinitely stronger,” Haddad adds.


Haddad had many collaborators, but one of his earliest was already a friend. Ospina boarded the project in a professional capacity for its earlier Zoom iteration, which Haddad says didn’t have much to visually go off of. But it did spark an awareness that ultimately led to Ospina getting her own moment in the play. It’s an experience through the MTA subway system that she “remained passionate about” in terms of being “a necessary and important vehicle of frustration.”

“We realized there’s no way that we can have two people with cerebral palsy — one who uses a walker and one who uses a power wheelchair — and not highlight that point of view in some way,” he continues. “The transportation sections of the script led to our most fruitful discussions and demonstrated the biggest contrasts in our experiences as two people with cerebral palsy. Her non-audio description moments as Alejandra took many forms until we decided on something that excited us all.”

Alejandra Ospina
Alejandra Ospina in The Public Theater and The Bushwick Starr’s production of Dark Disabled Stories. Joan Marcus

That audio description that Ospina delivers while behind the table is a smoothly ingrained element of the vignettes that were ultimately tested and adjusted to support blind and low-vision audiences. “Every time we state something, we’re going back and layering in the audio description,” Haddad says of how AD is used in the play. “Every time there’s a design gesture that’s significant, we layer it.”

“I would stage a story or two, and then Alejandra would join us and we’d look at what we’ve done and decide what needs to be audio described. And what is specific to this piece is, because it is storytelling, a lot of what’s described is in the stories already, so that was something we were careful not to be redundant about,” Fein says. “The dream was always that the audio description feels like it’s part of the script. Rhythmically, that we’re making really specific choices about when it said, how it’s said, so that it stays within the feeling and the tone of the story.”

With how Dark Disabled Stories uses Ospina, she gets to exist as her own character, not just a means of inclusion and accessibility. That also applies to actor Hearts who, after being cast in the summer of 2022, says it was an entirely new working environment for him. During rehearsals, the “mental marathon” the actor faced in working out a balance between his and Haddad’s performance was on display.

“None of my previous experiences prepared me for this,” Hearts tells THR of what he calls “queer, hilarious and poignant” storytelling. “It’s my first time doing something of this magnitude and being on the stage the entire time. I think what helped was checking in with each other during or in-between performances, which can be done with a simple, quick glance, pat or nod. The biggest challenge for me as a Deaf actor was finding my pace and rhythm with each other.”

It wouldn’t be until the show’s tech rehearsal and previews that he could get really creative with his performance choices. “Each time we did a run, discoveries would be made because we didn’t have to worry about the technical aspects anymore,” he says.

Without seeing it in person, one might think Hearts’ work is interpretation. It’s not, in the same way that Ospina is not a narrator. “We thought, wouldn’t it be more exciting to have a Deaf actor playing Ryan than it would be to have an interpreter coming into tech week and interpreting?” Haddad says. “We have an amazing team of interpreters. It’s robust. I love all of them, and we couldn’t do this without them. But I thought, it’d be so much more interesting to have two, queer, gay men, telling these stories together and in different bodies, having outside different lived experiences, but inside the stories, they’re both Ryan.”

In Hearts’ case, it’s not a move-for-move recreation. “I very much wanted to avoid mirroring Ryan and his physical disability … If the tables were flipped, that’s not something that would please or impress me at all,” Hearts says. “I recall having this conversation at the beginning with Jordan, Ryan and even Andrew, that I’m just his ASL conscience, a Deaf version of Ryan.”

Dickie Hearts and Ryan J. Haddad
Dickie Hearts and Ryan J. Haddad in The Public Theater and The Bushwick Starr’s production of Dark Disabled Stories. Joan Marcus

With Hearts’ own “dark disabled story” he unpacks the thrills and dangers of being intimate without speaking the same language. After the actor joined the production for its first in-person workshop, he was sent a script, with Haddad explaining that there was a clear space where his story might go — “a huge leap of faith,” for the actor Haddad notes, adding Fein, Morrill and associate director Kedian Keohan worked with him and Hearts “to build that into a satisfying arc.”

Hearts was initially unsure of what that story might be before he landed on the one he felt was most important to put on a stage. “I wanted to emphasize what I truly wanted to say: the universal human desire and need to connect romantically with one another,” the actor explains. “And that can be very challenging in the gay male community so often and heavily dominated by non-disabled, white, cis, masculine gay men.”


“He’s not disabled, but he is a fabulous queer man,” Haddad tells THR of the show’s director, Fein, as the playwright sits in a chair just feet from his rehearsal room where the cast and creative team await. “And he’s really taken seriously the charge of embracing civility and aesthetics, disability and rigor. I’m just blown away by what he’s doing in that rehearsal room. But also, we’ve been collaborating on this for four years. And it’s culminating in this moment.”

Among various hats, Fein is a filmmaker but he’s also worked notably in opera, a space he says regularly includes audiences using captions because they frequently do not speak the languages of the shows. That fact, along with the input of members of his Dark Disabled Stories team, helped prepare Fein well for embracing Haddad’s access-oriented vision for Dark Disabled Stories.

Dylan Geil and Jordan Fein
ASL Interpreter Dylan Geil and Director Jordan Fein in rehearsal for The Public Theater and The Bushwick Starr’s Dark Disabled Stories. Joan Marcus

“There is a big theme in the play of what it is to be really seen and heard with all your nuances and complexities. I think both the audio descriptions and captioning not only provide access but add to that idea,” he says. “We are constantly reminded that although we are all sitting in the same room, at the same time, witnessing the same performance, we are all absorbing it in different ways through the different points of access.”

It was a production where “access is the design and the design is access” and tools like captions could function as a third performer. “I understand the way that one would embrace captioning as part of the show, part of the aesthetic of the show, so I started to think about what if those [access tools] are the only design elements in the show? Which is not to say that they shouldn’t be considered aesthetically, but what if they lead the conversation?” he says. “I really challenged myself to commit to that and say, like, what if there really are no props?”

When it came to the physical set, Fein was inspired in part by a gay bar in Berlin that had pink walls — a direct nod to a conversation the director had with Haddad about “subverting the title of the show or people’s idea of what the show might be the moment they walk in the room.”

“A lot of it was inspired by that room, what shape would work in that room and feel grounded and clear. We knew we needed a really clean projection surface so that was honestly the first conversation. And then we talked about what this shows about, what we want folks to feel when they walk in,” he adds. “I was like, ‘Well, what if this feels more like that [bar] than something that’s sterile?'”

The way Haddad and Hearts’ bodies existed and “relate to one another” onstage negated the need for many set pieces or those aforementioned props. The staging lights were a “paradigm of we’re telling a story through the lighting, but making sure that folks don’t feel overwhelmed by it.” And when it still might be too much for some audience members, the conversation shifted to offering a “primer about what they might experience in the show.” In the house, a full wheelchair row and a movement space change the expectations of who could come and enjoy a professional production.

Dickie Hearts, director Jordan Fein, ASL interpreter Dylan Geil and Ryan J. Haddad
From left: Dickie Hearts, director Jordan Fein, ASL interpreter Dylan Geil and Ryan J. Haddad in rehearsal for The Public Theater and The Bushwick Starr’s Dark Disabled Stories. Joan Marcus

That extra space between the stage and the audience would also end up supporting the actors’ performances. “Ryan and Dickie really have to, unsurprisingly, focus to tell these stories,” Fein says. “And Ryan is really used to a certain amount of focus for himself, but we went into this knowing that we wanted to have an element of relaxed performances. I wouldn’t say that it necessarily influenced the staging, but it was always present in the room as something to be considered.”

Despite staging something of this nature being largely unheard of in major New York theater, on a performance level — working one-on-one with the actors — the director dismisses notions that it was different than other productions. Still, Fein was in the technical department juggling more than a director typically does, with questions about how much would be too much when it came to captioning or audio description — both of whom are their own characters who have to work in sync alongside another actor.

“Even though it’s seemingly simple when one watches it, it was something that we really had to experiment with,” Fein explains. “If I wanted to change the staging by a few feet or have them take a step to the right, that meant the whole thing had to be reprogrammed. It created this knock-on effect that also just forced us to take our time.”

Timing came into play again with Haddad and Hearts, with Fein sharing that the parallel performances made him extra conscious of their synchronicity, though they never shied from the specificity of what they both brought to the stage personally as people, actors and speakers of different languages.

“I knew there would be moments where there was a dissonance or that they weren’t totally together. But what’s amazing about it to me is, because we all were so clear about what we’re making, there are moments — and I wish there was a better word for it — it fails, essentially. And I think there’s something really revealing and live and human about it,” he says. “In a lot of ways, it’s what the show’s about. We’re all communicating differently. We’re all trying to connect, but we’re doing it differently. And we have to own that. We have to own and take the time for that.”

Even how Haddad audio described for Ospina or translated for Hearts during their personal monologues required taking that time. “Ryan does voice for Dickie, which was a huge conversation about whether that was the right choice. Does that also put Ryan in the foreground?” Fein recalls the teaming asking. “I think Ryan is doing a very beautiful job of voicing for Dickie but it feels in support of, and honestly a huge influence in that was the relationship that we built with the interpreters in the room. It was understanding the way that they communicate to us, which was an extraordinary thing to learn and to witness over the past two months.”

Andrew Morrill
Director of Artistic Sign Language Andrew Morrill in rehearsal for The Public Theater and The Bushwick Starr’s Dark Disabled Stories. Joan Marcus

(Morrill, Kopit, interpreter coordinator Miriam Rochford and personal care assistant Emily Crayton were among the show’s creative team and access leads, along with The Public’s Dark Disabled Stories‘ army of ASL/English interpreters Beth Staehle, Candace Davider, Carllee James, Cathy Markland, Craig Fogel, Dylan Geil, Jacinda Damas, Jamie Rose Hays, JO Welch, Juana Aguilar, Justine Rivera, Kat Katona, Maria Cardoza, Patrick Michael, Stephanie Feyne and Tim Smith.)


While talking to THR by phone about two weeks into the show’s run, Fein is careful with his words. It’s clear that he wants to emphasize that while sometimes challenging, accessibility was never a hindrance for him in the creative process. “We tried to weave the audio descriptions and captioning throughout the process but it was very much a game of chicken or the egg,” he says. “With each staging idea, a question around audio descriptions arose and, in many ways, it became an amazing tool to dive deeper into certain moments and get more specific and clear.” 

The biggest hurdle then had less to do with making this production inclusive and more to do with the way theater has historically operated. Time is something he repeatedly mentions while speaking about his work on the show and was perhaps the play’s biggest test — a tension people with disabilities are familiar with.

The team had only a week-long workshop in November, three weeks of rehearsal, some meetings with members of the team like video designer Kameron Neal (who storyboarded), and then tech to get the production together. “I’ll be really honest, we didn’t have enough time and that was, on a production end, the hardest thing to take on. I really had to decide what we had to get the show function on and access from before we could then start crafting which is a different way of thinking and theater,” the director explains.

Despite that, Fein calls their approach — the choice to slow down and take 25 minutes instead of five to hash out an issue — a “revolutionary act” in the world of theater. “We are always up against a clock and there is a real fear of running out of time — which is not to say that that fear did not rear its head often in our process, but that we did not let it dictate our schedule and decisions felt major,” he says. “If we reached an idea, a theme, a moment that needed time and thought and discussion, we took the time and did not rush.”

Dickie Hearts, Ryan J. Haddad, and Alejandra Ospina
From left: Dickie Hearts, Ryan J. Haddad, and Alejandra Ospina in rehearsal for The Public Theater and The Bushwick Starr’s Dark Disabled Stories. Joan Marcus

Companies like Theater Breaking Through Barriers (formerly Theater By the Blind), EPIC Players, The Apothetae, Detour Company Theater, Phamaly Theatre Company, InterAct Theater, as well as a network of the country’s Deaf-centric theaters (National Theatre of the Deaf, New York Deaf Theatre and Deaf West Theatre), have delivered accessible and inclusive staged productions in some cases for decades. But rarely has Off-Broadway or Broadway actually contended with producing performances about the disabled experience that are also explicitly accessible to people with disabilities attending the show.

“These are not new ideas. They just have not been welcomed in mainstream theater up until now,” Haddad says. “But I’ve seen [founder and artistic director] Alice Sheppard and [choreographic collaborator, dancer, designer, and engineer] Laurel Lawson of Kinetic Light dance company do all of these measures all the time and more, and I learned a lot by attending their work. I go to see work by and curated by a friend in the fine art world — exhibits, gallery shows, museum talks — and all these things are there in a disability-led, disability-centric space.”

Dark Disabled Stories, then, makes pushing that boundary in non-disabled-centric theater spaces a possible future. It’s one that Haddad and Fein have thought about replicating if and when possible, though the playwright points out that his play’s approach may become trickier when dealing with a larger ensemble.

“I don’t know, honestly,” Fein says when asked whether the approach to Dark Disabled Stories is translatable for other productions. “Every theater now is expanding their bathrooms because of intermission and I’m like, OK, we can obviously do it. But that’s a question that we’re contending with in real-time right now. It’s so dispiriting how few theaters are accessible, and I don’t just mean the audience. I mean, like actors getting to the stage. So I don’t know, but I do know that we’re willing to do the work to find that space and to make that space. And I hope this show fuels that conversation in a real way.”

Still, Haddad notes that there are other ways to make these kinds of performances accessible, including a recorded production.

“There are people, especially disabled people, who can’t travel to performances they might like to experience, or who still don’t feel comfortable entering indoor public spaces due to COVID, even if the venue is local. Live recordings can be a way to provide theater that transcends geographic limitations and gives peace of mind to those who are immunocompromised,” he tells THR. “And just as we have done onstage, live recordings can integrate captions, audio description and ASL in various ways.”

Dickie Hearts and Ryan J. Haddad
Dickie Hearts and Ryan J. Haddad in The Public Theater and The Bushwick Starr’s production of Dark Disabled Stories. Joan Marcus

The playwright also concedes that beyond the stage, expanding out into live recording is the “kind of platform and quality of production that is usually afforded to stand-up specials,” but he is seriously open to the concept, even as he delivers that vision for his inclusive work with his signature sense of comedy. “I want them to be available and accessible and extremely well-produced. Will saying this in the Hollywood Reporter make that happen?” 

Dark Disabled Stories runs through April 9 at The Public’s Shiva Theater.