November 7, 2011
By Paulette Beete
Anita Hollander, actress/singer & National Chair of AFTRA & SAG Performers with Disabilities. Photo by Kia Michelle Benbow
“While art is more important to me than disability, it is the roles I’ve played which illuminated the human condition via disability that seem to be the most significant experiences for me.” — Anita Hollander
As described by the New York Times, Anita Hollander is “provocative, funny, moving, communicative and beautifully polished…She has a wide range of vocal colors which she uses with dramatic sensitivity as well as comic insight…All this plus a charming presence that flavors everything she does.” Her extensive resume includes notable roles in Cabaret, CATS, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Oklahoma! just to name a few productions. Hollander also wrote and continues to perform Still Standing, a one-woman show that chronicles her adjustment to losing her left leg to cancer in 1977. In addition to her work as an actor and arts educator, Hollander actively campaigns for wider inclusion of artists with disabilities in all aspects of the arts and entertainment industries. We spoke with Hollander by e-mail about her version of the artist life and the challenges of getting the arts to be “truly reflective of the diversity that is our country.”
NEA: What’s your version of the artist life?
ANITA HOLLANDER: Personally, my version of the “artist life” is living and working in the middle of Manhattan, using my artistry in almost every aspect of my life. I live in a performing artists’ complex where I teach music to preschoolers when I am in town (even in the midst of rehearsals and performances around New York), and I conduct a children’s choir downtown as well, for whom I write music and adapt musicals. These are side jobs that are flexible and work around my performances out-of-town and on tour. We have play readings and musical events in our living room, as my husband and daughter are also performers (even our cat likes Shakespeare!). Acting, singing, dancing, writing, directing, producing, teaching, advocating for performers with disabilities, and being a national board member of one of my unions (AFTRA) all go into my life as an artist. In general, I believe the “artist life” is one where art is at the heart of everything one does (even sweating through pilates class and taking out the garbage!).
NEA: What’s your earliest memory of engaging with/experiencing the arts?
HOLLANDER: My dad started my sisters and I singing when we were two or three and took us to New York to see Broadway shows from as far back as we can remember (I think Sound Of Music might have been my first), and he’d bring home Broadway cast albums for me to dance around the living room too. When I was four, I got up on a stage and volunteered to sing while a magician was setting up his magic show at a community center (without my mom even knowing I had left my seat). Instead of the assumed “Mary Had A Little Lamb” or “Happy Birthday,” I chose to sing “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along” from Guys and Dolls !!! I’m told that I was a klutz in everyday life, but whenever I did a dance recital I was the most graceful child on the stage. It was evident that I was most comfortable on a stage from a very early age. My first professional job was at the age of eight, when I played Gretl in The Sound Of Music at an Equity professional theatre (in Cleveland where I grew up).
NEA: What’s been the most significant arts experience of your life to date?
HOLLANDER: So many of the arts experiences of my life are deeply significant to me. I originated the central role in 2 world premieres, including the musical, The Fifth Season (in which I portrayed a dance hall girl who loses her leg to a gun shot wound and lives to sing about it!) and the play Gretty Good Time, by the late, brilliant John Belluso (who was a playwright with a disability) at the Kennedy Center. And perhaps most significantly, I played the role of Grizabella in the musical CATS, as a three-legged cat. In each of these roles, my disability was a plus in my playing the roles, whereas the majority of roles on my resume are not traditionally played by a performer with a disability (i.e., Golde in Fiddler On The Roof, Meg in Damn Yankees, Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!, Blanche in Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Margret in Woyzeck, to name a few). While art is more important to me than disability, it is the roles I’ve played which illuminated the human condition via disability that seem to be the most significant experiences for me.
NEA: What decision has most impacted your arts career?
HOLLANDER: The decision to write my own show has had the most impact on my arts career. When I wrote Still Standing, I not only hoped to make a contribution to humanity that could entertain, enlighten, educate, and inspire, but I also gave myself something to help me survive as an artist at times when roles might be slim. Although I originally wrote the show to help my friends with AIDS find tools for survival under horrible circumstances, the show has ended up being a gift to me, my daughter, my family and friends, and people I don’t even know at theaters, concert halls, colleges, hospitals, prisons, churches, temples, government institutions, etc. I feel incredibly grateful to have had the ability to write something that could not only impact my own life but the lives of others as well.
NEA: What is I AM PWD, and how did you get involved?
HOLLANDER: I AM PWD, which stands for Inclusion in the Arts & Media of People With Disabilities, is a three-year PR campaign to expand the presence of people with disabilities in the arts, entertainment, and broadcast industries. The main goals are access, inclusion, & accuracy. Initiated nationally by three unions—American Federation of TV and Radio Artists (AFTRA), Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and Actors Equity Association (AEA)—the campaign has expanded to include the AFL-CIO, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Canadian actors union (ACTRA), and the International Federation of Actors (FIA). It has also embraced and engaged advocacy groups, both disability-minded and diversity-minded in general. Five action groups have shaped the campaign, such as Media Watchdog, which has monitored TV, film, and theater to document disability presence. The campaign began in January 2009 and will conclude in January 2012 with a bi-coastal event bringing together leaders of the industry of New York and Los Angeles, to discuss increasing the opportunities for artists with disabilities across all aspects of arts and entertainment. I was one of the creators of the campaign, as a national chair of AFTRA & SAG Performers With Disabilities committee and a national board member of AFTRA. I was national chair of the campaign in its second year, and continue to be a national co-chair of the campaign till its conclusion.
NEA: What do you think the arts community as a whole can do to be more welcoming to our peers with disabilities?
HOLLANDER: Since our country’s population contains 54 million people with disabilities, the arts community can best represent the American scene by expanding their consciousness of artists with disabilities. Theaters can reach out to playwrights and performers with disabilities, music organizations can actively seek out singers and instrumentalists with disabilities, colleges and training institutions can encourage, audition, and accept talented young artists with disabilities who show promise in their field. Parents have not always encouraged the talent in their children with disabilities because they do not see enough artists with disabilities in our world. The arts community can not only open up a world of opportunity for artists with disabilities, but it can also bridge a gap of understanding throughout the world by opening up to artists with a unique perspective about life. It’s a win-win situation for everyone!
NEA: What’s the role of the artist in the community?
HOLLANDER: The artist allows us to see the world in a new way. The artist gives us hope, reminds us we’re not alone, and gives us valuable insights into the human condition. The artist can heal. The artist inspires. The artist feeds the soul of each human being. In a way, humans only exist without art; it is because of art that we truly live.
NEA: Conversely, what’s the responsibility of the community to the artist?
HOLLANDER: The community needs to acknowledge the value of the artist—particularly in schools and community centers—and include the arts in their budgets for education and community events and projects. I am presently in Boston working with Urban Improv, a theater company that does issue-oriented improvisation with inner-city school students, including issues such as bullying, prejudice, violence, relationships, and understanding differences (like disabilities). They improvise not only with students, but with their parents as well. The process is so much fun that the message is more deeply absorbed, resulting in a better community. This is the best example I’ve experienced of artist and community working together.
NEA: When we interviewed Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington he said, “I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can…I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren’t yet part of our work but should be.” When it comes to the performing arts, what things do you see as missing? What should be part of the work you, or performing artists as a community, are doing that isn’t yet there?
HOLLANDER: Because I am am an activist and advocate for diversity and disability, I have to say that we are still missing diversity in many areas of the arts. I think VSA arts has helped a great deal, both locally and nationally to bring artists with disabilities forward, and the NEA has certainly brought a wide array of ethnicity to the arts on a national level. But I believe we have a long way to go in theater, television, and certainly film, before we are truly reflective of the diversity that is our country. The arts should be our face reflected back at us. I am putting a great deal of my own efforts into “transforming disability into visibility.” And before I’m done, I hope to drag a lot of directors, producers, writers, agents, and casting directors along with me!
NEA: What does “Art Works” mean to you?
HOLLANDER: Art Works means to me that art is not only an expression. It is a way of life. It is a living. It is the work we artists do. It may look like so much fun that it couldn’t possibly be a job with a living wage! But it is work and it is a job. Art Works also means to me that art actually affects people, helps them learn and grow. It is the most effective tool for change, improvement, and understanding in the world. Art actually does work!
Have a question you’d like to ask Anita Hollander? Just leave it in the comments, and we’ll ask her to answer a few.