For this episode of Getting the Dirt, we are featuring the creative minds behind Rewrite, Phamaly’s pioneer, socially distant, web series that takes portions of classic texts and reimagines them utilizing a disability perspective. From the Constitution, to the Bible, to A Christmas Carol, these talented artists have been hard at work integrating disabled perspectives (and of course some laughs) into classic texts, that we are all too familiar with. The creative team talks virtual collaboration, disability comedy, and more! Dig in and take this deep dive with interview questions and answers that explore into the behind-the-scenes processes with the writers of Rewrite.
Where is the line between humor and being offensive? How do you find it and when do you know if you have gone too far?
Jeremy Palmer: I mostly find that being truly offensive doesn’t really happen by accident. In my experience, offense is usually the result of a concerted effort by the artist to trigger that reaction in someone. So I always approach something offensive by asking if the laugh we get or the thought we provoke is worth making the effort to actively offend someone who might be watching. The goal of comedy should be “laughs first,” so you also want to make sure any offense isn’t going to hamper the comedy.
Rewrite was written in 2020, so all of the writing and collaboration was done virtually. What was it like to be creative with the team using an online space?
Kevin Pettit: In some ways, I found it easier to write and interact with others from home because I didn’t have to take the buses down to and back from Boulder when working online. (The trip usually takes between 1.5 and 2 hours each way!) However, while working on Rewrite in 2020, I don’t recall ever experiencing a group brainstorm of ideas, which sometimes occurs when working in the presence of others on a joint project.
There were six writers included in the creation of Rewrite. What was it like working with this team?
Toby Yount: It was very unique. I have been in writing rooms before, but never with this wide of a range of different people and with a focus on a topic that we all had at least some experience with. I also liked how after we figured out outlines, we were paired off for each episode. I think it allowed each of our voices to shine through in our own particular way.
Does Phamaly tell stories differently? How?
Kevin Pettit: Phamaly, as a group, tells stories differently from most all other acting groups just like different people sing with different voices, be they basso profundo or light coloratura soprano voices. These disparate voices may both sing, perhaps even the same song; however, they each have different instruments which allows them to express themselves and the emotional content of the song differently.
How is writing for Phamaly unique/different from other projects you have done?
Maggie Whittum: There isn’t the weirdness of people dancing around the disability topic and feeling uncomfortable.
What is the power of comedy, in your opinion, when discussing disability and the disability experience?
Gregg Vigil: As a person with a disability it’s important to laugh at ourselves, it opens doors of communication.
When writing for theatre/film, does the finished product ever turn out how you imagined it while writing?
Jeremy Palmer: That is often directly in proportion to how involved I am in the production because if I’m directing like I did for Phamaly in the Vox Phamalia and disLabeled series, I had the luxury to painstakingly make sure something was how I envisioned it. But with most of the filmed content I’ve written for Phamaly, I haven’t even been in the same state when it was shot. So you have to be able to let go of things when you’re not there. Even so, things can be totally opposite as you envisioned and be as good or better than what you thought you wanted.
Why is it important to find comedy in the disability experience?
Maggie Whittum: Because if I don’t laugh I’ll cry.
How do you know that something is funny?
Gregg Vigil: If it makes me laugh or others around me.
How do you know when humor is working and when it is not working?
Lucy Roucis: When the text is clean, builds in a specific order, and hits the point on the head is when humor is able to work. When you have trouble stating what you want and it’s muddled or in an improper order, one must rewrite and rewrite until it gets clean and builds and that nail hits that head, using the least amount of words possible. [This] can save the humor in text.
How do you fight falling into old tropes or stigmas about disability when writing?
Toby Yount: Make the disability important but not the core of what the character is about. People with disabilities are still people and while their disability is definitely a factor in how they approach things and see the world, it’s not the only thing that influences who they are as a person. For example, a person who is cautious will approach a situation or obstacle differently as compared to a person who is reckless, even if they are both in a wheelchair or have autism.
What is it like to be a performer as well as a writer? Does it influence the way you write and use comedy?
Lucy Roucis: Being a writer and actor on a project gives you an “in” that nobody else has. You know why things were written that way, you know where the flaws are, too. Again, writing using the least amount of words helps a lot. It influences the way I write and use comedy because it’s my thoughts taking precedence on the page and if it doesn’t make sense to me, it will never make any sense to an audience.
Has acting influenced how you write for theatre? How?
Toby Yount: Acting has definitely influenced how I write for theatre. I focus a lot on how a character tries to get what they want and what tactics they use. After that I consider what obstacle would be the biggest challenge for them to overcome. Without acting I probably would be more focused on the plot than the characters themselves. Plot is important, but in my opinion people won’t watch if they can’t connect with the characters in some way. I find my acting helps me write characters because when I get cast in a role I have to think about character all the time and how to make it believable, so I attempt to approach writing for theatre the same way.
Why do you feel it is important to share a disability perspective within classic texts?
Jeremy Palmer: I’m biased as a writer, but writing things down is how we know what history even is. The great texts throughout history are windows into who we are and how we got to this place and given how messed this place we’re in feels sometimes, it’s worth thinking about how a marginalized population like PWD [Persons with Disabilities] has been treated at any given point in history.
What stories and text benefit from being viewed from a disability perspective?
Lucy Roucis: Stories that flat out ignore the disability perspective, but disabled people are all over the place anyway…using those stories to center on disability usually work[s] the best.
What other classic text(s) would you like to “REWRITE” and why?
Maggie Whittum: Every book I had to read in school – Huck Finn, Animal Farm, Brave New World, Moby Dick, any well-known Shakespeare. It would be fun and an innovative approach to stories people think they know.