A Space for Acting Without Boundaries

Nicholas Linnehan (middle) rehearsing a scene will fellow cast members. (Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio/NYCityLens)

In the dim basement of an apartment building on the Upper East Side, a group of actors played out the life of Mike, a fictional theatrical character. They followed the script strictly—fighting, stomping and shouting their way through rehearsal. Mike was three years old and still couldn’t walk. The doctor’s diagnosis? Cerebral palsy.

In the play, Mike’s father refuses to accept his son’s disability. “My son does not have cerebral palsy,” the father yells, marching out of the room and kicking the chairs out of his way. Mike, as an adult, sits in the back, a wallflower, watching the fight intently. After a brief pause, he then stands up, ready for his monologue. 

They rehearsed this scene more than five times that Sunday. Nicholas Linnehan, 39, is the playwright and the main actor in the play, “Identity,” which follows a boy named Mike as he grows up struggling with a disability, family rejection and being gay. Much of it is autobiographical, Linnehan says. He too has cerebral palsy and he too is gay.

Linnehan wrote the play in 2005, and he’s been acting since the 7th grade, but  it hasn’t been easy. Making it in theater is hard—and it’s even harder when trying to overcome physical pain every day. 

But Linnehan found a way to make it happen. In 2011, he founded the Identity Theater Company as a space for actors with disabilities, and others, to present original work that reflects the challenges faced by people with disabilities. The company has put on more than 15 productions since then. They’re  funded through donations, ticket sales and Linnehan pays what he can out of pocket. The play “Identity” will have its opening night on March 8th. Linnehan is the only disabled actor in the play.

Linnehan says that many people tend to see the disabled solely through the prism of their disability, glossing over the fact that those who are disabled, like everyone else, have complex passions and lives that transcend their disabilities. He’s hoping this  production, and his company, will help his audience see beyond that.

“The way that people look at you and the way they judge you is oppressive,” Linnehan says. “People assume that you have no other aspect of your identity other than your disability.”

Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder that impairs motor function, coordination and affects body movements. At age 3, Linnehan also suffered a traumatic brain injury when he fell down a flight of stairs, fracturing his skull. Normally, Linnehan can walk, but at times he must use a wheelchair if the pain is too great, though he hasn’t in the first few rehearsals of his play.

In theater, he says he found a place to express himself creatively and accept himself. The character of the father in the play is based on his real-life stepfather, who “abused him verbally and emotionally for being gay,” he says. His biological father—a softball coach, on the other hand, pushed him to play sports, though his cerebral palsy made it extremely difficult to do so.

Linnehan performing a monologue during rehearsal. (Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio/NYCityLens)

“I was always the last one picked in gym class. I was picked on. I was bullied a lot,” says Linnehan, a native of Long Island. “I grew up never feeling good enough.”

Linnehan says he also felt singled out as an actor with a disability, especially early on. Some told him that the only play he could act in was “Of Mice and Men,” where one of the main characters, Lennie, lives with learning difficulties. Others accused him of trying to hide his disability to try and blend in on stage, he says.

He pushed on, though he says on some days when he’s in too much pain, or has go stay in the hospital—sometimes for an extended period of time, he has to take a break from acting. Still, he says, theater has taught him he can’t always live as a victim.

“It’s easy to do the ‘poor me,’ ” Linnehan says. “But on stage I don’t feel that way.”

At rehearsals, Linnehan is emotionally invested. The character he plays, Mike, stands up to his father, challenging perceptions that being gay is a choice and pushes forward despite his father’s denial of his cerebral palsy diagnosis. The parallels to his own life are unmistakable—and the lines blur.

As he rehearses a scene where Mike tells his father that he is gay and his father reacts violently, it’s clear Linnehan is having trouble. The father shouts  obscenities at his son and pushes Mike’s mother out of the way when she tries to protect him.

“I tried to commit suicide that night,” Linnehan said quietly during the scene’s monologue, his eyes fixated on the imagined audience in the basement theater. He paused for a moment and shook his head.

“I’m sorry, that scene is always just going to be hard for me to do,” said Linnehan, breaking out of character, seemingly—but briefly—sentimental about his rehearsal performance.

In the scene, Linnehan as Mike relays his deepest secrets to his imagined audience at rehearsals—his love for a childhood best friend, thoughts about killing his father, suicidal leanings and self confidence issues due to his disability.

“This whole scene wrote itself,” Linnehan tells his fellow actors after another explosive verbal battle between his character, and that of his father. “I mean, I went through this.”

Linnehan as Mike and Tim Connell as Mike’s father during a rehearsal for “Identity.” (Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio/NYCityLens)

The cast for “Identity” has four members, including Linnehan, and a director and assistant director. Linnehan has a close relationship with the director, Christopher Scott, 59, who lives in the same building as Linnehan on the Upper East Side.

They’ve developed a shorthand while working together. “He took care of my dog while I was in the hospital,” Linnehan said. “I’ll never forget that.”

Scott returns the compliment. “Nick is great,” Scott said. “And I loved his vision for the play, that’s why I decided to take it on.”

During rehearsals, Scott’s eyes are glued to the actors. He sits at a table taking notes on the script, but jumps up from his chair often to offer suggestions on line delivery and body positioning. Scott says he decided to direct the play because he wanted to encourage people to connect with Linnehan’s concept of “identity” and to learn something about what life is like for someone who is coming to terms with being gay and having a disability.

“I hope that the audience will have a keener empathy with people who are different than them,” Scott says of the play. “I also think that there are so many experiences in the play in which all people can see themselves reflected.”

The toughest scenes are rehearsed countless times. At some points, Linnehan has to take a break, sitting down and sipping from a half-empty can of Pepsi, his second one of the day. It’s tiring—Linnehan, playing the character of Mike, asks the empty chairs in front of him again and again: “Why is it that people think I’m stupid just because I’m disabled?” The question is plagued with unmistakeable anguish. In just one rehearsal, he hears his father’s character yell, “This is no son of mine,” more than five times. The words drip with anger and denial.

But after every scene, he ends with a smile, cracking a joke or two during the breaks. “I mean, I’m brilliant in this monologue,” he tells his cast, chuckling to himself before settling back into character. He bounces in between two worlds, trying on different costumes and personalities. It could very well be through practice, and experience, that Linnehan does so with such ease. But don’t let his easygoing manner fool you.

It’s tough, “being too disabled to be normal, but not disabled enough,” Linnehan says. “But theater gives me a channel to accept myself. And I love that.”