16 06 2008

Actress Tracy Ashton: Making Strides for Performers with Disabilities on “My Name is Earl”

Pam Vetter

June 14, 2008

American Chronicle

http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/65059

If you watch the NBC television show “My Name is Earl,” you absolutely know the character named Didi, also known as the one-legged girl. Portrayed by actress Tracy Ashton, Didi is hilarious and memorable.

“It’s been really fabulous working on ‘My Name is Earl.’ They’re wonderful people, the entire cast and crew and all of the leads are down to earth. They always come up to me and give me a hug,” Tracy says with fondness. “Since 2005, I’ve done 10 episodes. Everyone is nice. I have a recurring role and my character has forgiven Earl, but executive producer Greg Garcia told me, ‘Don’t worry you’ll be back.'”

When Tracy auditioned for “My Name is Earl” there was no guarantee of being cast in the role.

“If there is a role for a performer with a disability, they throw everyone out there who fits the role. They wanted someone with one leg because that’s what the joke was about. There were four women who auditioned for the role. I never wear my prosthesis because the amputation is so high up. I just walked in there like the other women, but I was the only one not wearing a prosthetic,” Tracy remembers. “The funny thing is that I got a call that same day about a part in a film. When I called back they said it was the office for director David Lynch. When I arrived for the audition for ‘My Name is Earl,’ I got a call and it was David Lynch saying, ‘Let me tell you about your part.’ That film was ‘Inland Empire’ and I have the last word in the film.”

In hearing her stories of success, you automatically think she has it made. But, Tracy admits, “It’s hard to get auditions if you’re a performer with a disability. Last year, I had two auditions and it was a banner year.”

Tracy is not only a survivor who is willing to fight for every audition, she is also a cancer survivor.

“I’m missing my left leg. I have hip-disarticulation, meaning everything from the hip socket down is gone. I had a rare form of cancer called myxoid liposarcoma. I was in my late 20’s when I noticed a bump on my thigh. I did a lot of alternative therapies and radiation. I eventually had to have surgery to remove the tumor. They removed 13½ pounds out of my leg. A couple of years later, I had the amputation. I noticed the tumor in 1987. The big tumor was removed in 1993 and in 1995 a couple more tumors (about the size of an egg) appeared along the scar line. I had those removed and then the amputation about six weeks later when I learned those small tumors came back with a high grade malignancy. The reason I finally got the amputation was because I wanted to raise my son who was four at the time. Although the cancer hadn’t spread outside my leg in 8½ years, that could quickly change with the high grade malignancy. I knew it was time to let it go. I was lucky in many ways.”

With a degree from Southern Illinois University in dance, Tracy was active in both dancing and acting.

“While I was sick with the cancer, I dropped out of everything and focused on getting well. Once my amputation happened and I recovered from that, I started taking improv classes again with Bill Applebaum. He was a wonderful coach and friend to me. He always encouraged me to write and get out there. I eventually got out there, but it took a good eight years to get to the point I’m at today.”

While that length of time can crush the spirits of any actor, Tracy was tenacious about tending to her dreams.

“There’s still a very long way to go for the movement to go, but I’m one of the very few lucky ones that has a high-profile kind of role. There are many reasons performers with disabilities aren’t seen on screen more. There aren’t that many auditions and there aren’t roles that are written for us. But it is going to take a community effort for things to change.”

Tracy hopes for:

1. More auditions for performers with disabilities.

2. More roles written for performers with disabilities.

3. Casting executives who audition performers with disabilities for regular people roles.

4. Directors and producers who are open to casting performers with disabilities for regular roles.

5. Writers who are open to any ethnicity or disability for the role.

“It’s not that we can only play disabled people,” Tracy explains. “In my real life, I’ve been a soccer mom and I’m a single mom. I live a normal life, but in the entertainment industry, people with disabilities are not given those roles. It’s very rare. You don’t see a soccer mom with one leg. Hopefully, in the future, they’ll consider someone like me, or someone in a wheelchair or someone who is blind or deaf or has cerebral palsy. I’ve seen other parents, siblings and even a linesman referee with disabilities. Any role that calls for a person in a wheelchair or whatever the disability, it would be nice to audition people with those disabilities as well. And bring in people with disabilities to audition for roles that aren’t necessarily for the ‘disabled’!”

The weight of change will automatically fall back on the community of performers with disabilities.

“Everyone is going to have to take part. People with disabilities are going to have to start writing or creating theatre. Actor Danny Murphy is a wonderful activist for performers with disabilities, but it’s going to need every voice coming together,” Tracy reminds. “I have written sketch scenes and monologues for myself. I’ve also co-written a book with a friend of mine and we’re looking for a literary agent. It’s about a young man who goes to New York to become a dancer on Broadway. Someone is trying to turn it into a screenplay, so that’s wonderful. Each step leads to the next.”

In her own life, Tracy has seen what she hoped for, “My son has seen me accepted by society because that’s the way we live. I’m just one of the parents. When he was first going to school and I volunteered in his classrooms, people would ask me to watch their kids or drive them. I’ve also put myself out there, even though I have one leg, and people forget that I only have one leg. I can’t do what everyone does because I use crutches. I can wear a prosthetic but my amputation is so high up it’s harder to use them. The leg and the components are older technology. Now, they have computerized knees, but they cost $40,000. I have the finest prosthetic limb that Medicare will buy,” Tracy says with a laugh. “My leg, which includes a hip joint, knee joint and ankle joint, requires that I sit in this bucket and it’s uncomfortable. That limb 12 years ago cost $14,000. It’s not cheap either. I don’t have great medical coverage but now I’ve made enough money that I have Screen Actors Guild insurance.”

Tracy is optimistic that the strides performers with disabilities make today will create a more inclusive environment in film, television and commercials in the future.

“I’m constantly marketing. I’m working on a website. I also study with Janet Alhanti and she’s a wonderful coach and mentor. She’s given scholarships to performers with disabilities for many years to study with her and has been a real champion for the disabled. I think it’s important that performers with disabilities to learn the craft of acting so that when we’re called to audition, we make a strong case for the movement by being able to do the work, despite our ‘disabilities.’ That’s why I continue to study with Bill and Janet so that when the call comes, I’m ready. By staying in acting classes and getting out there and people hear about me. I’m with a good agency, KSA, and I have agents who are really hot for getting their performers with disabilities into auditions. They’re very encouraging. The Media Access Office has also been wonderful. They have an awards show every year and that’s where I met the Farrelly brothers and met other people with disabilities who have been champions on my behalf.”

In fact, that meeting with Peter and Bobby Farrelly led to Tracy’s performance in the film “Stuck on You.”

“In ‘Stuck On You,’ we played casting people who were sitting behind a table. Those are roles any of us could go out for. Actress Ann Stocking and I both play casting agents and we got to work with Matt Damon and Greg Kinear, who were lovely people as well.”

With only two auditions last year, the roles were written specifically for performers with disabilities.

“For those two roles, I wasn’t right for either one, but I still got callbacks. One was for a pilot calling for a young 20-30 year old hot looking mama in a wheelchair and the role went to my friend, actress Teal Sherer. The other role was for ‘Nip/Tuck’ and called for a woman with no legs in a wheelchair. For that particular role, you had to agree to do a simulated sex scene and partial nudity. There were only two of us who auditioned for that role. The woman who got the part actually has no legs and uses a wheelchair. I saw her and thought, ‘She’s perfect for the role.’ I was happy for her. I was also happy to audition again. It shows that there are very specific details written into scripts. The role I got for ‘My Name is Earl’ was a specific role for a one-legged girl. They were looking for a specific disability, which I happened to fit.”

While Tracy has not experienced face-to-face discrimination, it’s more of a silent discrimination by keeping performers with disabilities out of the process.

“My long term hope is to get a series regular role on a top show and do movies. If I’m brave enough to get out and audition for theatre I’d love to do that again as well. I love to act, I love to perform, I love it, and when I do get a chance to audition, I want to be ready for whatever role – second lead, guest star, or recurring. We’re able to do it, especially those of us who are dedicated to the craft of acting. Actors who are not prepared water down the talent pool because casting people see 10 people and only 5 of them can act,” Tracy notes. “If performers with disabilities work on the craft, we’ll be ready. I am hopeful for all of us because I’m an optimist by nature!”

For more information on performers with disabilities link to www.performerswithdisabilities.com.

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