John Belluso

John thought of himself as a writer who was “born of the contemporary disability civil rights movement of the mid-to late 1970’s”.  Inspired by the radical change that he was “too young to participate in” at the time, John wrote plays that challenged both the way society treats people with disabilities and the tired structure of the typical stories told about people with disabilities (persistent  human being overcomes incredible odds to succeed despite his or her disability).  Writing from personal experience, John wrote plays that didn’t glamorize or oversimplify the reality of living with a disability, but also managed to remind us of the exceptional capabilities of disabled people.  

John was born in Warwick, Rhode Island on November 13, 1969.  He began using a wheelchair when he was 13 due to Camurati-Engelmann disease, a rare bone disorder that limits muscle strength.  The deseased caused John pain, drained his stamina and made his health an ever-present issue.  His life changed in his late teens when he accompanied a friend to a production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, R.I.  “By the second act, I had decided this is something I want to be involved with, but I didn’t know how,” he told the Providence Journal-Bulletin in 1998.  John dropped out of High School in 1988 and received funding from the Rhode Island department of Rehabilitation to study journalism in 1991.

He received a Bachelors and a Masters from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he studied with Tony Kushner and John Guare.  He began writing in earnest in the late 1990’s, and found widespread success, with plays produced at the Magic Theater in San Francisco (“The Rules of Charity”); the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles (“The Body of Bourne”); the Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville, Ken. (“A Nervous Smile”); and the Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Conn. (“Body Songs,” written with the director Joseph Chaikin). 

Mr. Belluso said that being disabled aided his understanding of what it took to be a playwright. “Finding the balance between participating and observing is really the key to being a good writer and a happy person,” he told the San Francisco Observer in 2005. “My disability has done nothing but help me understand that process.”  He wrote amazing roles for disabled actors he met along the way including Anita Hollander, Clark Middleton, Ann Stocking and Christopher Thornton.  

He was a recipient of the 1995 John Golden Playwriting Prize. He was the NEA/TCG playwright-in-residence at Trinity Rep and a Resident Artist at the Mark Taper Forum. His other awards include the Mark Taper Forum’s Sherwood Award for Emerging Theatre Artists, where he served as director or co-director for six years, the John Golden Playwriting Prize, and the NYU Tisch School of the Arts Dramatic Writing Program’s Graduate Playwriting Award. He also wrote for such television shows as “Eyes” and “Deadwood.”

Mr. Belluso told the Observer that he expected that disability would always be a theme in his work. “It is an experience that shapes my life and view of the world, and a topic that I find endlessly fascinating because there is that universal element… It is the one minority class in which anyone can become a member of at any time.”

Sadly, John died February 2006 at the age of 36.  The cause of death was determined to be a heart attack caused by Hypertensive Cardiovascular Disease. He was living in New York at the time, in the middle of writing a play called “The Poor Itch” about a 22-year-old paraplegic Iraq war veteran, which was in the development at the public theatre.  The Public Theatre Lab produced the unfinished version of this play in 2008, with director Lisa Peterson and actor Christopher Thorton, who had appeared in two of Belluso’s previous works.  A New York Times review acknowledged the potential of “The Poor Itch”, but came to the conclusion that the play remained “sketchy and unfulfilled”.  His death was a great loss for the non-profit theatre community.

Besides John’s undeniable talent as a writer, one of the biggest take-aways from all of my research was that he was an incredible person.  He was the type of artist that other artists respected and admired.  He was the kind of writer that actors wanted in the rehearsal room with them.  I think that was a huge part of John’s strength as an artist and a writer, and part of the reason he will not soon be forgotten.

Below I’ve included quotations from people who got a chance to work with John, and I think help paint the clearest picture of who he was:

“John Belluso was a unique writer in many ways. I think it’s fair to say that first, he was an activist, a guy with his eyes on the state of the world. He wrote from a political imperative, not only to wake people up to the full humanity – messy and all – of the disabled community, but to remind folks of the excitement of robust argument in the theater. But John was also funny and sexual and queer and outlandish and a lover of words in the extreme. For our birthdays he would read us poems. We miss him, and home to share with you a little bit of his terrifying and wonderful vision.”

-Lisa Peterson, Director, The Poor Itch

“John’s disabillity was the key for him to a political understanding that included a robust leadership within the disabililty community but also saw the interconnections between disability and radicalism and a broader progressive agenda. John’s great subject was interdependence, the way we all are deeply linked to each other in ways both material and spiritual, and he saw disability as giving a local habitation and name to that interdependence. He hated this war, and he loved the people affected by it, and the collision of those two ideals was crucial to the creation of what would have been his breakthrough play.”

-Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director, The Public Theater

“John’s mission was a big one. Too big, perhaps, for someone who’s health was probably always on the verge of collapse. John was powerful, though. For all the talk about how diplomatic and charming he was, (and he truly was,) John was also never afraid to make a demand. He demanded more of the world and he made the world demand more of itself. He was the embodiment of the iron fist in the velvet glove. I hope in his memory and in his spirit, we will all keep on swinging.”

-Ann Stocking appeared in John Belluso’s The Body of Bourne at the Mark Taper Forum

The entire article from Ann Stocking can be found here.

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