An Interview with Anita Hollander

I began writing what was originally called Here I Stand in 1977 with a song called “The Choice.” In 1985 a concert version of the piece was presented at Broadway Tomorrow in NYC, with the support and good humor of the brilliant Michael Devon at the piano. Michael was diagnosed with AIDS shortly after and asked me “How did you get from there to here?” (meaning, I surmised, from cancer to strength and health). After his death I realized that this piece could be my best reply to people asking my help as they struggle to survive life’s catastrophes. What you hear today is what I learned – the hardest possible way – over 16 years. I sincerely hope it is not only enjoyable to you, but useful as well. – Anita Hollander

How did your extensive background as a performer prepare you with the tools to create Still Standing?

I’ve always been told I was “born in a trunk,” since theatre has come so naturally to me all my life. I began as a professional at the age of eight, and four weeks after my leg was amputated (at age twenty-six), I was back on stage, opening in a show. So, it’s like theatre runs in my blood, I know the shape of it, how to tell a story, how to connect with an audience. And this whole show is actually about “tools for survival” so it was the perfect combination of my theatre training background AND my struggle to survive through two episodes of cancer and an amputation.

Can you talk about the creative process you went through to make Still Standing?

In 1977, after my first cancer surgery, I was going through chemo and radiation while in my senior year at Carnegie Mellon University. I sang and played a cabaret evening for the school, which included my favorite Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carole King, and Judy Collins songs. My favorite teacher said afterwards “That was nice, but you’re going through a life and death battle right now, and none of your songs reflect this at all. We want to know more about THAT.” I replied “What am I supposed to do? Write my own songs?” To which she simply said “Yes.” To show her how wrong she was I wrote the song “The Choice,” which I considered one of the most depressing, whiny songs about dealing with the choice one makes to live in the face of a deadly disease. She loved it. And for the next sixteen years of my life I kept writing more and more songs about survival. The first draft was performed as a full cast concert show at Broadway Tomorrow cabaret, then a second draft at Primary Stages, and yet another at Don’t Tell Mama in 1993. Finally, I put most of the other characters on tape in a final draft and began performing it all over the place as a solo show. Once I could take it places, I performed it in theatres, colleges, schools, naval bases, prisons, rehab centers, temples and churches, VA hospitals, government agencies, The White House, Disney World and just about everywhere you can imagine. The amazing thing is that it seems to have kept its relevance through all these years and venues and locations. I’ve sung excerpts in Japan and Croatia which somehow speak to people who don’t even speak English.

How were you able to decide which moments of your life needed to be included in your show?

In some ways the show just wrote itself. My sister would come to Pittsburgh just to eat pizza and watch movies while I was on chemo – CUE SONG! I had a method to deal with the pain – CUE SONG! I had to say goodbye to my leg – CUE SONG! I got married and had a baby on one leg – CUE THREE SONGS! I was accepted into both the BMI & ASCAP Musical Theatre Writers Workshops and was sometimes told how a certain song would never work with an audience. And, of course, that song is the one people always talk most about! Sex is an element which has been in and out of the show. The idea that people with disabilities are asexual has been a myth that’s needed busting over the years.

What does your life as an artist look like right now?

My life as an artist right now could be described in one word: BUSY! Surprisingly, this show is more in demand than ever. I’m also writing a new solo show called Spectacular Falls which I was able to work on at the remarkable SPACE on Ryder Farm in Brewster, NY last summer. I continue to do readings of new work in NYC, and productions Off-Broadway and regionally. I teach music and voice, and I work with the children’s choir of the Village Temple, where I’ve written many new songs and settings of prayers which I’ve shared with other synagogues across the country, sometimes singing and playing with my sisters, daughter and brother-in-law as The Hollander People. I’m also learning ASL to keep up with my deaf colleagues who are fast advancing in theatre, TV and film!

As an activist for the inclusion of people with disabilities in the arts, how would you encourage theatres and arts organizations to step up as allies and leaders in this area?

As National Chair of the SAG-AFTRA Performers With Disabilities (PWD) Committee, I’ve worked with theatre, film and TV producers, writers, directors, casting directors, managing directors and artistic directors for inclusion of people with disabilities on stage and screen as well as behind the scenes. I’ve been part of a Broadway League/Actors Equity Task Force for Diversity. I keep a “watchdog scorecard” of PWDs showing up in every form of media. We’ve made great strides over the past ten years in theatre and TV, but film is still woefully behind. When it comes to theatre, 2017-2018 was remarkable in that about a dozen nominations for Pulitzer, TONY, Drama Desk, Theatre World, Off-Broadway Alliance and other awards came out for either PWDs or plays that included authentic disabled actors in the cast. (In fact, I was in one of those productions!) So now, when I encourage theatres to include PWDs in their seasons, I show them all the awards they will win if they do! I’ve also created a hashtag, #AuthenticCasting, because time and time again, it’s been proven that casting authentic performers with disabilities enhances and informs any story, even if it wasn’t written with disability in it. The American scene contains 56 million people with disabilities. We’re part of the picture.

What excites you most about theatre and the creative arts today?

Honestly, diversity in general has made theatre so much more exciting. The stories have become so much richer on stage and in all of the arts. Also, theatre has so much rich material to draw from at the moment. With so many serious challenges and issues in our world, theatre (and the arts) act as the conscience of the world. Nothing is as effective as the arts (and live theatre in particular) to enlighten, enrich and enhance the minds, hearts and souls of people.