Getting to Know You: DARK DISABLED STORIES’ Ryan J. Haddad

Getting to Know You

Ryan J. Haddad | Photo: Joan Marcus

Dan Meyer
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February 28, 2023 5:29 PM

Ryan J. Haddad has been around for a minute. You might have seen him opposite Ben Platt in The Politician or seen a digital production of his autobiographical play, Hi, Are You Single? or in-person down in Washington, D.C. Now, he’s making his Off-Broadway playwriting debut with Dark Disabled Stories at the Public Theater, a series of vignettes that discuss his life experiences, especially dating and hookups.

There’s a caveat, of course. Ryan, who also stars in his play, lives with cerebral palsy and navigates the city with a walker. In Theatrely’s emerging artist interview series, Getting to Know You, we sat down with Ryan to talk about creating accessibility within storytelling, queer hookup culture, and more.

Learn more about Ryan, his artistry, and Dark Disabled Stories below.

What do you like most about being able to share your stories with a live audience?
The human interaction and exchange. Feeling the energy in the room shift with each story, and knowing that as writer and one of the performers, I’m like a puppeteer that controls the peaks and valleys. Sharing in their laughter, their surprise, their suspense. Watching people react differently each night. You can’t predict who will find what meaningful, and when.

How easy or difficult is it to balance the “dark” in the content of your stories with the humor in the way you present them?
In this play, I worry about that less. Humor is an intentional tool, always. It disarms people, relaxes them, and makes them comfortable. But the stories in Dark Disabled Stories are uncomfortable. There's no escaping that. The show is entertaining, of course, fueled by wonderful performances from Dickie Hearts and Alejandra Ospina. There are healthy doses of humor throughout. But it is not a shield from the darkness, and that is clear from the start.

Ryan J. Haddad, Dickie Hearts, and Alejandra Ospina | Photo: Joan Marcus

What led to your decision to have two additional performers in your show?
My director, Jordan Fein, and I wanted to center access in the design and production, and we wanted to create opportunity for artists onstage as well. For the access, we have integrated ASL, captioning, and audio description into every performance. We first brought on Alejandra Ospina, a friend who works professionally as an audio describer for blind and low-vision arts audiences. She is a tremendous collaborator. Super smart, intentional, and carefully detailed about the integration of audio description. She’s also a joy to be around and has a natural, effortless, biting sense of humor. We did Zoom workshops with Alejandra in 2020 and 2021, and while she was primarily audio describing for us then, Jordan and I realized it was vital to include her point-of-view and a story of her own in the script. Then, instead of doing traditional ASL interpretation, we thought it would be really dynamic and exciting to have a Deaf performer playing the role of “Ryan” and telling these first-person stories alongside me. It was important to us that he also be a queer man, and Dickie came highly recommended from other Deaf and disabled colleagues. The moment we met, he sparkled with fabulousness, humor, and enormous heart (as his name suggests). Our chemistry is fantastic and undeniable, and even though we are performing these long monologues, Jordan has directed us to treat each other as extensions of ourselves. I am Dickie and Dickie is me. We depend on each other as scene partners and companions in navigating these stories. And, of course, Dickie gets to tell a thrilling story of his own, too.

The intersection of queer sexuality and ableism comes up several times, with Grindr encounters, gay bar bathroom stalls, coffee dates, etc. What’s your outlook on sex and relationships in today’s world?
Well, I mean, I'm very single! And very much interested in a boyfriend, a partner. That's more the theme of my earlier play Hi, Are You Single? But doing this play, Dark Disabled Stories, has been fascinating while I’m still very much on the apps, dipping in and out between rehearsals, tech, and performances to try to spark a connection. Do I invite guys to the play? Is that weird? I don’t know. Because the play itself depicts several encounters that go more than awry. Where I let my guard down when perhaps I shouldn’t have. So, as I’ve been talking to new guys in recent weeks, those stories are really in my head, and I think, “Are these red flags real? Or am I just too deep in the play, when I should really give these guys a chance?” And it’s been wonderful to have Dickie Hearts as my brilliant costar and new, very dear friend, as he shares many of my frustrations about men and dating, especially as it relates to ableism in the queer community.

Ryan J. Haddad and Dickie Hearts | Photo: Joan Marcus

What does it mean for you personally to make your Off-Broadway playwriting debut at The Public?
I walked through the doors of the Public as an intern in 2014, when I was a senior in college. Jesse Cameron Alick, now Associate Artistic Director of the Vineyard Theatre, was my supervisor alongside Liz Frankel, who is now the Director of New Work at The Alley in Houston. From there, I was part of the Emerging Writers Group, led by Jack Phillips Moore, and performed in Under the Radar twice, thanks to Mark Russell, Andrew Kircher, and Alex Knowlton. So, it feels appropriate that The Public, where I have been welcomed again and again, is the venue for this major milestone in my career. But I must also shout out The Bushwick Starr and Artistic Director Noel Allain, who committed to produce the play back in 2018 and never wavered in that commitment all through the pandemic. The Bushwick Starr is home to such riveting, vital, boundary-pushing work, and I’m grateful The Public said yes to partnering with The Starr to make this play possible.

Have you heard/read any memorable reactions to Dark Disabled Stories that have stuck with you?
Our first Zoom reading in the fall of 2020 was, I believe, the first time many of my disabled friends heard these stories. And let me say the Zoom chat was BLOWING UP with reactions, recognition, cheers, and exasperation. Even through a laptop in my parents' basement, I felt a sense of understanding and community. And if that was even a taste of what's to come, I can't wait for what the energy of our live performances will feel like.

Let’s do a speed round! Hometown? Parma, OH (Cleveland)

Favorite hobby? What is a hobby? Lol. Cooking but not washing dishes lol?

Latest TV binge? Season two of Only Murders in the Building with my mom

Any book recommendations? Year of the Tiger by Alice Wong and Demystifying Disability by Emily Ladau

The best pre-show meal in NYC? For me, in The Public’s neighborhood, it is the salmon + two sides at Phebe's 

Favorite gay bar? I don't go often, but Industry in Hell's Kitchen because it has a ramp at the entrance and an accessible bathroom

Favorite pick-up line? The name of one of my plays, "Hi, Are You Single?" but read as "hi . . . are you . . . single?" (I can tell you from experience it does not work.) 

If you could describe your experience with Dark Disabled Stories so far in just one word, what would it be? Ferocious 

Dark Disabled Stories is currently scheduled to run through March 26 at the Public. For tickets and more information, click here.

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Dan Meyer

After 4 years in the biz, Dan swapped out theatre for sports and is now a researcher at NBC Olympics. Spectacle remains a key passion and is dedicated to building bridges between different forms of entertainment. He has worked as a writer and editor at Theatrely and Playbill, covering Broadway and beyond. In addition, he has been published in Rolling Stone, Spy, and others.