Afraid To Look Down: A One-Man Play

Circa 2003

“We’re at places.” Three words that often send the most seasoned of actors into a panic. Three words that mean it’s time for them to take to the stage and breathe life into the role the playwright has fashioned to tell the story.

In the case of actor Cullen Douglas, hearing those words is met with a myriad of feelings: excitement, a great sense of accomplishment, a huge lump in his throat and of course, a stomach full of the usual butterflies. For him it means he’s about to step onto the stage to take on the role of himself. He’s about to tell his own story. Douglas is both the playwright and sole performer. For the next hour and forty-five minutes he’ll step back in time to June 4, 1996, an ordinary day-not unlike the day before. He and his wife, Rachel, would continue to wait anxiously for the birth of their first child.

That day, however, would change his life forever in ways he never could have imagined. That day he would become a father; that day he would have a son; that day he would become a father to a child with a disability.

Cullen Douglas shares with ABILITY Magazine the events that inspired him to write Afraid to Look Down, a one-man play dealing with his experiences raising a child with Down syndrome.

We had no idea that Gabriel had Down syndrome until moments after he was born, we didn’t even know if Gabriel was going to be a boy or a girl. We wanted to be surprised.

Before he was born I was a big ole’ Nervous Nelly and worried about the silliest of things. Since I had never been good in sports growing up, I honestly worried that any little boy of mine was doomed for certain failure on the playing field. I figured our best option would be to hire him a personal trainer. I guess the joke was on me since Gabriel now sees four therapists a week; instead of hiring him a coach I got him a team. When he was born and we learned of his Down syndrome we were surprised; we felt completely overwhelmed. Although I was experiencing emotions I had never felt in my entire life, Rachel and I both knew we needed to move forward.

Moving forward meant focusing on the important things: getting Gabe to eat, getting rid of his jaundice, monitoring the little VSD (ventricular septal defect) in his heart, learning about Down syndrome and most importantly learning to get out of my own way; to let him teach me how to be a father. Over the course of that year, I started throwing out my preconceived notions of what I had pictured our lives would be like and learned to embrace the different, wonderful life that lay ahead.

A few weeks after Gabe was born, a friend I had worked with on the television series Big Bag gave me the phone number of Emily, a colleague of his who had an older son with Down syndrome. Emily was very supportive and she seemed to know just the right things to say. I told her how we had received a welcome packet from the local Down Syndrome Association and a copy of a wonderful poem called “Welcome to Holland.” Before she could interrupt, I read her the poem and explained to her how it was a metaphor for learning to live with a child with a disability. I asked her what she thought of the poem and with perfect timing she said. “I like it. By the way, I wrote it.” I had just quoted Emily Pearl Kingsley to Emily Pearl Kingsley. We both started laughing and it was then that I realized it was the first time I’d really laughed in weeks.

check this out

Rachel and I needed to laugh. I needed to stop taking life so seriously and relax. I started looking for the humor in our lives, like the time when Gabriel’s pediatrician suggested we give him a suppository for his constipation. I put the thing in, took my finger away and the darn thing shot out like a bullet and hit me in the chin. I began writing notes on slips of paper, napkins, even toll booth receipts. In 1997, I started writing what I hoped would one day become a play. Gabriel had just celebrated his first birthday, yet it felt as though we had lived a lifetime in that year.

Despite the fact that laughter was now back in our lives, I still needed a way to channel all of the emotions I continued to experience on a daily basis. Even after I began to get my brain around what Down syndrome meant, there were so many things I never expected: stares that seemed to last just a little too long, friends who pulled away and disappeared into the woodwork, people informing me, “Them Down syndromes are so loving.” I even had an old friend call me days after Gabriel was born to tell me to start praying really hard, because she believed my son was the work of Satan. Needless to say, that was the last I talked with her. However, that conversation is the basis of one of the scenes in the play that shows the absurdity of some people’s ignorance toward people with disabilities.

Although I was trained as an actor and had just finished working as a writer for Nickelodeon on their Live tour, I had never written a play. I had written monologues for friends when they were in need of new audition material, but a play was a completely different animal. My biggest challenge was how to tell the story of becoming Gabriel’s father while I continued to live the role every day. I hoped it would work itself out. The play that began to emerge, however, was just awful. I had made myself look like a martyr-a lot of, “Woe is me. I hate my life. Your life is so much easier than mine.”

Thankfully, I came to my senses and realized that no one would sit through such drivel. So I walked away. When I returned to writing I was resolved to share only the truth, to be unflinchingly honest and expose myself warts and all. If I was going to tell the story the right way, I couldn’t pull any punches and there were two other people counting on me to get it right-Rachel and Gabriel. I was going to be writing about some pretty intimate details.

Cullen Douglas with his family
Cullen Douglas with his family

As in life, I’ve had Rachel’s support every step of the way. If there had ever come a point where she felt uncomfortable or felt I had missed the mark, I would have abandoned the play altogether. She has yet to miss a single show; her input on my performance is invaluable. As Gabriel has grown older, it’s been harder at times for me to think of him as a baby when I’m about to perform certain scenes in the play. During the last run of the show Rachel smuggled his baby book into my dressing room to help me remember. Rachel didn’t ask to be thrust into the limelight. She has started joking that if she keeps coming to all the shows she is going to have to start wearing a disguise. As much as people want to talk and share with me after the show, more often than not people are desperate to meet the real Rachel, since they’ve only imagined her while I’m on stage.

My goal was obviously to write a play that would be entertaining. In addition, I also wanted to create something that I hoped would cause people to reflect. By letting people into a very personal part of our lives, perhaps audiences would see we’re more alike than we are different, and this would help clear the way for greater understanding and acceptance of Gabriel’s dis ability. I’m certainly not assuming the play speaks for the entire Down syndrome community-it doesn’t. Afraid to Look Down is about my journey; it’s just one story out of thousands.

Besides continuing to perform and look for opportunities to have the play produced for larger audiences, I’ve started offering it as a benefit to Down Syndrome Associations across the country. I never wrote the play with the intention that it could be utilized as a fundraiser. However, after speaking with more and more audience members whose own lives were touched by Down syndrome, I started rethinking things. People have made comments to me such as, “You know, my mother-in-law still doesn’t get it,” or “I need to have some of my coworkers see this; maybe they’ll realize how much it hurts when they say they feel like a retard.” Another suggested, “If you do your show as a fundraiser, people who’ve been asked to write fat checks might actually learn something.”

check this out

Gabriel is 7 years old now and continues to surprise me on a daily basis. Some of the fears I had that first year of his life have been quietly laid to rest. He’s healthy, is doing great in school, loves to spend time playing at his friend Max’s house, loves swimming, singing, dancing and putting on shows. He’s developed a really wonderful personality that isn’t always so loving and is now showing me how to fight the dragons on his favorite PlayStation video game.

Gabriel is also relishing his role as Cameron’s big brother. Cameron, a typical 2 year-old, is full of life and mis chief. He is an amazing little boy in his own right and he completes our family in a magical way. I know it’s tough on him sometimes, as Gabriel’s needs are always present. We really try to keep things balanced, but I’ve yet to write a play about how I became Cameron’s father. A close friend of ours once reminded my wife and me, “It’s not Cameron’s fault he doesn’t have Down syndrome.” Cameron is an old soul; I often look into his eyes and they seem to laugh at me and say, “You think you’re in charge, don’t you?”

I don’t know what the future holds for Afraid to Look Down, but I’ll keep doing it as long as I have an audience. I have two great little boys; one of them happens to have Down syndrome.

by Cullen Douglas

Cullen Douglas recently played supporting roles in films as diverse as John Sayles’ Sunshine State, Sony Pictures Classics Love Liza, directed by Todd Louiso and Touchstone Pictures’ ensemble comedy Big Trouble, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Last television season he appeared on NBC’s Boomtown and on UPN’s Enterprise. Cullen was also a series regular on Big Bag, produced by the Children’s Television Workshop. He currently is working on two different writing projects, and continues to perform Afraid to look Down.

sharing is caring

we did our part - now do yours and share

like a good neighbor, share

Related Articles: