Actor and self-described “artivist” Diana Elizabeth Jordan is having quite the moment. Her one-woman show, “Happily Ever After”, debuted at the Hollywood Fringe Festival last year. This year, she was selected out of thousands to take part in the WarnerMedia Access Talent Spotlight Program. Jordan, diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 2, which mildly affects her speech and gait, is breaking down barriers. ABILITY’s George Kaplan spoke with the artivist about her craft, the three p’s and intersectionality in the entertainment industry.
Kaplan: You were recently selected out of thousands to participate in the Warner Bros. Discovery Access Talent Spotlight Program. Can you tell us more about that?
Jordan: Yes. Oh, it was probably one of the most incredible professional experiences of my life so far. Warner Bros. Discovery has a talent development-type program, and in January they put out an open call for actors with disabilities, many actors, indigenous, transgender, a lot of communities that are historically marginalized in life and by the entertainment industry.
So, I submitted a monologue. Then I got a call to submit a scene. I didn’t hear for a long time, so I thought, “Oh, well, you know.” And then I got an email, “We’re still deciding. You’re in the final 80.” And I thought, “Well, that’s cool! Out of thousands, I made it to the final 80. Yay!” And then one night my manager called and said, “Are you available for an interview by Warner Bros. Discovery tomorrow? They want to ask you a few more questions.”
And I’m like, “OK,” and I rehearsed my interview all night long with myself. And then when I got out of the interview, they said, “Congratulations!” It was amazing!
It was a week of not only working with 19 other incredibly intersectionally diverse artists. We’ve all become a family. We’re still texting each other almost every day. But I got to work on a scene; I got to work with a great director. I was a team partner with Ashton Grooms. I got work on the scene, I got to do a monologue. Everyone gets a recorded scene and a monologue that are going to be edited and do a virtual showcase which will go to casting directors that cast for Warner Bros. Discovery. It was awesome! It was a lot of work, but it was just such a beautiful experience with really beautiful people.
Kaplan: What were the major takeaways from that experience?
Jordan: Never give up. It’s the thing to never give up. And the interesting thing is you never know until you try. I almost didn’t submit because it said “emerging,” and I thought, “I’m too old. There’s no way they’re going to take me. I’m too old.” So, I almost didn’t submit. I think it reminded me that you always have to give it a try because you never know. If I hadn’t tried, I never would have gotten it. And also, that the journey is worth it. For me, there have been so many ups and downs and so many setbacks and whatever that I’ve had, but there are also rewards, and the rewards make all the tough steps really, really worth it. I just felt really valued as an artist. That I was appreciated and valued for what I bring and brought to the table, and that I appreciate and value what everyone brought to the table. It just reminded me, don’t give up. You’ve got to keep going because you never know.
Kaplan: Absolutely, I love that. Last year you also performed your one-woman show “Happily Ever After” at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. How did that project materialize for you?
Jordan: That was a several-year project. It started out as a 10-minute piece. I worked with an artist named Tanya Taylor Rubenstein out in New Mexico with the storytelling workshop she did. I think it was 2014 or 2015. So, I did that 10-minute piece, and over the years, it kind of grew and shaped. And then right before the pandemic started, I performed a version of that where I work, at Performing Arts Studio West. I thought it was in nice shape, and I was looking to do it and submit it at the 2020 festival. And then the world changed! (laughs)
Jordan: That year off gave me the time to really develop it. I added more. Then I got a diversity scholarship for the 2021 Hollywood Fringe Festival. Again. I just did it. It was a lot of work. I had an incredible support team.
Nothing I’ve done in my life has been by myself. And my mom made my costume. But it was just working and finding a venue, and the venue I found, because of the pandemic, wasn’t going to allow a live audience, so I did it all virtual. I did it live every day, every time it was virtual. It was an incredible experience where I wore the producer hat and then the actor hat because I had to wear both. So sometimes I had to think, “How am I marketing this as a producer?” and then when I got to the theater, I gave it to my support team, our collaborator, so I could be the actor.
Kaplan: Do you have plans to do any more shows like that?
Jordan: You know I really would love to tour “Happily Ever After” at some colleges. I think it has a really good message about patience and learning to love yourself. Now that things are opening up a little bit more, I would love to do the show again. It’s definitely one that—I haven’t put it to bed. It’s just resting right now, but I definitely would love to do it again for a show or a conference for sure. So yeah. I hope it’s not done. I don’t want it to be done yet.
Kaplan: Yeah, you only got to do it during the pandemic, during a quarantine kind of moment.
Jordan: I really would love to get this newest version, the latest version, up in front of a live audience because, even though I know people are laughing and stuff, when you’re virtual you don’t really get to feed off the audience. There’s an energy when you’re doing something live that I love. There’s the energy from the audience that I missed. I would love to have that.
Kaplan: How did you start acting?
Jordan: You know, I always knew, since I was a little girl, that that’s what I wanted to be. I don’t think I ever wanted to be anything else. My dad’s older sister, my aunt Rhoda, was an actress, who died. She died a year before I was born. Growing up I heard stories about her. I think I was one of those kids who was born knowing that I wanted to be an actor. I often joke that I entered the world in highly dramatic fashion because I didn’t breathe on my own for 45 minutes, which causes cerebral palsy, so I’ve always been a bit of a drama queen in a good way.
I’ve just always loved performing, telling other people’s stories, creating, it’s almost just like it was innate. And I have artists in my family. I don’t know; it was just always an interest. I wanted to do it. It was almost like second nature to me, creating.
Kaplan: What goes into selecting a role for you? What do you look for?
Jordan: I really look with heart. If I’m selecting, no matter whether I’m selecting or if I’m giving an audition, I always try to find to heart of the character. Whether that heart is cold, what is the character’s Why? Why—I’m making it very personal—it becomes me, living in that imaged circumstance. For example, why am I really angry and bitter toward people? Why do I just need to be loved? Why do I need to get the story out? It’s more about the why. It’s really for me. I love variety, too. I love playing survivors, vulnerable characters, but it’s also fun to play a busybody and have some of that. To me, it’s always finding the heart of the busybody. Why am I a busybody? [She becomes a busybody.] Maybe I really do care about people and I’m a busybody because I know so much, and therefore it’s my duty to share all the information I have because I’m very inspired! That’s the heart of my Why. Does that make sense?
Kaplan: Totally does. Would you say you’re more attracted to comedy than you are to drama? What really makes your heart sing when it comes to acting?
Jordan: It’s both! I think I find them both equally. It’s like when someone asks who’s my favorite nephew. I have two nephews. I love them equally. They’re both very special in their own way. So, I think that I don’t know if I have a favorite genre. It more depends on the character I get to play. It’s fun to do comedy. Comedy’s a blast. I love doing comedy. And also, it’s up to who I’m working with, given I’m often inspired and motivated by my team partners. I’m doing some sketch comedy in a couple weeks, and I’m having fun because I’m so motivated with them and I’m so motivated by the actors I work with. It’s the community and the team that I love about it, too, and that comes whether it’s comedically or dramatically. My scene partners are touching me and pushing the buttons to make me laugh or whatever. So, I love that, too.
Kaplan: You teach acting at the Performing Arts Studio West. Can you tell me more about how you got into teaching?
Jordan: Yeah! (laughs) I taught a bit when I was in Chicago. When I was getting my master’s degree—I moved out to Chicago in ’98 to get my master’s degree.—And in ’99 I needed to find a job. So, I went to apply for a job at a Carl’s Jr. And the guy says, “When I come back, you’re going to tell me why you want to work here.” And I started crying because I didn’t want to work at Carl’s Jr. (laughs) I met my boss and he was talking about the studio he had was looking for an acting teacher. So, I started working there in the summers, in between graduate school. And after I graduated, I worked there full-time.
I think it opened in ’98. We offer programs to artists with disabilities. I’m one of the acting teachers. They have been featured in more than 2,000 roles in film and television. And one thing about that is, to me, every major actor has a day job. I think teaching what I do is the extension of who I am as an actor. I love the idea of supporting other people in the development of their dreams. Watching the clients, we refer to them as clients, not students, watching them shine is a really awesome feeling. And seeing them grow, seeing actors grow as they’ve been coming to the studio, it’s a great group of artists I work with. I love my coworkers. They’re all amazing. It’s like a family.
Kaplan: That’s great! I know you’re aware that ABILITY Magazine sponsors abilityE.com—connecting casting with authentic disabled actors. Many members are new to the industry. Do you have any advice for anyone starting out? Any auditioning tips?
Jordan: I do! Honestly, I’d love to talk to you more about it because I’m thinking about how I can get more involved with that, too.
Kaplan: That’d be fantastic!
Jordan: I’d say patience, persistence, and passion—the three Ps. Patience, because you have to be really, really patient. Things may or may not happen overnight. Persistence. You have to have a drive and know that there will be rejection. There will be difficult times, and to be able to persist in doing that and taking daily actions. And then you have to do it because you love it: passion. It’s not about whether you think you’ll become famous or whether you think that you’ll make a lot of money. Not that those things aren’t nice. They are, believe me. But there has to be a passion for being an artist. I mean there are lots of things, but the things that come to mind right now are to be patient, have persistence and be passionate. When you pursue your dream and what you love, to me that’s like, you’re so lucky. That’s a blessing. Not everyone has the courage to pursue their dreams. I’ve met people who go, “Oh, I always wanted to be an actor, but I never tried.” There may be a reason.
But, if you can, have that passion to be and you can be patient and persistent and not worry. And also, there are things that are not under your control. You can do a great audition and still not get selected. I know with the showcase that there were tons of amazingly talented people who auditioned. I happened to get this one. I don’t get everything that happens. I did get this one, and that’s because of patience, persistence, and passion.
Kaplan: How do those three Ps guide you when there’s so much discrimination and barriers in Hollywood still?
Jordan: The same way, I think. You know, I think there were times—and I’m not going to lie— It can get really frustrating. Sometimes I feel like we, as a community, and I, as an individual, have been saying the same things for years and years and years and years. “The barriers are starting to come down.” But it’s like two steps forward, one step back, and then two steps forward, three steps back. There’s always this. But the passion is that when I hear that we’re not ready yet, I wonder when are we going to be ready? The persistence. You just have to keep going because, if you don’t, it’s not going to change. If everyone gives in to the frustration, if as a collective we give into the frustration, we won’t break down the barriers, because we’re frustrated.
Kaplan: What do you think still needs to happen in terms of those barriers coming down? What would you like to see?
Jordan: There’s been so much growth in the past two years. I would like to see the diversity and the intersectionality within the large disabled community be more visible. I think when it comes to disability on TV, we still see predominantly images of Caucasian men. That’s changing. There are more people of color, more people from other multi-marginalized communities who have disabilities on TV. Definitely when telling disability-specific stories, but also, I’m an aunt in real life, so why can’t I play an aunt in TV? I didn’t become a mom, but not every actor on TV who plays a mom has been a mom. I just want to be able to tell the stories of other actors with disabilities, for us to be able to tell stories that celebrate the diversity and intersectionality of the human spirit, whether they’ll show—and some will be funny, and some will be not real serious. And we have this image of the physical barriers. I think breaking down the attitudinal barriers and the physical barriers that would allow access for actors. We’re doing more home auditions, but we need to break those barriers, too, so that we have more equity.
And again, I tend to be a positive person. I am so grateful for every opportunity I have had. I’ve had a lot, and I’m truly, truly grateful for that. But that doesn’t mean that after years of pursuing my dream, I don’t still have dreams. I would love to book a series. Or maybe one day go to the Oscars. Those are the dreams I have. It won’t be the end of the world if it doesn’t happen, but I still dream and I still work hard toward manifesting those dreams.
Kaplan: That’s great. I was actually going to go there next, on what your goals are for the future or if you have any future projects you have coming.
Jordan: I would love to book a series, a supporting role in a really fun drama, maybe a period drama. I’d love to work a supporting role in a period drama so I could wear all the fun costumes. Also, theatrically because I love stage. I would love to work at the Mark Taper Forum in LA or with Michael Douglas or the Geffen Theater. They’re all here in LA. I would love to do more stage work, do a great, wonderful play. And then also find opportunities to direct. Those are my future goals. Those are some.
Kaplan: That sounds great. You’ve called yourself a disability inclusion “artivist.” What does that mean to you?
Jordan: It means I use my art to talk about disability inclusion and equity. I do that through artistic means. There’re not titles for what we do. We kind of have to create our own path and then say, “You know what? You need me!” I conduct workshops through my company, the Rainbow Butterfly Café on disability inclusion and equity in the arts. I use my workshops to teach about disability history, disability distance. I use the word “artivist” because it’s a combination of art and activism. To me, my art and my activism are very much intertwined.