Writer and actor Jim Troesh will be the first to tell you he’s the best-connected quadriplegic working in Hollywood today. Then he’ll remind you he might just be the only one. But thanks to industry events like the NBC Diversity Showcase, an increase in representation and opportunity seems a slightly more attainable reality for entertainers accustomed to being overlooked by the Hollywood scene.
“I know quadriplegic is a really scary word,” said Troesh, whose acting resume includes appearances on After MASH and Boston Legal and a recurring role on Highway to Heaven. “But I’d really like Jim Troesh to make enough money to take care of Jim Troesh. I want my work to connect with some people, to make a few statements, to show that yes, I have a life. That way people can really try to get to know me before they get to know me.”
Troesh’s comedic piece, “The Gimp and the GILF,” about a wheelchair user and a unique sexual fetish, was one of nine short scenes selected for this year’s showcase. The event, organized as part of NBC-Universal’s Diversity Initiative, is one element of the network’s ongoing effort to discover and promote unique perspectives in entertainment. This year, says event co-producer and NBC diversity executive, Karen Horne, there was a concerted effort to include more seniors and people with disabilities among the showcase talent.
“Diversity means really trying to tell a story through a new mindset, a fresh perspective,” Horne said. “It takes just one success, one risk, to start opening people’s eyes and to show them that inclusion is something that can and should be done. It’s not such a big chance if someone does it and does it well.”
Utilizing the resources of the Writers Guild of America Access Department, the Media Access Office, and the NBC Directing Fellowship Program, Horne and co-producer Kendra Carter assembled a slate of acting, directing and writing talent of greater diversity than is found on most TiVos. Stories presented included those of a young Chinese woman and her questions of cultural assimilation, elderly women commiserating after a funeral, and a pair of lesbian friends who wrestle with the unique complexity of their relationship.
For Reem Mahmood, who played a young woman growing closer to her mother in “Love, Lee,” diversity showcases like these offer hope that the entertainment industry is catching up to the multicultural reality in which we all live. “There’s finally coming a point in Hollywood,” Mahmood said, “at which studio and network heads might realize what’s so attractive and exciting about a melting pot. Who says there isn’t a Meryl Streep in another race or with a disability? Bring these people out. Place them in roles that aren’t traditional. That’s how you really discover talent.”
But in the meantime, few of these performers are content to sit quietly. Both Mahmood and Troesh say that the general scarcity of true inclusion and diversity on television has compelled them to channel their voices and experiences into creative material of their own. Mahmood has written “Arab America,” a television pilot about a girl of Iraqi heritage growing up in California. Troesh writes, produces and stars in a series of web videos called “The Hollywood Quad,” in which he takes a comical look at his professional, sexual and social exploits. The liberating process of creative engagement, Troesh says, has frequently shed new light on his disability and self-perception. “I’ve always felt like kind of an outsider, even at Hollywood parties,” Troesh said. “So I tend to write scripts about being on the outside looking in. And the more that I write, the more I realize that everyone can relate to that feeling. So I just keep writing.”
But according to television writer-producer, Felicia Henderson, it’s just that kind of specificity, that relatable yet unique exploration of personal challenges, that is too often lost in an overarching effort toward multicultural representation in media. “You still don’t see a lot of television that’s told from a specific point of view,” said Henderson, who acted as creative consultant for the showcase and has worked on such series as Fringe and Gossip Girl. “The focus lately is, ‘How do we include all kinds of people in a mainstream setting?’ But what about really exploring a specific ethnic background or a specific disability? It seems more important now to just put someone in a wheelchair on a mainstream show rather than to show the rich and interesting parts of his life in the wheelchair.”
Paul Chitlik, a television writer and producer whose showcase selection “Getting Even” centered on a hearing impaired legal professional, believes that a primary reason such rich and interesting stories often go unheard is because too many talents of minority backgrounds don’t feel comfortable sharing their wares in the marketplace. “People wonder why there aren’t more minority writers,” Chitlik said. “It’s because there aren’t more minority opportunities. Because many of these talents aren’t applying to film schools or theater programs. Because they don’t see that they have roles in front of or behind the camera. They don’t know if there is actually a place for them.”
Whatever the obstacles that minority talents might face, Horne and Carter remain optimistic that the ever-shifting landscape of television is making a place for anyone with talent, drive and voice. Carter says that through programs like Writers on the Verge, the Short Cuts Film Festival, the NBC Director Fellowship, and the Diversity Showcase, the network is leading the charge to help television, and television viewers, celebrate difference as part of our societal fabric.
“The talent is out there,” Carter said. “We’re always looking for it, and we’re excited whenever we find it.”
by David Radcliff