When the curtain comes down on Cripfest at BAM Fisher on Saturday night, Mat Fraser hopes a long-departed American president will be in the house.
“I hope the ghost of FDR is smiling down on us — the disabled guy, who was closeted all his life through the need of the American people who needed their president not to be disabled,” Fraser said. “Sorry, doesn’t a president using a wheelchair mean strength?”
Fraser, 53, is a musician, Lower East Sider and actor, perhaps best known for playing Paul the Illustrated Seal on "American Horror Story: Freak Show."
He's also the organizer behind Cripfest, a celebration of talented artists with disabilities for an evening of entertainment at BAM Fisher, sponsored by the British Council.
“Twenty-five years ago, I thought a disabled actor would have gotten an Oscar [by now] for playing a regular person in a regular thing. We are no nearer that than we were then. So in 25 years' time, I hope it’s not unusual for American audiences to see a disabled newscaster tell them about the new drama series that’s coming up, that has a wheelchair-using mom in it, where it’s all about the conflicts, and all about what a little s— her 15-year-old is, not about her wheelchair.” —Mat Fraser
The event, taking place this Saturday, is one day before the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and starts with a panel discussion at 2 p.m. As the afternoon continues, the performances start and cocktails will flow. The evening finishes with a cabaret variety show with a sideshow flair — a throwback to the start of Fraser’s early career, when he performed as “Seal Boy” on Coney Island — and the audience can expect burlesque, bed of nails acts and straightjacket escapes.
Tickets are free, but attendees must RSVP here.
Performers include Bill “The Crutchmaster” Shannon, a dancer and a staged reading of “Downsizing Camus” by Chicago playwright Todd Bauer, who is blind.
Fraser defines “crip” as a “politicized disabled person.”
“Just as African-American people have reclaimed the n-word, we’ve reclaimed the c-word: crip. And so some of the stuff we can joke about among ourselves can be a bit offensive,” Fraser said.
The show will likely prove to be the edgy counterpart to the month of ADA anniversary celebrations, which included the city’s inaugural disability pride parade on July 12.
“[That] was about community support and family,” said Fraser of the parade. “This is my assertion to the mainstream arts world that many disabled artists and artists with a disability are so fantastic that you guys have just got to see this s—. And I’m going to put together the mofo of a lineup that will blow you out of the water.”
Fraser said he knows many people within the disability rights community are coming, and wants to extend the invitation to the “able-bodied” because “ultimately, we shouldn’t need this festival.”
Lawrence Carter-Long, a disability activist and performer, said that disability rights is a political and cultural revolution. With 80 percent of people with disabilities becoming disabled later in life, Carter-Long says most of us “are going to have a personal relationship with disability at some point.”
“When it comes to the arts, people are tired of cookie-cutter depictions, and we should introduce them to stories they’ve never heard,” Long said. “This is one of the last great frontiers in terms of entertainment.”