JUSFC Meet Our Grantees Series: Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB)

January 2, 2018 

Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), is the only Off-Broadway theater in New York and one of just a few in the United States that is dedicated to advancing actors and writers with disabilities — and changing the image of people with disabilities.

“We have always been an integrated company of both disabled and non-disabled artists,” says TBTB Artistic Director Nicholas Viselli. “We’ve acquired a reputation for excellence while modeling the full inclusion of people with disabilities in our work. Support from the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission (JUSFC) has  allowed us to expand our work and mission globally to Japan, and has truly been a game-changer for us.”

Founded in 1979 as Theater by the Blind and showcasing the work of blind and low vision artists and actors, TBTB expanded its mission in 2008 to include writers, directors, administrators and performers of all disabilit

ies, and changed its name to Theater Breaking Through Barriers, retaining the “TBTB” acronym by which they are most commonly known. It is TBTB’s principal goal to alter the negative stereotypes surrounding disability and to ultimately show the “vibrancy and vitality of our artists through our art.”

“It has always been challenging to attract audiences to our work because of the stigmas and fears surrounding disability,” explains Viselli. “It is our ultimate goal to change those perceptions, and to prove that disability does not diminish or detract from the quality of the art or the artist.  Nearly 20% — one fifth — of our country’s population currently lives with a physical disability. It is ingrained in the fabric of our society and must be recognized without fear or prejudice.”

TBTB presents a season of Off-Broadway shows and workshops in New York City, and raises educational awareness through after-school programming in city schools. Seeking to expand their outreach nationally and globally, the company applied for a JUSFC institutional grant in 2014. “We had received an invitation from the Bird Theater in Tottori, Japan to perform at their international theatre festival in late September,” Viselli recalls. “I started looking into possible funding and discovered JUSFC, which was truly a godsend. Partnering with JUSFC allowed us to share our mission on a global scale, to experience perceptions through another culture and to share our perceptions in return.”

Cities in Japan are among the most accessible that TBTB had ever experienced, with buildings and transportation all designed to accommodate people with disabilities. However, Japanese culture, while very polite, tends to hide disabled people from view, and having disabilities still carries a sense of shame, according to Viselli. “The way we learn is through storytelling,” he notes. “The Japanese appreciated our more outspoken American approach, and were open to all the issues we presented.”

TBTB returned to Japan in Fall 2017 with support from a new  JUSFC grant. The group performed for several organizations, including Tanpopo-No-Ye in Nara, the Niigata Arts Council and the Sengawa Theater. They continue to work with the Bird Theater in Tottori, and have been invited back to perform for students

TBTB Company in Japan: L to R: Ann Marie Morelli, Richard M. Rose, Nicholas Viselli, Satoshi Haga, Rie Fukuzawa, Melanie Boland

at the Department of Cultural Design at Kindai University in Osaka, as well as at the Sengawa Theater.


“As we’d hoped, we are now reaching many more people in Japan,” says Viselli. “As Japan prepares to host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics Games, they recognize the need to change the perception of disabilities, and are very supportive of our mission. None of this would have been possible without JUSFC!”

To learn more about TBTB, visit the website here, and follow them on Facebook and Twitter. Also view their two latest Japan video blogs here and here.