Anita Hollander: “Forever and with one leg”

Born in 1955 in Cleveland, Anita Hollander has been performing since she could talk. She is the National Chair of SAG-AFTRA Performers with Disabilities. She recently concluded a run of Spectacular Falls: A Slippery Solo Musical at New York’s United Solo Festival and in Cleveland, Ohio; in January she played a landlady on CBS’s FBI: Most Wanted. Hollander will reprise the lively Spectacular Falls as part of this spring’s ReelAbilities Film Festival, on April 5 at 4 pm at the Marlene Meyerson JCC on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She will also be performing in San Francisco on July 15, 17 and 19 at NOHspace, part of the Fury Festival.

In her mid-twenties, she lost a leg to cancer. We talked last winter in her apartment in Manhattan Plaza, a high-rise development just west of Manhattan’s theater district that provides subsidized housing for performing artists who earn at least 50 percent of their income from their art. She has lived there for years with her husband, Paul Hamilton, and their daughter Holland, who recently married. I met her several years ago in the locker room of the Manhattan Plaza Health Club. She is in much better shape than I am.

EZ: You have made a life for yourself as a woman with a disability, past sixty and just chugging along. What’s your birth date?

AH: November 30, 1955. Winston Churchill’s birthday. And Oscar Wilde’s death day. Fifty years to the day after Oscar Wilde died, I was born. I think there’s a connection. And Winston and I have a lot in common. When I was going through the cancer situation, I had meetings around my hospital bed, and I knew Winston Churchill had done this. I was very Churchill-y, my whole life. As you see, most of my apartment is an office. It’s very Winston Churchill. Work was life and life was work. That’s what he lived for. And I am exactly what that man was.

While I was at Carnegie Mellon in ’77 I had my first operation, not the amputation. It was the first diagnosis of cancer, junior year at Carnegie, at CMU. And chemo and radiation and all that, while I was still at CMU, and graduated with my class, which was no easy feat because I lost six weeks. But I stayed through the summer and worked with high school kids and the pre-college, and they let me catch up. I love that school; to this day I am so grateful to them. They just bent over backwards to help me stay.

Five years later, in Boston in 1982, the tumor was found again. I knew it was happening long before then, but the doctor from New York kept saying nope, nope, there’s nothing there. And of course there was something there, and I knew there was. But it took them till I was in rehearsal for Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, in Boston, directing.

EZ: You knew because you could feel it?

AH: Oh, God, yeah. I was sitting on it. It was where you sit. Right there. In between the knee and the butt. Right in the middle of the thigh.

The first time around, in 1977, nine out of 10 doctors said there was nothing wrong with my leg. And that’s part of my show. Nothing wrong. Took nine months, 10 doctors, every hospital in Cleveland, and the Neurological Institute in New York to finally get the diagnosis of cancer.

They said, we’re moving you to the oncology ward. I didn’t know what oncology meant; I was 21 years old. A doctor called me on the phone when I was still under morphine from the biopsy, saying, “the operation went great; we’re operating on Tuesday.” I get off the phone and I say to mom, “It’s okay. The operation went great and they’re operating on Tuesday.” And my mother storms the head surgeon’s office of the Neurological Institute, saying, what the fuck?

And then at 26, in 1982 in Boston, when I knew the pain was back and I couldn’t sit for long periods of time, the original New York surgeon just gave me painkillers. So I was living on Percocet, which was not me at all.

I was directing Jacques Brel in Boston, taking trips to the NY surgeon, Dr. Harold Dick, sitting for four hours on a tumor. So after several appointments where he said there was nothing in there, with no tests, I asked the doctor’s assistant for a referral in Boston that I could see for these follow-ups  and she referred me to the head of orthopedic surgery at Mass General, Dr. Henry Mankin, who was the best. He was a human being. He was really honest with me.

And that’s when I had to have the leg amputated. When I was going in for the biopsy, I knew I would not be coming out with two legs. I’d lived five years with this leg that was dying from all the radiation. It looked like a piece of bacon. But it was kind enough to get me through Europe and let me dance on it, even with a brace on it. And I was very thankful, grateful that I had the leg for those five years, which gave me the time to process that I wasn’t going to have it for the rest of my life. If I had life at all, I wasn’t going to have that left leg.

The doctor knew I was in rehearsals. Like Winston Churchill, I called the whole cast, musical director, and stage manager to my bedside and said, look, I’m going to have my leg amputated on Friday, and … I’ve written out the rehearsal schedule for the next two weeks, but they tell me I can come back to rehearsals in two weeks. I can just do LOA from the hospital (leave of absence) for the evening. Just go out for the evening and then come back. So I lived in that hospital for over a month. I told the physical therapist, I want to get out of bed and start walking as soon as I can. How long will that take?

Within a few days I was getting up. And they were like, you’re healing really fast. I had done lot of research. (I’d been the only 16-year-old who ever subscribed to Prevention Magazine; I learned these things long before I got cancer.) So when I went into the hospital I brought B vitamins and brewer’s yeast and E for the skin, and zinc for the healing of the scar and the incision. And C. This was my little cocktail.

So the show opened. I went back to rehearsals two weeks after the amputation and we opened the show two weeks later. I was back onstage with a bucket and a pole—because they didn’t have time to make a real artificial leg, so I had a bucket and a pole with a foot attached. But I had a long dress. I went up and down steps. I used my crutches. There are pictures of me doing the song “Carousel” with the crutches …

EZ: So you were not merely directing this, you were –

AH: I was in it, yeah. Two weeks after the amputation, I’m at rehearsal on one leg. The cast has never seen me on one leg. I’m on a painkiller that lasts four hours. So it’s like, we have from 7 to 11 to rehearse. At 11, I turn into a pumpkin, gotta get back to the hospital. One of the actors was my chauffeur. He was great.

And I would get up on one leg and show them the choreography for “Brussels,” – and they all understood what I was doing. I had been a Broadway baby from the beginning.

I was doing Jacques Brel, and a Boston TV show called People Magazine interviewed the cast. And one of the cast members, the chauffeur who took me from the hospital, said, ‘Anita was born in a trunk. She breathes theater. She knows theater so well that you can chop off her leg and she will still know exactly what she wants at every single moment in the show. And it works. And we get great reviews.’

The musical director had not believed I would be able to do this. When she came to my bedside she said, you’ve never lost a leg before. And I’m going, I’ve gone five years with a paralyzed leg. Once this leg is off, I’m back at rehearsals, and that’s that.

I think that in my genetics, somewhere, it was like, don’t waste any time because you may not be here for very long. I didn’t know where it came from till I got cancer at 21 and realized oh, that’s why. People try to accomplish lots in their life and then suddenly they drop dead, like my dad at 48. They’ve packed so much into their life, not necessarily knowing, but having some sense that we’re not here forever.

So at 21, I had a high-grade malignancy in my leg that was going to kill me and it was going to travel through my nervous system, with excruciating pain, which feels like sciatica but also pulsating in the leg. My journals at that time were hilarious because it was like, okay, this is really just an acting exercise. I’m being tested to see if I really want to live, and I really want to do this. And I really do. So I am going to get past this, no matter if they have to whittle me away. It was really about determination.

But the thing was that I didn’t know if I was going to live. Reaching my 30th birthday was like, let’s have a party, because I may not be here.

And everything after that – getting married, having a child, having a career, working, writing, performing – every single thing, as my Grandpa Charlie said, is like frosting on the cake, because it’s more than I expected. Did I expect to make it to 64? I am now more than twice as old as the birthday they thought I wouldn’t make it to. It’s amazing, really –

EZ: So what are you doing about pain now?

AH: Oh, I hate talking about it. There is a song in my show called “The Pain.” It is a great description of the kind of pain. I mean, it started as phantom pain right after the amputation. But all these years have gone by and now it’s localized nerve pain.

Phantom pain is excruciating. You feel things shoot down to the foot that isn’t there, all these electrical daggers and stuff. And now it’s more like the nerves are exposed so if they get stimulated on a hard surface, you just go into seizures of pain.

I have a neuroma at the end of the big sciatic nerve – a little bulb. If the bulb gets caught – because it moves around, it’s not fixed in one place, it’s an ending – if it gets pressed on a bone, the pain is excruciating.

So I have a system. The first time I feel anything now, any twinge or any hint of pain, that it might be developing, I take homeopathic medication – Boiron’s Hypericum perforatum, which I was introduced to by Lillian Quartuccia, a neighborhood homeopath who’s amazing.

If that doesn’t work, the next step is an anti-inflammatory. I sleep on ice every night. So the Hypericum, the ice, the anti-inflammatory. And if none of those works, it really means we’ve gone to the dark side – that’s very rare, only a couple times a year if that – that’s when I need to take an Oxycodone. One 10-milligram, a tiny little thing.

And you have no idea how hard it is to get a doctor now to prescribe Oxy because of the whole addiction thing. I am the most non-addictive human being on the planet. I’m not attracted to that drug. And when I take one, it’s to put me out. And by morning or by the time I wake up, there’s no pain, because – I don’t know what happens. It’s magic. But that’s the only hard-core drug I keep a tiny stash of. And usually the prescription expires before I use them all. But it is my emergency plan.

My whole life is yin and yang. It’s like, I’m in mortal pain, thinking about jumping off the terrace, but at the same time I’m getting a call to do some extraordinary acting job, which hardly anyone gets to do. So I do feel there’s a whole thing in the universe of, it’s going to hurt, but the reward is, you get to do this.

EZ: You live in Manhattan Plaza. Is Paul an actor?

AH: He is. I am the head of the household because I had been on the list all that time, long before I met Paul. And I’m the one whose income determined whether I could get in or not. At first I couldn’t because they wouldn’t take my NYU voice teaching as performing arts. They wouldn’t accept any teaching income at all.

My mother was very helpful. She wrote to Mayor Koch, in whose building I was living in the Village. I was being evicted because NYU housing had put me in that building, and I was no longer working at NYU.

Koch was at the top of the building; I was on the ninth floor. And she wrote a letter – I had written him a letter too, saying, do you really want me living in a refrigerator box in front of 14 Washington Place, your building? And I have one leg. Would you really want to see that? I didn’t get any response from my letter. But when she wrote about her daughter and about what she’d accomplished and how she had cancer – well, the mayor’s office sent the letter to Manhattan Plaza and said, get her in. It worked. Because of the way my mom writes.

EZ: Is she still with us?

AH: Yes. She’s 85. She’s a riot. And she’s still writing letters to the editor that always get published. We’ve gone to Dachau as a family. We went to Europe as a family, all four girls and my dad and mom –

EZ: You have three sisters?

AH: Yeah. And my dad didn’t know he was going to be dying two years after he took us all across Europe. He was a cantor at Fairmount Temple, Anshe Chesed, in Beachwood, Ohio. He was a Broadway enthusiast, which is why I saw Broadway shows from the time I can remember.

And we’d dance in the living room to obscure shows like Bajour, with Chita Rivera. And we saw the original Hello, Dolly, and we saw – oh, Guys and Dolls was one of my favorites. As a four-year-old I could get up and sing “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along.”

He would bring us here every year; we’d see the shows. I would memorize the albums and then my sisters and I performed as a family act, a music act, from the time that we could sing. He started testing us singing-wise when we were about two.

My youngest sister, Rev Rachel, is an interfaith minister who was ordained at Riverside Chapel. She’s also a fabulous ASL interpreter; she interprets my show – She worked with a deaf theater company for about 10 years. And she works as an interpreter of national tours. She’s the only interpreter who’s interpreted Hamilton. She’s amazing. I am the second-oldest. The third is a lawyer. Lisa. The rest of us are in arts. Celia, the oldest, is an incredible musician with perfect pitch. Can play any instrument.

EZ: So Holland grew up here.

AH: Born and raised, right in this building. Holland went to Oberlin, graduated in 2011, which was the perfect place for her as well. She’s done very well in school, and she’s just been passionate about teaching.

EZ: Under “Skills” on your CV it says Voiceover, Piano, Songwriting, Dialects, French, Stage Combat, Swimming, Alexander Technique, Tai Chi, Pilates, Crutches, Prosthetic Leg, Wheelchair operation (Amputee). What are you doing now? How are you earning a living as a performer in your sixties?

AH: All of my living comes from the arts, whether it’s acting in theater, film, and TV, singing, music directing, conducting a children’s choir, writing music for a temple, or directing in the theater.

But mostly it’s theater. My life is theater and writing music. My music is actually doing something in the world. I’m shocked, because I am not high up on anybody’s food chain of anything – film, television, theater. I just do it, you know? When people think that the only people who make a living at this are the famous ones, it’s so funny, because there are so many of us – many live in this building – who just are quietly, calmly working at our art.

Writing shows has become a vital element in my living. In addition to my own shows, every year I write a Purim Spiel for the Village Temple Children’s Choir, age six to 16. I’ve been doing music for the temple for 33 years, musical directing, writing new settings for the prayers, and writing – with the choir, writing songs about making a better world, about tikkun olam. We have a great song you can see online on YouTube, Anita Hollander, “Share the World.” And you’ll see the kids and you’ll hear the song. It was their idea to say the word “welcome” in 20 languages, and they do that, and I’m so proud of that song.

I’ve become a disability consultant for the Dramatists Guild magazine. And as National Chair of SAG-AFTRA Performers With Disabilities Committee, I advocate for more inclusion in the industry. The disability community is always the last priority, the lowest on the totem pole. When Hollywood talks about diversity, they just kept leaving us out, because so much ignorance still exists about talented performers with disabilities, that we could even exist.

But in the last two years, our hard work has started to really change the industry. After all these years of just pulling teeth, we had no less than a dozen actors with disabilities, both off and on Broadway, in one season. We had a Broadway show, The Children of a Lesser God. We had the off-Broadway show Amy and the Orphans, with the actress who has Down syndrome, Jamie Brewer from American Horror Story, right down the street at Roundabout.

We had four actors with disabilities hired by Manhattan Theater Club to do Cost of Living. They cast the two lead characters who had disabilities with disabled actors, and they cast understudies with disabilities. That was unheard of, for any theater, on Broadway or off Broadway, that they would cast the understudies and the principals, all disabled actors.

And last season the Oklahoma! that was at St. Anne’s came to Broadway with now Tony Award-winner Ali Stroker – Ali’s great, we worked together too, and she was in Spring Awakening and Glee on TV. She’s doing great. She was in a car accident at the age of two. And so she’s been in a wheelchair all her life.

I wrote Still Standing over a period of time, from 1977 to 1993, when I first premiered the show at Don’t Tell Mama, and at Primary Stages, as a musical, me plus other actors playing the other roles, with a live piano and sometimes bass.

But I realized it was impractical to have a show that had a cast and a live musician, because I was getting requests to do it all over the place and I couldn’t take them with me because it’s too cost-prohibitive. So I made a CD, an album of the show, which is what you hear online if you Google it: the recording I made in 1996, with all the voices. I just pulled out my lead vocal and took that with me, with the show. So I could tour it anywhere by myself, which I’ve been doing for 27 years.

When I toured in Florida, Holland came with me and sang the song “Mommy is a Mermaid.” At that point in the show, when she’s around, she walks out on stage and sings “Mommy is a Mermaid,” which I wrote for her while I was pregnant.

EZ: When was Holland born?

AH: ’89. I wrote “The Holland Cycle,” three songs, while I was pregnant, and I sang them to her regularly. When she was born, it was calamitous because it was an emergency Caesarean and I had toxemia and my blood pressure was at 250 over 140 and I was gonna die. And they said, we gotta get this baby out. And they cut me open and took the baby out. I was out cold; they put me under. It was a worst-case scenario, how you don’t want to have a baby.

I have this great, wonderful, ugly picture of me as a baby. When I saw her, I said to Paul, take her back and get the ugly baby, because that would look like me. I went, that’s not my baby. Go back, get our baby, not that baby. Because she had this perfectly round face, and she looked like an angel, and I did not look like that.

So they bring her to me, and again, I’m in pain from the Caesarean. Either I’m on medication or I’m in pain – it was just horrible. I couldn’t laugh because it would hurt. They put the baby – here’s the baby and I’m looking, I’m going, she’s way too beautiful. She is like some kind of angel. This is not my child.

So she looks up and she’s like, who are you? And I’m looking at her like, yeah, I know, I feel the same way. They had put a tube down my throat, so my voice was very scratchy. But when you’re in the womb, all you hear is scratchy; you only hear the upper tones, you don’t hear the deep tones.

So I start to sing this song called “Holland.” And from the moment I sing the word “Holland,” she looks up into my eyes, and then she chomps down on my breast. It was hilarious.

EZ: So you have an agent, and they send you out on things. And it’s getting better as you get older …

AH: I’m knocking on wood because every year I don’t know how it will go. But the first six months of last year were booked over a year ahead. I was booked for a month-long run of Still Standing in Boston. Jim Petosa called me in 2018 and said, hey, are you still doing that show? Because I’d like you do to it at my theater.

I’d been wanting to work at Jim’s theater forever. He was also head of the theater department at Boston University. He directed me at the Olney Theater in 1996. We worked together over 20 years ago. And the lesson, I tell everyone, is keep in touch with the people you’ve worked with. Because it may take 20 years, but you’re going to get a great gig.

The Goodman Theater [in Chicago] is incredible. I got hired there in August of 2015, after I broke my hand and could barely walk and get to the audition. I had this cast, and they’re going, how long do you have to be in that? And I said 12 weeks. And they said, no problem. The show isn’t until February. And a few weeks later I was at my lowest point, because without this hand, I couldn’t walk. Can’t walk on the crutches. I had this crazy contraption crutch that you could put your arm on, but I couldn’t live my life on that thing. And putting my leg on every day is way too painful. And I thought my career was over. And then they cast me in The Matchmaker and it went to Goodman Theater. All after I turned 60.

In 1996 I did the musical The Fifth Season, about homesteaders, the land rush in the Dakotas in 1907. It’s about women in the land rush and the trials and tribulations they went through going out there as women on their own. They wanted the lottery, the land lottery, because they weren’t guaranteed a plot of land. They had to camp out and wait. And they had to support each other in some way, or they wouldn’t survive.

It was the most amazing show with an amazing cast. Aaron Dilley, Kurt Johns, Chris Flint. And I had the lead role. I got the last curtain call, on a raked stage at the end of which there were leaves everywhere on the floor. One false move and I would have slid right into the front row of seats. Jim wanted me to come straight down the center and bow. And he’d say, why don’t you come out more confidently? I’m going, “I’m watching for leaves.”

By the end of the show I was on one leg because the character loses her leg. She gets shot in the leg, and you don’t know it. I danced on a bar, on a raked stage. I was doing all this great choreography. The choreographer and the director didn’t know what to do with me, so I choreographed it myself, and they were like … you can do that?

I would get up on the bar, I’d throw my leg in the air. Nobody knew I had an artificial leg. And then at the end of the first act, the guy who shot me shows up. And you start to see a flashback of what the character’s gone through, and that she was shot in the leg. And you get the sound of the shot.

But then in the second act, she still has the leg, but it’s festered. The whole thing at the end of the first act, the whole traumatic mind thing where she goes back in time, is because she’s delirious, she’s got gangrene. So in the second act, the women band together, and one of them knows about herbs, and they mix the herbs so they can take the leg off without her dying from the pain. And there was this part of the music where I had to do this very long run, like a scream, like a moan, vocally a very beautiful, exciting thing. But it was really painful. I was shadowed behind a sheet, and the audience knew I was having my leg amputated.

And then she goes on, and she fights back, and she fights the lover, because he shows up again. And she ends up, she fights him and someone shoots him from the other side of the room. We had a fight scene, a really vicious fight scene that—they didn’t know if I’d be strong enough to do it. And I’m like, I’m a body of steel, and I have a certificate in stage fighting.

Chris, the other actor doing the fight with me, is an opera singer. He learned a lot working with me, because we were really challenging each other, in a great way. We liked each other very much, and we were challenging each other.

It’s the last rehearsal before we go into tech and they still haven’t blocked the fight scene. So Chris and I said, you know what? Let’s make our own fight scene. I said, I love that idea. We both know something about fight scenes. And we did a whole fight, not standing, but on the floor. I was thrown around. I almost rolled off the stage. There was one point when I was like, okay, I went a little too close. Because it’s this raked stage that just ends, and then there’s an audience member right there … but we had it under control. We’d always check in with each other before the scene, and then we’d check back in after. It was really great to do it with a very loving man who was like, are you okay? I’m okay. Any injuries? No, we’re good. Every night it was a very exciting thing.

Jim Petosa was the kind of director who said, if I’m not an expert in what you need to do in that scene, I trust you to work on it yourselves and show us. I got a Helen Hayes nomination for that role at the Kennedy Center that year. But not enough people saw it to vote for me; that’s the story of my life. I was like – wow, they had a chance to actually give the Helen Hayes to a disabled actress playing a disabled role. But it was very exciting. I’m very proud of that nomination. People would go out in the lobby and ask, “How did they do the one-legged thing? Because she obviously doesn’t have one leg. She dances in the first act.”

I said to Jim, I’ve got this show that I wrote, that I started doing three years ago, and I think it would be great if I could do some of it as an after-the-show kind of performance. Let the audience come out in the courtyard and I’ll do six songs from the show. Or more if you want. I’ll do a half-hour, an hour. Because I think people need to understand that I am actually a disabled actress, and that the story is interesting. And that they’ll never quite see the show the same way, because they didn’t just go get any actress; they had cast an actress with one leg to play the role.

And Jim said, I love this idea. And the PR people, marketing, everyone said, you’ve got to do this. And they put it out there, and we had a huge crowd. And some people who had seen the show other nights heard about the after-show thing, and they came. We had just a sea of people who wanted to see what this was about, because it was so unusual.

I never thought I’d be dancing in my sixties. I didn’t think I’d be dancing in my thirties. But I was tap-dancing on an artificial leg at 48, in Nunsense, down on the Shore. I did Cats on one leg as a three-legged cat, twice. I did Grizabella as a three-legged cat, twice in New Jersey, two different theaters. These all happened from 48 and up.

Cherry Jones was in my class, and all these other people who went on to do big things. They were all around me, and none of us knew, including the faculty or the administration, how this girl was going to pursue this profession when she now had a brace on her leg and she’s paralyzed and she’s had cancer and all this.

The amputation hadn’t happened yet. But you could see in their faces when I came back to school with no hair and no eyebrows and no eyelashes, and I looked – I had gone from looking like I was 21 to 12. I just looked very skinny. I liked being small and being able to wear a size 7 jumpsuit. I was like, whoa. But I looked like someone who had just had cancer, even though I looked young.

And they wigged me for all the roles – but my shoe would fall off sometimes if I didn’t wear the brace on my leg. My foot would just flop along, and I was playing an old woman in one of the plays, A Month in the Country, and I didn’t wear the brace because I wanted to walk a certain way. And I left my shoe backstage. I looked down, I’m sitting – and there was no sensation. I go backstage [and someone says] is this yours? I was like, oh, fuck, that’s my shoe. So then we decided I’d better wear the brace, because the brace kind of held the shoe on.

In that senior year when I was finishing radiation, I was wearing a brace and B.H. Barry was teaching us fight choreography. And he said, look, I’ve worked with a girl with one leg, so I don’t see why you can’t do this. I could jump. The brace was flexible. He taught me to fight. And he said, the problem is going to be who of your fellow students wants to partner with you, because they’re all afraid of hurting you. And they were.

And Roscoe Gilliam, this wonderful black actor who was triple-threat, goes, I’ll do it. I’ll fight with you – and he really did. And he never showed me that he was worried about me. But Barry said later, “Roscoe was terrified. He was so afraid he’d hurt you.”

We did Anne of a Thousand Days, a scene where Anne and Henry fight. They go at each other. We choreographed the whole thing. We had quarter staffs, we had swords, we had daggers. We had fists. Girls had to wear long dresses – well, at least I had to, because the scene was Anne of a Thousand Days, 1500s, right? So I’ve got a long dress, I can’t keep track of where my left foot is, I can’t feel it. So – but I know when to jump, and I know when the signals come. And we ran through the fight right before we presented it. Wouldn’t you know, I made a tactical error. I moved the wrong thing, and he hit me in the upper lip with the dagger.

And he freaked out. He was like, oh, my God, Anita, I’m so sorry. And I’m laughing, I’m going, this had to happen because now we know that I can get hurt but it doesn’t matter. We can still do this because – yeah, I got hurt. Big deal. Let’s do the thing.

And we went down and we did it, and it was graceful and it was beautiful and  Roscoe was like – he was my hero. Nobody would do it with me but him. And even Barry said, he just was terrified. But he was a wonderful Henry the Eighth. He died of AIDS in the ‘90s. Broke my heart, like with everybody else. But he always treated me like a treasure. And he was the treasure, because they were all afraid that I was fragile, and I was so far from fragile. And Barry knew I was not fragile.

My new show is called Spectacular Falls. Because I never just fall; it’s always spectacular. I go through turnstiles and I go flip in the air and land on my back. I wrote a show about the many meanings of the word fall. In the opening number, I use the word “fall” in every possible way. And it’s funny.

I choreographed the show at The Wheelhouse in Woodstock and worked much of it at SPACE on Ryder Farm in Brewster, New York. Ryder Farm is about communication. And I wasn’t sure I would like it. Well, I loved it. I said to everyone, I brought some paper and a pencil, and I don’t know if we’re allowed to do this here, but I need a few more uses of the word fall. Fall, falls, falling – any configuration of the word. And I’m going to pass this around, and if nobody has any ideas, I’m fine. I’m grateful that you just pass the paper around. Everybody was like, are you kidding? Gimme that paper! And they passed it around and I got this wonderful list of things I hadn’t – William “Fall-kner.” That was hilarious. So I put it in the song. I put them all in the song.

I said, okay, so when we do our sharing at the end – at the end of the week you share what you’ve written – listen for your words. And at the end, I did the number and I’m going, okay, guys, listen carefully, because I took all your ideas. I’m so proud of that song.

At this farm, everyone was so willing to just go, yeah, I could do that. I needed a guitar in one of the songs because it was really hard to play on the piano and perform it, sing it. It’s the “Ode to Oscar Pistorius.” It’s funny and it’s not very nice. Not nice to him. But it’s a real hard-rockin’ song, and the piano will sound great, but I have to record the piano and then sing.

So everybody said, ask the chef. Brandon is a great guitarist. Would you mind? And he goes, are you kidding? All I do is cook all day. I’ll come over to the barn. I’ll work – and he came over, and he was so excited. And he did a phenomenal job. He played the guitar for the Oscar song. And he said, “You know, nobody ever asks me – I’m in a band in Manhattan. Because I’m the chef here, nobody ever asks me to do anything artistic. I’m so grateful I got to play music.”

By the way, all the Still Standing songs are on YouTube – you can get the whole show on iTunes or Amazon. If you just Google Anita Hollander Still Standing, all these videos are going to come up. The full CDs of Still Standing and Spectacular Falls are on ITunes, Apple Music, Amazon, Spotify, cdbaby and other platforms.

EZ: Do you ever get discouraged?

AH: That’s a great question. Goodspeed [in East Haddam, Connecticut] has called me in for auditions for years. Each time I go, “This will be the time.” Because I want to do a show at Goodspeed. I love their musicals; they’ve got an old-fashioned sense – this is New England, this is an opera house, and we’re doing the best musicals ever written. And I’m like, I want to do that. They called me for Sweeney Todd and Gabriel Barre, the director, was like, oh, this would be great. And he tried to sell me to the producers, saying she could be a one-legged street cleaner; she could sing all the parts; she has a great voice. He was really pushing for me to be in it. Upshot, I didn’t get it.

And they brought me in for Music Man, for Mrs. Paroo, the mother, the Irish mom, which is a part I’m born to play. So to be really entertaining and delightful, I went in singing the musical conversation between Marian and Mrs. Paroo, the librarian – about men, and about Balzac and all that. And I played both characters because ever since I was a kid, I could do that.

And they were like, “That’s funny.” I had been waiting to do that my whole life. And they laughed and everything. And then, nothing. It’s every time with Goodspeed. It’s the same with Broadway. I’ve been up for roles, I’ve been one of the last two actresses for roles in six shows. Including The Visit. To be Chita Rivera’s understudy. Because I really do have one leg, and the character has one leg. Still couldn’t nail it!

The frustrating thing is that young actors like Ali now are able to walk or roll right into something that I’ve been working toward my whole life, partly because I have worked on inclusion for the past 40 years.

EZ: She was the best thing about that Oklahoma!

AH: She was great. And that’s her thing, doing classic musicals.

I am very close friends with Andy Einhorn, the Broadway conductor. And Andy was musical director for this recent revival of Sideshow. And he was so excited, because it was the first time I was called in. I walk in the room and Andy’s grinning ear to ear. And he’s like – he’s so happy that I’m there. I’m so happy that I’m there. I give a kickass audition and I get four callbacks. I get a choreography callback where the choreographer is like – I have my artificial leg on, but I go to him first and I say, because this is Sideshow, I can do this dance call on one leg if you prefer. It’s almost more interesting. He said no, no. I’d like to see what you can do with the artificial leg.

So I do the artificial. And at one point he teaches – these are all actresses, singers who are movers but not really dancers. But he gives us a thing to learn. And then he has us take five minutes’ break and then we’ll watch it. So I go to the corner, I take off my leg, pour out the sweat, because that’s what happens. It’s like a puddle. Wipe it, put it back on.

And I don’t look at anyone while I’m doing this, but all around — later I went to say goodbye to the choreographer and he goes, I know you didn’t see this, but when you took your limb off — because he’s Brit – every woman in this room stopped feeling sorry for themselves, stopped thinking anything except, she’s doing this on one leg. She’s doing this dance call and she’s as good as everybody else, who may not be the best dancers in the world – and she’s got one leg. He said, it changed the whole temperature of the room, I swear to you.

One more callback, and again, down to two of us. I didn’t get it.

In both these cases, The Visit and the Sideshow revival, neither ran very long. But I think if they had brought me on, it would have given a little more integrity to the show, that they actually hired an actress with one leg. And of course it was right after that that there was a season of disabled actors getting all this great stuff, on my watch as national chair of Performers With Disabilities for SAG-AFTRA. So the ball is rolling, the wheels are turning. And I’ve been a part of all of this. But I would like to do just one friggin’ Broadway show!

Fraulein Schneider was one of my favorite roles, a role I will never be too old to play, in Cabaret. I’m playing it again this summer, in fact.

EZ: So how do you put the prosthetic on?

AH: Three parts. There’s a gel liner that looks like a bathing cap for your stump; that goes on here. And it’s got gel inside it. And it sticks to my skin. And on the outside of it is a Velcro tail.

The second piece is a plastic hard socket. It’s like white plastic, like that fancy-dancy stuff that braces are made out of. It’s got a hole in the bottom, and it’s formed to fit right over the black gel liner. And the tail of the Velcro comes out the hole and goes up a Velcro strip in the back.

So now I’ve got a plastic piece that lengthens my stump. In other words, there’s only two inches of bone, so the plastic casing is longer. But it’s got me inside it by Velcro. I’m sealed into it. But rather than having something hard against my bone, I’m hanging in it. I’m suspended in it. Do you know what I mean? The plastic case is bigger, and so there’s nothing pressing against my bones. All of the pressure is on the sides. It’s hollow. I’m in it, okay? Now, that piece, which is now, though, two pieces together, fits perfectly into the whole shell of the leg (which has a picture of the Little Mermaid in it, so I call the leg Mermita — Mermaid Anita.) And I get in and I snap it, and then I put the neoprene belt around.

Now, most people don’t have a two-inch stump. They either have six to eight – they either have a long one or they don’t have any at all. They just have a pelvectomy or have disarticulation. Those things are where you don’t have anything there at all. And you wear a big plastic girdle with a metal hip joint. And that’s what makes the leg go.

The thing is, I don’t want to be confined in a big plastic cage. I can’t do what I need to do. And there go all the abs and everything, because it’s inside plastic, and you don’t do anything. And so everyone who’s told me you need more than just a neoprene belt, I’m like, nope.

It’s a lot of work. My wonderful prosthetist of all these years said, what people don’t understand about you is, one, you’re a theater performer. It’s not the same as a runner, an athlete. You’re dancing. That’s different. There are sudden changes. You need to turn quickly.

We tried several different things. And one leg he gave me had a very natural rolling knee, that made it look – the walk was very smooth. But onstage I would turn and suddenly the leg would just give out …

EZ: That happens to me with my real leg.

AH: I know. It doesn’t turn, right? And the legs they make are very heavy. So he said, “You’re a theater performer, and no prosthetists understand that. But I’ve watched you work onstage and I know what you need.

The other thing is, you’re neither here nor there. You’re not a long stump, you’re not a nothing. And there’s no in-betweenness. You need flexibility in your waist. You need to move freely. But you need the stability of something that stays on you and doesn’t fall off, and that stays solid.”

So he’s trying to invent something better, so that I can wear it more often. Because sitting in it for too long pulls the skin and ends up causing me terrible pain and giving me lesions and blisters.

But on one leg and crutches, I walk down the street and I’m a fashion statement. People just go, wow, does somebody design your clothes? I mean, it all looks like it fits together. Because since the very beginning, I was comfortable with the idea of just being a walking mermaid, and wearing dresses, because I love dresses.

{You can find more information on her website: www.anitahollander.com }

 

Bio

Elizabeth Zimmer writes, mostly about the arts; teaches writing, wherever she is invited; and edits manuscripts of all sorts, including those on this site. She practices the Feldenkrais Method, and works as a standardized patient in hospitals and medical schools. Her ambition is to flourish as a stand-up comic. 

2 thoughts on “Anita Hollander: “Forever and with one leg”

  1. What an amazing and talented — and charming — woman. I look forward to seeing her in person when all this is over.

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