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Actor Michael Toner returns to stage after amputation

Actor Michael Toner returns to stage after amputation


Interview with Rebecca Levenberg
Toner in the character of Phil Hogan

One evening in 2015, while returning from rehearsal, actor Michael Toner was hit by a hit-and-run driver. His left leg had to be amputated above the knee. Toner played a role in Eugene O'Neill's play A moon for the ill-begotten, scheduled to open in Philadelphia in just six months, with a national tour to follow. When the artistic director of the theater visited Toner in the hospital, he told the artist: You know, Michael, you are still under contract.

So I had a creative goal, Toner remembers. I was still an actor. I had my job and I had a national tour coming up. I had never done one.

Theater has always been Toner's passion and returning to the stage became the driving force in his recovery. In his own words, this is how he did it.

FIRST STEPS: My physical therapist, Alba Seda-Morales, had a sports background and her father managed a professional theater in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She had an intuition about how actors think. Once I got a prosthetic, I had to learn how to walk and prepare for falls. I became so good at falling on the mat that they had me fall about 20 times to make a workout video.

WHAT I DID WELL: Before rehearsals began, my therapists met with me in the theater to explain what it would look like. For the stage, I would need a small balustrade. But there were very few [other] modifications required by the scenographer. It was more about moving behind the scenes. Timing is everything in theater. I had to memorize the layout of the floor, where a curtain was, and how to navigate the blue light. [which keeps backstage dark]. Before, I could do it blindfolded. Now I had to memorize everything.

A Bump IN THE ROAD: On tour in Scranton [Pennsylvania], the stage was at a considerable distance from the first line. I was center stage and I was wearing farmer's overalls, so you couldn't see my prosthetic. There was tattered fabric on stage, which suggested the bare soil of farmland. I tripped over it and fell. Frustrated, I let it out [an expletive], I pushed quickly with my cane and finished what was, thankfully, an anger-filled monologue. Even though the front row could hear me, I was fully in character as Phil Hogan, a temperamental guy!

KEYS TO SUCCESS: When I put on my prosthetic leg each morning, my imagination trains me to fully believe that I have two real legs and that I regain fullness. Whatever I physically do with my prosthetic leg, [its] now considered real.

When I experience pain, frustration, anger, or stress, mindfulness training helps me stop and examine my mental state, a break of sorts. It allows me to see myself, accept the situation and overcome what might be this temporary failure and the mental obstacles that create such a state.

I train every day. I meditate, do yoga, work out at the gym, and write. I try to do something mental and physical every day to stay in shape for the stage. I [still] go to the theater a few hours early. I'm there when the technicians arrive. I'll do some vocal warm-ups. I'm going to go through the board. I talk to people at the box office. I know the concierge staff. I plan ahead to make sure I know as much as possible about the physical terrain.

FINDING A NEW STANDARD: Mainstream entertainment is increasingly inclusive of people with disabilities. There is a market for disabled actors that has never existed before. Agents can search for specific characteristics. As an actor, half of your career is trying to get a job. You have to be mentally strong and in good physical shape. Now everyone knows I'm one-legged. Like at the start of my career, I ask myself: Will I ever act in a play again? Then a role always appears, allaying my false fears.

TAKEAWAYS: Samuel Beckett said: “I have already tried. Never failed. Never mind. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. You need patience and dedication to relearn what you love. Don't be afraid to fail. Expect big obstacles. You will fail sometimes. You will succeed sometimes. Keep doing what you love. It gives meaning to your life.




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