September 20, 2012 at 8:35 am EDT | by Kathi Wolfe
Blind to barriers
Ike Schambelan of Breaking Through Barriers

Ike Schambelan, artistic director of Breaking Through Barriers, an off-Broadway theater outfit in New York. (Photo courtesy Ike Schambelan)

The artistic director of the only disability-specific off-Broadway theater in New York, knows a few things about being different.

The 72-year-old head of Breaking Through Barriers recalls during a phone interview his early sexual explorations.

“I’d gone to a folk sing in a dorm,” Ike Schambelan says. He was at Swarthmore College when another male student invited him to his room. “I was told,’ Don’t do that, stay on the sofa,” he says. “I knew without anything being verbalized that I was being protected. I did not want to be protected.”

He co-founded Theater Breaking Through Barriers (then known as Theater By the Blind) in 1979 not to be altruistic, but to “support my directing addiction,” Schambelan says.

It’s the only off-Broadway theater, and one of the few in the country, dedicated to advancing actors and writers with disabilities. The company can be a tough sell to people wary of disability, Schambelan says.

“They spend five minutes trying to figure out who’s disabled and who’s not, often getting it wrong. But, then they relax and get into the play.”

Schambelan, who was raised in West Philadelphia with the theater bug embedded in his DNA, grew up with many of the conflicts around sexuality held by many of his generation.

“My grandmother, who went blind, lived with us until I was 10,” he says. “Every Monday night, we’d listen to Lux Radio Theater and I’d brush her hair. I came to associate blindness, affection and theater.”

When Schambelan was in junior high a friend invited him to go to a drama at school.

“I was hooked,” Schambelan says. “I acted in high school. When I went to college I mostly stage managed, which I loved, as I wasn’t a very good actor.”

In his junior year, Schambelan directed the annual Thanksgiving musical.

“It was a big hit and I was hooked to a discipline, directing,” he says.

After graduating from Swarthmore in 1961, Schambelan earned a degree from Yale Drama School in 1967.

There, his passion for the theater and his burgeoning, conflicted sexuality merged.

“On my first night at the Drama school, a med student picked me up,” Schambelan says. “We had sex. Then, I … didn’t have sex until the end of the year. I dated women a little, but I didn’t do a lot of sex.”

In the 1960s during the pre-Stonewall era, being queer was more openly accepted at the Drama School and in the theater than in other parts of society, Schambelan says. Despite this, he was “conflicted.”

“It was internalized homophobia — feeling it was wrong to have sex with men.”

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Schambelan directed productions at such companies as Playwrights Horizons and the George St. Playhouse. He shot a TV commercial with Farrah Fawcett (“She was lovely to work with,” he says) before she was famous.

Over these years, Schambelan dated women and men.

“I’d take up with a woman during the summer and the romance would last until the fall,” he says.

He married a woman in 1980, Joan, who remains his wife. She’d been a dancer so she’d known gays and just felt her husband’s bisexuality made him “more interesting.”

For years, he saw a psychotherapist who “… wanted me to be straight,” Schambelan says. “But, then, being gay had just been removed as the list of mental illnesses by the American Psychiatric Association.”

The therapist he sees today is completely accepting of his bisexuality, Schambelan says.

He admits it’s not always an easy thing to explain.

“The LGBT community doesn’t always get what it means to be bisexual,” he says. “Sometimes people have worked so hard to come out as gay, they have difficulty understanding the greater complexity of being bi. They want you to be gay.”

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