Amputee Actor Michael Toner Gets Back to Work

Interview by Rebecca Levenberg
Toner in character as Phil Hogan

Walking home from rehearsal one evening in 2015, actor Michael Toner was struck by a hit-and-run driver. His left leg had to be amputated above the knee. Toner had a role in the Eugene O’Neill play A Moon for the Misbegotten, scheduled to open in Philadelphia in just six months, with a national tour to follow. When the theatre’s artistic director visited Toner in the hospital, he told the performer: “You know, Michael, you’re still under contract.”

“So I had a creative goal,” Toner recalls. “I was still an actor. I had my profession, and I had a national tour coming up. I’d never done one of those.”

Theatre had always been Toner’s passion, and returning to the stage became the driving force in his recovery. In his own words, here’s how he did it.

FIRST STEPS: My physical therapist, Alba Seda-Morales, had an athletic background, and her father ran a professional theatre in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She intuited how actors think. Once I got a prosthesis, I had to learn to walk—and prepare for falls. I got so good at falling on the mat, they had me fall about 20 times to make a training video.

WHAT I DID RIGHT: Before rehearsals started, my therapists met me at the theatre to walk through what it would be like. For the stage, I’d need a small railing. But there were very few [other] modifications required from the set designer. It was more about getting around backstage. Timing is everything in theatre. I had to memorize the layout of the floor, where there was a curtain, and how to make my way in the blue light [which keeps backstage dark]. Previously, I could do it blindfolded. Now I had to memorize everything.

A BUMP IN THE ROAD: On tour in Scranton [Pennsylvania], the stage was a considerable distance from the front row. I was downstage center and had farmer’s overalls on so you couldn’t see my prosthesis. There was a ragged cloth on stage, which suggested the farmland’s bare soil. I tripped on it and fell. Frustrated, I let out [an expletive], pushed up quickly with my cane, and finished what was, luckily, an anger-filled monologue. Even if the front row heard me, I was fully in character as Phil Hogan, a cantankerous sort of 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 am given wholeness again. Whatever I do physically with my prosthetic leg, [it’s] now considered real.

When I have pain, frustration, anger, or stress, mindfulness training helps me stop and examine my mental state—a sort of time-out. This allows me to see myself, accept the situation, and work through what might be this temporary failure and the mental obstacles that create such a state.

I train every day. I do meditation, yoga, work out at the gym, and write. I try to do something mental and physical every day to keep me in shape for the stage. I [still] go to the theatre a couple hours early. I’m there when the tech people arrive. I’ll do some vocal warmups. I’ll walk the set. I talk to the box office people. I know the janitorial staff. I plan ahead to make sure I know as much as I can about the physical terrain.

FINDING A NEW NORMAL: Mainstream entertainment is becoming more inclusive of people with disabilities. There’s a market for disabled actors that has never existed before. Agents can be looking for specific characteristics. As an actor, half your career is trying to get a job. You have to be mentally tough and in good physical shape. Now everyone knows I’m a one-legged person. As at the beginning of my career, I ask myself, “Will I get cast in a play ever again?” Then some role always turns up, allaying my false fears.

THE TAKEAWAY: Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” You need patience and dedication to relearn what you love. Do not be afraid to fail. Expect big obstacles. You’re going to fail at times. You’re going to succeed at times. Keep doing what you love. It gives meaning to your life.

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