ABILITY Magazine Cover Story 2019

‘Donna on the Go’

by Donna Russo and Peggy Lane

Written by Shelly Rohe

Photo by Patsy Dunn

Donna Russo and Peggy Lane make up one of those dynamic duos only made in Hollywood.

 

Donna is a dancer and actress; Peggy Lane is a Producer and Director. Together they have created a web series, Donna on the Go, which is based on Donna’s lived experience and Peggy’s observed experience.

 

This web series, shot in Hollywood, tells the story of Donna Reed (played by Donna Russo) as she navigates life as a person with disabilities. Never wanting to be negative or overwhelming, Peggy Lane writes each episode with humor and compassion in mind.

 

As ABILITY’s Shelly Rohe spoke to them the bond between these two is evident.

Shelly Rohe: I want to know a little from you both what the project, Donna On The Go, is all about.

Peggy Lane: You want to take it?

Donna Russo: Sure! The project is a light-hearted view of the challenges that people with disabilities face in an able-bodied world. We kept it—Peggy kept it light-hearted not to make it so depressing that people get a down view. We want to keep it up, upbeat.

Rohe: And educational as well?

Russo: Right. With a message.

Lane: I used to work on Will & Grace, for years, in the first round of Will & Grace, and I saw what they were able to do. They were able to show people—to show them compassion for people they might not have had compassion for before— because they just didn’t know. And I thought that was the tone that I hope we got, that’s what I was going for.

Rohe: I think that comes across.

Lane: Oh, good, thank you. If you can make people laugh, they learn without learning. They don’t know they’re learning, but they’re seeing something different.

Rohe: Right. I think even people who have one condition learn about others that way, too.

Lane: Absolutely, right!

Rohe: Tell me a little about how you met.

Lane: Want to take it?

Russo: OK! (laughs) I was looking for a place, an accessible place to live. I was having a very hard time. There were places that didn’t have a ramp, places that didn’t have underground parking, and I can’t do street parking because I can’t get up a curb. I can’t do steps. I was looking for a really nice person. I need my own space, my own bedroom, bathroom; and I need so many things that are hard to get. And Peggy was also looking for a roommate. At the time my sister was on the website, and she saw Peggy’s ad for the apartment. We went and took a look.  And it so happened that we knew some people in the industry together. I said, “Oh, this is great. We know the same people. She’s got to be nice.”

Peggy was very familiar with disability. She took care of her parents. They had mobility issues and other issues. She was just wonderful with them. She has the compassion and the empathy that you need. I am so blessed and lucky that she’s the person that she is.

Lane: And I got lucky and found a reliable roommate in a town not known for reliable people.

Photo by Peggy Lane

Rohe: It sounds like a great connection.

Russo: I think we both lucked out, really.

Lane: Yeah. I had an apartment in Burbank. After my mom passed, my dad’s health started to decline, and I was worried about him. I was working and couldn’t commute from their house. It’s like a 150-mile round trip. So, I had to keep the apartment, but I found a two bedroom apartment that he could come and stay with me during the week. And I would drive him back on weekends. I could keep an eye on him. It had an elevator, a handicap ramp, underground gated security parking, and he would never have to use another step. So, I did that for him. After he passed, I had a series of roommates. It was like a revolving door, a montage of people, some good, some not so good. And then Donna showed up. It’s a first-floor apartment. There’s no stairs. I knew what Donna needed.

Rohe: It’s the little things you don’t think about unless you’re in someone’s shoes.

Lane: That’s exactly it. That’s exactly what happened with the shower.

Russo: Mm-hmm.

Lane: Because the bedroom that Donna is in has a tub, and it’s a little harder to get into. The bedroom I have has a shower stall, which is what my dad used to use. I would give my dad my room, and I would take the other room. And when Donna was looking at the apartment, it dawned on me because of that, “If the tub doesn’t work, you can use my shower when you want to,” and bam! Out came the checkbook. (laughter)

Russo: I was disheartened when I saw that the tub was high, and I thought, “Well, oh, well. This isn’t going to work out.” And then Peggy was kind enough to say, “Yeah, you can roll into my shower stall.”

Lane: And I wouldn’t have known that if it weren’t for my dad because I knew that he couldn’t.

Rohe: Is that where some of the inspiration for the episodes comes from?

Lane: Oh, absolutely.

Russo: Mm-hmm.

Lane: Yeah, and then also from Donna, too. She dances. We included that in the show, too. I hope you got the chance to see the dance that Tam Warner choreographed. It’s beautiful!

Rohe: I did. And I have to say, it brought tears to my eyes.

Lane: I know, it’s very touching. I’ve had men, big guys, grips and electricians say, “Oh, man, it got me!” I’m like, “Oh, man, that’s so sweet!”

Rohe: Do you collaborate on ideas together?

Lane: Yeah, I would say so.

Russo: Our first idea was a little episode about shopping at Target. Because when I get in the cart, the electric cart doesn’t always register my weight, so I have to sit all the way to the front. Then when it moves, I’ve got to transfer my weight because it doesn’t register my weight.

Lane: She’s little, as you can probably tell from the show, like 90 pounds. And she’s so small she can’t sit back on the little thing. The cart was stopping and starting. We were laughing. We had tears coming out of our eyes. And I filmed a little of it to make her laugh. When I put it together, I thought, “You know, this doesn’t look too bad on a little iPhone!”

Russo: I bumped into things with the cart. I can’t maneuver it. I can’t reach things. I turned around in the cart—

Lane: Yeah, that’s another thing. You get that thing lined up with the actual shelf, and what you want is way up there. (laughs)

Russo: It’s an adventure.

Lane: It was the start.

Rohe: When you are coming up with ideas, do you have a theme in mind for a season?

Lane: I did in season two. I had the idea to do an episode about falling. Start with the fall, and then the group of friends coming to be a support system. I thought, “Well, get it out of the way. Get the fall out of the way.” Because it’s not just about the fall, it’s about having people to care about you. And then there’s the series of miscommunications with Amazon Alexa because she doesn’t understand who you want her to call. It’s one of the reasons you have it for help, and yet— (laughs) It’s yet another challenge. But others do come over and help her.

I had an idea for three episodes that all pertained to falling, like a little trilogy of fall, if you will. (laughs) And it led to the coordination of the dance. Here you’ve just fallen, and a few days later, you’re talking to your friend about choreographing a dance where you’re going to trust and hopefully not fall. Wow, that’s kind of scary! And then you see the dance.

Rohe: Which is beautiful.

Lane: Oh, thank you. Tam did a beautiful job on that.

Rohe: I watched the trailer for season two where you’re going down the ramp in the chair and flying into the street.

Lane: (laughs) Oh, yeah.

Rohe: Was that scary to film?

Russo: It was. I had a double. It wasn’t really scary for me. Maybe the little part when they pushed a little bit and I was on a cable and I slipped forward. But I absolutely loved that episode and I enjoyed working with our iconic stunt man, Vince Deadrick, Jr., who Peggy knows. It just was wonderful.

Lane: I worked with Vince on a show for about four years. I knew she would be completely safe. This episode was his idea. He wanted to direct, and I said, “Would you be interested in directing a little episode of ours?” And he said sure. And then he pitches the thing to me.

“OK, so there’s a door that’s going to hit her. She’ll roll down the ramp and go into the street. There’s a guy with a hose, another guy with a blower. She’ll keep rolling, and the truck will come at her and all this.”

And I’m thinking, “Uh-huh. Mm-hmm. How am I going to do this?” He said, “It’ll be OK.” And then he came over to the house and we had a production meeting, walked through it. I told Donna about it. I said, “OK, here we go! It was his idea!” At first, he had stunt people in cables. You’re never at any moment at risk with someone like that.

And Donna, God bless her. I would have been more hesitant than Donna was. I would have said,“You want me to what?” Donna was just great. “OK, sure, let’s do it!” I’m like, “Wow!” She’s fearless, she’s really fearless like that.

And then we talked about the tone. What I was concerned about was the tone. You don’t—I don’t want people to think that she’s in danger. It relies on Donna completely to be like, “Woohoo! I survived this. I make the best of all the crap that comes my way.”

Russo: I hear wonderful ideas now and I go, “Oh, wow, this could really be a fantastic thing!”

Rohe: I love how in the end you grab the tail of the pick-up and go for a ride! (laughs)

Lane: (laughs) Exactly! That was the only moment in screening, when people saw that truck coming at her. You could hear people go, “Oh!” I hope you would know that we’re not going to hurt Donna. (laughs) It’s just sort of the bigger theme. People have all these obstacles, more than most people, and you do what you have to do to get things done.

Rohe: How many episodes are there per season right now?

Lane: To qualify for Emmy consideration there have to be six episodes per season, and we’ve done three seasons, so we have 18.

Rohe: So, you’re done shooting season three?

Lane: Oh, yeah. We’re still recovering from season three! (laughter)

Photo by Glenn Francis

Rohe: When did you finish that season?

Lane: In March, I think.

Rohe: When, if there is one, is season four starting up?

Lane: We’re still talking about ideas. We actually have some ideas, and we’ll see. (laughter) The goal is to pitch season three. I’d love to pitch the show and get it out so more people can see it.

Russo: I absolutely loved working with Kate Linder in season three.

Lane: She’s fantastic!

Russo: She’s a wonderful addition playing my sister Laura.

Rohe: It’s great that you brought her up because I was going to ask you what it was like to work with her. She was in more than one episode?

Lane: I think it was three, or was it four? To submit an actress for an Emmy in short form, they have to be in 50% of the episodes, which she is, so she had to be in at least three. We had her in four because we had her in “The Ninjas.”

I know Kate through the union, through SAG-AFTRA. We were both elected through the local board, and I would see her in meetings and stuff. We just started talking. She’s so amazing. Every time you talk to her, she’s leaving to do something for charity. I was talking to her about the show, and she was like, “Oh, my God, I’m going to be in Toronto for a March of Dimes event” or something. She’s speaking on the panel. And I’m like, “If that isn’t a sign, what is?”

Rohe: Do you think she’ll come back next season?

Lane: She said she was interested in it. I absolutely do.

Rohe: What’s changed from season to season?

Lane: We raise more money each season. That’s the biggest thing.

From season, one it was kind of just me and Donna, for the most part. We’ve always had Craig Hutchinson with us as a producer and a director, but season two we added more actors, And season three, we added more actors and more production. It went from being a runaway wheelchair to season three with Donna fighting off 12 ninjas without leaving her wheelchair. (laughter) And again, that’s Vince Deadrick Jr. He came up with that.

Rohe: Donna, do you feel like you’ve gotten braver from season to season?

Russo: Braver? Of course! It gets more with each season. Like, now it’s season three, ninjas, and I’m like, “OK, I’m in a wheelchair. We’re going to have a double. It’ll be about Donna fighting off these ninjas.” Which to me also represents all the kinds of challenges in life that you fight off. And you succeed. To me, that was a representation of the ninjas. And I also loved playing Judge Judy. We had a courtroom set.

Lane: A beautiful set.

Russo: That was really interesting, being in a set that’s like a courtroom. I had so much fun wearing a wig and playing Judge Judy. I watched her on TV to try to get a feel for her and see how she was.

Lane: Donna’s not just fearless about the fun stuff but taking on things like a So You Think You Can Dance parody in season two, Mary Murphy with a little wig and a laugh, and Judge Judy. That’s scary stuff, too. And she does it.

Rohe: That’s great. What’s your favorite thing you’ve done so far? It kind of sounds like playing Judge Judy was one.

Russo: Yeah, that was fun. Any time I can be something other than me, it’s fun.

Lane: Acting!

Russo: The thing is that I have to just let it go and not worry about if I look silly or what other people will think. I have to just have fun. Be Mary Murphy and have fun. Be crazy, kind of, like she is on the show. Just let go. That’s why improv classes are so good for you, the on-the-spot stuff. You just have to be in the moment, just let it go and not worry about—be committed to it. If you’re not, if you go with half a commitment, people won’t get it.

Rohe: Do you still take classes?

Russo: Peggy helps me. She’s a mentor, a coach, an acting coach. She has students. She’s coached some heavy A-list people, some pretty notable people out there.

Rohe: And you write and direct and film—

Lane: Yeah. The show is a lot. We’re both very proud of it.

Russo: Yeah, really proud of it.

Lane: It was great being at the Abilities Expo. Donna’s an ambassador there, so we had a booth. We’re not really selling anything. We’re just trying to show people the show. One woman came up in a chair, like a recliner wheelchair with a assistive aid for her to speak. She’s watching Donna go up the handicap ramp. It was taking forever, and she looks at the person she was with and she types, “That’s me.” I was trying not the cry in front of her, but it was like, where else can people look at something and be represent in it? You had Speechless, but that’s canceled now at ABC. And there are other shows, but I don’t know of another show that has the lead as a person with a disability. It’s a supporting character or something. That’s still representation. It’s still very necessary. But if you have the lead, you can really show people.

Rohe: I recently read something about symbolic annihilation, that when you are not represented on camera or in the media you’re consuming, you become not necessary or important.

Lane: I’ve never heard the term before, but it’s so true. Especially doing work with the union, you’ll always hear people with a disability or different ethnicity speak of the first moment they saw a show where, “Oh, there was an Asian character. There was a black character. I finally felt represented.” And what that means, to feel seen, it’s huge.

Rohe: It’s life-changing.

Lane: Yeah, it really is. You’re not alone anymore. And like Geri Jewell, when she was on Facts of Life, she was one of the first people who you felt had representation to show people that yeah, you can be represented there. She’s a wonderful person, too. And she was funny! Some people would be uncomfortable with people with some kind of disability because they don’t know what to say. They don’t know how to act. And Geri Jewell came out and gave everyone permission to laugh with her, not at her, like, “I’m still the same person, I’m still funny, I just have this.” It was amazing what she did.

Rohe: She writes for ABILITY Magazine.

Lane: Oh, I saw that, yes.

Russo: Oh, yeah, of course, and David Zimmerman, too. He does a lot for the community as well.

Lane: There’s a lot of good people. We were lucky to have Eileen.

Russo: Yeah, Eileen Grubba on the show.

Peggy had this idea to have other actors in there with disabilities, and of course I’m like, “Yeah!”

Lane: We must have asked about 30 people, and we were lucky we got five people with disabilities. So, we have five people in a show with 20 characters. You represent. It’s not just one person. You can show people you can do this.

Russo: What I wanted to say, too, is Tam Warner. We danced at Abilities Expo. And she choreographs the dances. But the people who watched the dances, they loved that. Oh, my gosh! We can dance, too. We can also use our bodies and dance the way we do. Because we have them at the end of when we do a performance, they come up and they dance with us. They really love that. Tam will lead them or I will lead, and some of the other dancers we have there will lead. And they’ll feel the joy of dancing, which is a wonderful thing.

Lane: It’s very moving, very sweet.

Rohe: What else do you do at the Expo? How was this year for you?

Russo: We do dance performances and of course we promote Donna on the Go at our booth. I’m an ambassador. That means I talk to people about the Expo. I advertise for it. Peggy puts flyers out. I put flyers out, Peggy puts flyers out. I put flyers out, too. Of course, I can’t set up the booth, so Peggy does that, and she’s just amazing. She puts up a big pop-up thing behind us and cables and TVs. We have photographers there who take pictures of people Peggy knows from the industry and people from the union, well-known actors and actresses. They come and support us. We have pictures with the Abilities Expo people on Getty as well. It’s really wonderful to have them on Getty.

Rohe: What’s the big goal of the show?

Lane: Oh, I’ll take this one! I want to pitch this show. I want this show to be on a network or more global level, so more people can see themselves represented.. Continue to do the show, continue to have other actors involved, so we can do what I don’t see anyone else doing.

Russo: And we need them to do that. We’d love to have a lot of subscribers who follow us.

Lane: Everything’s a proof of concept. You do the show. You’re like, “I’ve proved we can do it. Now I have to prove that people will watch it.”

Rohe: Do you feel like people are ready to watch a show like that?

Lane: Yeah, I do. I’ve shown the show to a lot of people, not just at the Expo, where people might be more predisposed to watch it, but people at work, grips, electricians, big burly men you don’t think would want to watch Donna dance or something. But they love the show. The feedback I get over and over, when people watch it, they love it. It made them love, it made them cry, it made them feel.

Rohe: Donna, do you ever get feedback that you don’t like?

Lane: Have you?

Russo: I really haven’t.

Lane: Not much. One of the videos somebody put a thumbs down, and I’m like, “What? Why? What did you do that for?” But you don’t know who it was. They’re anonymous, so I don’t know. We haven’t heard any face-to-face.

Russo: No.

Rohe: What would be one more thing you’d want people to know about that might not be related to the show?

Lane: Hmm. (pause) Motivational speaking.

Russo: There you go. I want to—I’ve done some motivational speaking. I’d like to continue that. In colleges and universities, with Peggy, because people, occupational therapists and caregivers and nurses have come up to us at Abilities Expo and they say that they’re showing clips of our episodes to their students in their classes as part of curriculum.

Rohe: Oh, that’s great.

Lane: We didn’t know that. It was like, “Wow!”

Russo: They were coming up to say, “Our professor showed us these clips, and we loved them.” We’re trying to continue that now at schools and universities. And I’d love to represent adaptive clothing. Shoes with velcro that make it easy for people to take their shoes off.

I’d like to represent adaptive clothes and show that there are different people, that everybody has a different issue. I’m 4 foot 5 and 90 pounds. I have muscular dystrophy, FSH, and Turner syndrome, which are unrelated issues. But with muscular dystrophy I can’t raise my arms too high. I can’t lean over. So for me, the shoe thing with the velcro is very important because it makes it easy to get in and out. The velcro magnetic button jeans that you can easily put on and take off are perfect for me. And I’m sure a lot of people out there. But everybody has a different thing going on.

Lane: It’s very encouraging to see corporations like Target and Zappos which is part of Amazon—

Russo: Sketchers.

Lane: They’re finally doing this. They have adaptive clothing lines, adaptive Halloween costumes. Target just came out with that. It’s fantastic. It also means that financially they did the research to see if this is a viable industry, and it is.

Rohe: It definitely is.

Lane: I mean, there’s obviously a lot of people they’re reaching.

Russo: And Peggy has done videos with me talking about the jeans, talking about the shoes. We’ve put them on social media platforms hoping that I can represent those companies and we can also talk about them on Donna on the Go, like if I have a friend, she would say, “Where did you get those jeans?”

Lane: They’re helping a lot of people.

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