Many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still*: Things we want to say about disability and theatre

Last month we went to see a play at the Park Theatre, ‘Kill Me Now’. We enjoyed the play and the production, but we did question whether an able-bodied actor was the only option to play one of the key disabled characters.  We didn’t realise at the time that we had unwittingly become part of a full-scale attack on the play’s author, Brad Fraser, who addressed the criticism in an article in ‘The Stage’ earlier this month.  We read his article, we read the article it was responding to, by Dea Birkett in the Guardian, and by the time we’d looked at the floods of comments, we realised that a single sentence in a review about one play wasn’t going to suffice.

We have already commented on some of the equality issues around theatre, whether gender, race, good looks, or personal wealth.  Could we just have re-written one of those posts and inserted the word ‘disability’?  And if not, does that imply that equality of opportunity where disability is concerned is a special case, too complicated and difficult to implement?

Representation, not replication

In our review of ‘Kill Me Now’, our point was that an opportunity to employ a disabled actor had been lost by using Oliver Gomm to play Joey, excellent though his performance was.  However, we were never saying that an actor precisely fitting the character’s disability should be found.  Brad Fraser points out in his article that we need to consider not just what takes place on stage, but all the aspects of playing a role.  In the case of Joey there is also sleight of hand in the performance – we are told that he is almost unintelligible to strangers, but we the audience can understand him – and this fact is also used for comic effect to highlight the needless fear and embarrassment of one of the other characters.  This is a representation of a disabled character, not a replication, and since being unable to control his limbs is a feature of Joey’s disability, even a disabled actor would have to imitate this, in a controlled way.  As actor and director Simon Startin puts it in an interview for the BBC, “I’ve ‘cripped’ up in the past,” he says, referring to a time he portrayed Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest as having cerebral palsy. “I wanted to play him as a disabled character because he’s ostracised and spat at by everybody – and hated. He’s described as a monster.” Startin happily admits that, for this role, his own disability “just wouldn’t cut it”.

The authentic voice?

So, is there more authenticity if Simon Startin imitates a person with a disability different from his own, than if an able-bodied person did it? Does the simple fact of employing a disabled actor add value to the production itself? And if so, how?

One thing is clear, simply knowing about disability is not enough – Dea Birkett’s extraordinarily distorted ‘review’ of Brad Fraser’s plays shows that it is possible to be close to disability (her daughter is a wheelchair user), and still come out with the most mindbending insensitivity and lack of empathy for those with disabilities.  Her complaint about Gomm’s performance is that ‘when non-disabled actors play disabled people, they love to squirm, startle and speak as if they were drunk’.  Not the sort of person we would want representing us if we had cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s, or motor neurone disease then.

There seems to be a lot of jostling for position here, when it is plainly obvious that disability, which covers a massive spectrum of physical, sensory, mental and cognitive states, and cuts across class, race, and gender, cannot possibly be represented by a single voice.

Disabled good, able-bodied bad

Much of the unbridled criticism of Brad Fraser’s play makes the assumption that it was written, produced and performed by people whose lives were untouched by disability. People decided it was bad, and therefore must be the product of the ‘able-bodied’.  But how can we possibly know? Not all disabilities are visible, and not all the contributors to a production like this are known to us.  It is interesting that Fraser, who has often talked about his severely disabled nephew in interviews, steadfastly holds off from mentioning him in his most recent ‘defence’ of his play.  Perhaps he wanted to avoid getting into a game of ‘my disability credentials are more valid than yours’.  All this is deeply ironic given that one of the most negative plays about disability ‘A Day in the death of Joe Egg’, was based heavily on its author, Peter Nichol’s, life, portraying the birth of a disabled daughter as an unmitigated catastrophe.

Getting out of the disability ghetto

Just as the idea of excluding the able-bodied from the process of giving disability in theatre a higher profile seems self-defeating, we don’t see how inclusion can just be about matching a disabled actor to a disabled part.  The parts need to change, and the principle needs to widen.  The rigidity of labelling parts for disabled or able-bodied actors is unlikely to give enough exposure to disabled actors for them to break through, and it allows too many excuses for not employing a disabled actor.  Why not start by asking the question ‘Does this character need to be able-bodied?’ rather than the other way round.  How many other Shakespearean characters can have a disability?  Back in 2010, Cheek by Jowl portrayed King Duncan as blind in their production of Macbeth.  In 1984 Anthony Sher took Richard III’s hunchback and embraced it, using crutches to move with ferocious speed, and made disability powerful.  Should we be criticising these choices for excluding disabled actors or thanking them for showing some imagination about the place of disability in theatre?

A critical mass

What we need is for the number of disabled actors in the profession to grow until it tips the balance towards a more nuanced and multi-layered portrayal of disability, and infuses theatre with more of what it thrives on – difference, drama and inclusion.  Could an able-bodied director have suggested to Simon Startin that he play Caliban as a person with cerebral palsy?  We doubt it, and it is this ability to think the unthinkable and implement it, that makes it essential that more people with disabilities are working in the profession. Then perhaps if Brad Fraser’s play is performed again, the director will find it easier employ a disabled actor.

Perhaps change will only start to happen on a larger scale when there are more disabled people in charge.  In the US, the Rooney Rule requires National Football League teams to interview minority candidates for senior jobs.  Within three years, the number of African Americans in senior positions had jumped from 6% to 22%.  Nobody was being forced to hire them, but the exposure they were given allowed their talents to be recognised.  In December 2013 the RSC and National Theatre joined forces to put on general auditions for disabled actors, and got more than 200 responses.  Every time this happens it gets more difficult to claim that there is nobody to fill a part.  But the project needs to extend to all areas of theatre as well.

Theatre by disabled people for…..everyone

One of the more disturbing aspects of these debates is the polarity they imply.  The perfectly reasonable point that a disabled actor can bring greater authenticity to a part has somehow morphed into the notion that the ‘able-bodied’ will never be capable of understanding what it’s like to be disabled, and must not be allowed to taint the truth of the experience by getting involved.  This kind of solipsism presents quite a problem if you are trying to put on theatre.  Theatre is all about trying to experience life from another person’s point of view.  It’s called empathy, and a world where nobody believes empathy is possible is a very bleak one.  The reality of this journey is that it will cover ground that is uncomfortable for everyone; but let’s not mistake a step on that journey for the end goal, or be afraid to praise progress just because it is not happening fast enough.  We feel that a play like ‘Kill Me Now’ is progress.

* Franklin D Roosevelt

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5 Responses to Many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still*: Things we want to say about disability and theatre

  1. Pingback: Euthanasia – let’s have a mass debate: Kill Me Now at the Park Theatre | rageoffstage

  2. jeb54 says:

    One of your contentions make me wonder: “Could an able-bodied director have suggested to Simon Startin that he play Caliban as a person with cerebral palsy? We doubt it.” Those who are differently bodied or differently abled (excuse me if those terms seem too politically correct) have often been regarded as monstrous, which is why the idea makes sense, but I don’t see why this realization couldn’t occur to anyone who understands that the different are frequently ostracized.

    Apart from that, though, I think everything you’ve said here is admirably sensible. I hope it’s heard by other participants in the current discussion.


    • rageoffstage says:

      Good to hear from you John, and thanks for the comments. We haven’t quite made ourselves clear – when we said ‘could’ we weren’t thinking of the ability to make a connection, rather that a director in that position might feel it was politically incorrect to say it out loud…..having said that, perhaps we are being a bit naive, when we were researching this we saw quite a few examples of insensitivity when it came to auditioning disabled actors….


      • jeb54 says:

        I wondered whether I was misreading your statement. Glad to see that I was. You may be right in your concern, but with experience it should be possible to find ways to talk about such things.


  3. Pingback: Boiling Point: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg | rageoffstage

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