Theatre could be defined as the study of what it is to be human. For millennia we have come to sit communally—a group of human beings watching another group of human beings pretending to be other human beings. We are endlessly fascinated with each other, yet a place purported to be about the range of human possibility has for too long been circumscribed and limited, especially towards almost a fifth of the population. Statistics vary, depending on definitions of “disability,” but the World Health Organization estimates 15 percent of the world population as being disabled, whilst a 2012 US Census Bureau estimate brought the figure in at just over 19 percent of the American population.
For thousands of years in the Western theatrical tradition, the atypical body has been used to scare, warn, explain, and explore human frailty, mortality, and the human condition. Disability has been a metaphor for the non-disabled to explore their fears and embedded societal values.
Since the Ancient Greeks disabled characters have appeared in plays, but seldom have the writers been disabled or written from that embodied or political perspective. The vast majority of disabled characters in the Western canon are tropes, and not only that, they reify notions of “normalcy” rather than broadening the lens and embracing all the possibilities of human variety. These misrepresentations are so prevalent in Western culture that negative representations of impairment and associations have become ingrained. Strange untruths have therefore been created and recycled in our dramas for stage and screen, and the rich, rewarding reality of disabled peoples’ lives has been replaced with problematic representations which work to keep us different, “special,” and apart. This “othering” of difference (which also includes sexual preference, cultural heritage, belief system, and so on) provides a “useful” slide rule against which notions of “being normal” and “fitting in” can be measured. These distorted ideas enshrined in our entertainment media legitimize the negative attitudes that can lead to discrimination and hate crime.
Richard Rieser in his teaching guide to disability and moving image media, published by Disability Equality in Education, gives an example of how the limited narratives and visual lexicon impacts on people’s consciousness and actions. He focuses on Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, noting how after its release in the UK the previously archaic term “hunchback” reentered common parlance as a derogatory term directed at disabled people. At the same time, The British Scoliosis Society complained to the then minister of Disabled People, Nicholas Scott, about a sudden increase in violent physical attacks against its members—over 100 attacks in the six months following the film’s release, when in the six months previous to this, there had been none.
Images and narratives in our entertainment media help form the mirror reflecting our society, through which, it could be argued, we gain a sense of community, morality, and self. Without a diversity of voices, perspectives, and experiences, prevailing negative attitudes and values remain entrenched and go unchallenged.
Thankfully change is coming, albeit slowly, with more disabled and d/Deaf artists coming to the fore across art forms. This is partly the fruit of the UK and US disability civil rights movements, out of which disability arts and culture grew, and the disability arts forums, organizations, and festivals that supported and still encourage this growth. In the UK it is also down to initiatives such as Unlimited, a funding strand keen to promote, commission, and implant the work of disabled and Deaf artists in the “mainstream” on a level never experienced before.
As a playwright and dramaturg who identifies as disabled, I have been working for several decades across and between so-called “mainstream” culture and what I coin “crip” culture, informed by the social model of disability. I consider disability a social construct—I am a woman with a sensory and physical impairment, but it is society's attitudinal and physical barriers which is disabling, not the idiosyncrasies of my body.
In my work I am interested in creating new protagonists, with different narratives, and with different endings—and to challenge and expand the actual theatre languages at play in live performance through my engagement with the aesthetics of access. I believe reimagining disability opens up creative possibilities in aesthetics, form, and content—changing the stories we tell, how they are told, and the people who tell them.
Academic and cultural critic Paul Darke, as well as other scholars such as Carrie Sandahl, have written at length about the limited plot lines for the disabled character. Often, as seen in 2016’s Summer blockbuster Me Before You, the film version of JoJo Moyes novel of a quadriplegic’s euthanasia, the overriding message is “better dead than disabled.” Promoted on social media with the inappropriate hashtag #LiveBoldly, it was considered to be “little more than a disability snuff movie” by disabled activists who demonstrated at its premiere on both sides of the Atlantic.
It seems that despite calls for more diversity, certain bodies offer a shortcut to (shallow) characterization, and pathologized disability has an irresistible entertainment value. In films and plays stereotypes rule—the blind wise “seer,” the twisted-body, twisted-mind evil genius, the hero who overcomes her impairments to “pass” as non-disabled, the sportswoman who succeeds “in spite of” and so serves as inspiration porn to the non-disabled. From Tiny Tim to Richard III, we have been the personification of uselessness, or evil incarnate. These stories and characters are so prevalent the audience believe they know and understand disabled experience, even though it is through a filter that isolates, individualizes, medicalizes, or finally normalizes the character. I would argue that what the audience is experiencing is not the “truths” of our lives, but the long cultural and linguistic practice of ascribing meaning to the atypical body.
The situation is not remedied even when a disabled actor plays the disabled character (rather than the usual, problematic practice of a non-disabled actor “cripping up”). If the character is monstrous, or flawed, having an atypical body on stage will not change this: it will not round out the character, alter the plot, or turn what is often a stereotypical figure into a multi-faceted three-dimensional one. It may confound the critics to have an “authentic” disabled body on stage (as seen recently with the ableist critical responses to Sam Gold’s The Glass Menagerie); it may bring neuro-diverse/atypical bodies into theatres and onto the stage—something I personally would applaud—but unless the script is changed, we are still dealing with the same-old, same-old.
The Hull Truck/Northern Broadside’s production of Richard III as part of Hull UK city of culture 2017 is a case in point. Disability arts veteran and icon Mat Fraser playing the title role was an exciting prospect, but this innovative casting did not override the central problem of representation in Shakespeare’s version of the monarch, echoing medieval and Elizabethan beliefs that atypical embodiment signified moral deficiency, or acquaintance with the “sinister,” or “dark.”
Early on in Shakespeare’s play, Richard announces the limited options open to him—he is “rudely stamped” and “not shaped for sportive tricks”:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover…
I am determined to prove a villain.
Having a disabled actor play this seminal role is certainly a move in the right direction in terms of casting for major roles, but we are still held within a limited range of traditional depiction. There is space for this of course, and I am certainly not suggesting we fillet the classics or bowdlerize aspects that offend a politically correct agenda. I am simply noting that more open casting by itself is not enough to create a theatre that fairly represents contemporary society, or redresses the negative depiction of difference. Change and real diversity will come through new work, new characters, new theatre languages, and new processes.
Simply having an active volitional character in charge of their lives rather than the subject of diagnosis or victim of disease appears to challenge expectations—and is often resisted in the critical responses. The small shift of making disabled and d/Deaf characters protagonists in dramas not revolving around medical narratives seems to be considered radical by the UK press.
When the content does not reflect the usual “othering” in roles and relationships, the critics do so in their reviews, still marking out the performers for their difference. Consistently the critical response to productions of my plays has lingered on describing (often painfully) the performers’ bodies rather than their skills. A national paper’s review of my meta-theatrical text peeling, a reworking of The Trojan Women, identified performers as “…a majestic head and an ungrown body… A human doll in an electric wheelchair…” There is also a tendency to include biographical detail in critiques—the narration of how the individual actor acquired their impairment, or how they “struggled” with the condition since birth. The received opinion seems to be it is impossible for a professional disabled actor to play anything other than themselves.
This has occurred repeatedly over the years. My 2012 National Theatre Wales production In Water I’m Weightless, part of the Cultural Olympiad celebrating the London Olympics/Paralympics, was described by some members of the national press as a series of monologues with individual actors “telling their own stories.” This confounded me, and the director, John E McGrath, who had worked purposefully and imaginatively to present my fictional texts in a nonnaturalistic, multi-vocal ensemble style that could not (we thought!) be considered autobiographical. Despite my dramaturgical interventions and McGrath’s innovative staging with choral narration, fragmented texts scored, repeated, and shared between several actors across a multitude of languages—spoken, visual, and projected—my playwritten text was attributed to being the individual actors’ own words, and the work deemed autobiographical. One of the actors emailed me: “So, basically, I can’t play anything outside my personal experience…do I have to go kill someone in real life before I can play Macbeth?”
Even in talk-backs minutes after this particular performance, the “inspiring” individuals “telling their own story” was insisted upon by members of the audience. On one occasion I intervened as a well-meaning spectator patronized one of the cast, complimenting the “poor girl” for being so “brave” in sharing her experience of being “deaf and dumb.” When we deconstructed the relevant scene—pointing out it was presented equally by the whole ensemble of six, plus an integrated sign language interpreter—the audience member still resisted that what she had seen was professional actors performing fiction. Even with the proof before her, it was as if she could not believe her own eyes.
I tell this anecdote to reveal how ingrained preconceptions about impairment are, how systemic negative stereotypes and narratives are, how deeply certain metaphorical projections mark the atypical body, and how resistant audience and cultural commentators are to having these tropes (“poor deaf and dumb girl”) revoked. This underlines the absolute necessity for diverse “voices,” experiences, form, and bodies on our stages. There is still much to challenge and overcome in the audiences’ resistance to changing the entertainment value of disability.
In my plays, I make characters who “just happen to be disabled.” In my more experimental post-dramatic performance texts, they are politically aware and active figures. the 9 Fridas reclaims the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo as a shape-shifting disability icon, distancing her from the romanticized victim, the little, broken, betrayed barren wife of more recent depictions. the 9 Fridas are multiple, and in production cast cross-impairment, cross-gender, cross-sexual preference, and cross-cultural heritage. I sought to multiply and amplify a remarkable, paradoxical, multi-faceted artist who has been reduced in the popular imagination as a victim reduced by her two accidents—Diego Rivera and the road accident which she barely survived at age eighteen.
Perhaps it is here, in the post-dramatic, that we can escape the metaphors and diversity can be released. Perhaps in the aesthetics of access— integrated sign language, embedded audio-description, and creative captioning—we can begin changing the experience of theatre along with its languages, and start escaping the tyranny of normalization.
I look forward to the day when I can write a rich, complex, involved character who happens to have an impairment or condition, and that is just a part of the backstory, like upbringing and education, defining the character politically perhaps, but not, as is so often depicted, damaging them. There are stories other than the medical narrative to share, and alternative creative means to tell them, and I am broaching various strategies to “answer back” and counter the limiting narratives and characters that serve to create binaries and dissonance when there is none.