Bodies On The Line

Able-Bodied Actors, Disabled Roles, and Praise

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26th, we're publishing a series of pieces focusing on issues of accessibility and visibility in theatre. 

There is an inherent danger in being an actor. You take mental and, some might say, spiritual risks in devoting yourself to a character. In the case of reviews, you put your reputation on the line, and in the case of your physical self, you put your body on the line for the sake of the work. Indeed, an actor’s body is a critical aspect of his career. You must be able to totally transform yourself into the character. To what lengths are you willing to go to give a great performance? What toll will it take on your body? And how will you be rewarded for such efforts?

The occurrence of able-bodied actors playing disabled characters is not at all new. Indeed, if there is a phenomenon around this issue, it is the increased questioning of the practice (examples of which have been published on this website). For the purposes of this blog post, however, I am particularly concerned with the examination of these able actors and how their bodies, and the risk factors involved, contribute to the performances and ultimately garner critical acclaim. The cases of Bradley Cooper in The Elephant Man, Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan, and Kevin Spacey’s performance as the title character in Richard III give unique insight into the current trends regarding these issues.

three actors on stage
Bradley Cooper in The Elephant Man. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

In a recent online article published by BBC News, Bradley Cooper discussed his Broadway turn as John Merrick in The Elephant Man, the physical toll it took on his body, and his preparations for a West End transfer. Cooper explained that the constant contorting of his face and arms—he did not use prosthetics to suggest Merrick’s deformities—had made one side of his face bigger and he could feel those muscles getting stronger. “The physical challenge is having to twist my body and hold it for two hours. It’s brutal,” Cooper said. The article went on to report that Cooper would be bringing an inversion table with him to London to treat the damage the role has done to his spine.

Despite the inherent physical risks in awkwardly, and unnaturally, contorting his body to inhabit the character, the expectation that the actor will do just that is written by playwright Bernard Pomerance into the script: “No one with any history of back trouble should attempt the part of Merrick as contorted. Anyone playing the part of Merrick should be advised to consult a physician about the problems of sustaining any unnatural or twisted position.”

Pomerance at least assumes that the actor playing John Merrick will be able-bodied and will be motivated to put himself through the grueling practice of contorting his body for every performance. Though Pomerance warns the hypothetical actor about the health risks, Bradley Cooper’s performance and his subsequent ailments are more or less what the playwright expected. Cooper’s sacrifice has not gone unrewarded, as his performance received both Tony Award and Drama Desk Award nominations.

an actor on stage
Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan. Photo credit: The Michael Grandage Company

Also nominated for a Drama Desk Award, as well as critically acclaimed, was Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as Cripple Billy in The Cripple of Inishmaan on Broadway. Chris Jones from The Chicago Tribune exclaimed that Radcliffe’s performance “really breathes as it hobbles along,” and that the actor had “one heck of a limp, a body-twisting contortion that, when in motion, is quite the theatrical thing to behold.” Colloquialisms aside, Jones suggests that the physical anomalies of the character executed by Radcliffe strongly contribute to the overall quality of the performance. Radcliffe’s ability to contort his body is one of the things that make him a good actor. One can assume  that if he did not have the aforementioned “heck of a limp,” Radcliffe would not have been so successful in the role.

Why is one considered a beacon of acting talent for playing a disabled character convincingly?

an actor on stage
Kevin Spacey in Richard III. Photo credit: Alastair Muir

In comparison, Kevin Spacey received his own acclaim as part of The Bridge Project’s 2011 production of Richard III that played the West End, and engaged in an international tour before a run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In the documentary film about the production, NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage, Spacey exclaims, “acting in theatre is without a doubt…fraught with danger.” Some of that danger becomes the physical toll a 200-performance run takes on his body. Spacey speaks of the transformation he must make in order to play a character whose lust for power is linked to his deformities: “What would it be like if you were born that way, if you had heard everyone call you every name in the book, if you had in your blood ambition and royalty? How long would it take you to overcome those disabilities that people made fun of?”

These questions are absolutely necessary when analyzing the character of Richard III, but they are also clearly experiences to which Spacey cannot relate. An actor who actually lives with a disability could immediately speak to these questions from personal experience. The New York Times critic Ben Brantley remarked that Spacey “act[ed] up a storm,” making the “hunchback who would be king...a blood-spattered psycho.” Michael Billington of The Guardian noted how impressive it was that, despite having “his left leg encased in a caliper splint, he still bustles about the stage with ferocious energy.” Apparently, an able-bodied actor’s ability to overcome the physical constraints required to play a disabled character is another contributing factor to the perceived quality of the performance.

Thankfully, the rate of equitable casting continues to evolve, as the notion of able-bodied actors playing disabled roles faces more criticism. However, we still see texts like The Elephant Man, which more or less assume able-bodied actors will play the protagonists. We still see actors like Daniel Radcliffe being critically lauded for their “authentic” transformations. We still see able-bodied actors struggling to comprehend how Richard III’s physical disability affects him psychologically, and being commended when they overcome the challenges of wearing prosthetics and padding. And maybe that’s all okay. After all, an actor is expected to transform into the character he is playing. What stands out to me, though, is the fact that able-bodied actors consistently receive such high praise and even industry awards/nominations for their work in disabled roles. Furthermore, these performances are given such praise largely based on the actor’s approximations of the character’s physical disabilities or deformities. It seems that, in order to give a great performance in a disabled role, one simply must be able-bodied, because only able-bodied actors can pull it off.

I’m not saying the aforementioned actors aren’t talented, nor am I suggesting that they are incapable of giving fine performances in these roles. Nevertheless, able-bodied actors continue to be celebrated for “researching” and “practicing” and “putting their bodies on the line” to create “accurate” representations of disabled people. Why is one considered a beacon of acting talent for playing a disabled character convincingly? Why is it a common expectation that these actors will transform into characters whose experiences they can never truly understand? And, perhaps the most important question: if able-bodied actors continue to be cast in these roles, what opportunities are left for disabled actors?

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Thoughts from the curator

To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act on 26 July 2015, we're publishing a series of pieces focusing on issues of accessibility and visibility in theatre.

ADA 25th Anniversary

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The better and more appropriate term is "non-disabled actor," not "able-bodied actor." I sit on the Performers with Disabilities Committee for SAG-AFTRA and we have been using non-disabled rather than able-bodied as the latter tends to marginalize disabled actors and send the wrong impression. To the point, Though I'm a professional blind actor, the rest of my body works just fine. Furthermore, personally, I have no problem with a non-disabled actor playing a disabled character, provided they play it authentically. The larger conversation is about disabled actors being considered for non-disabled roles where they are otherwise qualified. Director Pete Farrelly once famously remarked, "I've never read a script that stated: "The father enters the room and he is not blind." Considering and hiring disable actors for a non-disabled role adds an extra layer to that character and makes them that much more interesting. Afterall, disabled folks live next door, fall in and out of love, hold powerful positions, are DNA experts, judges, bus drivers, and can make great villans.

Let's remember that this is a business. Cooper, Spacey and Radcliffe will sell many more tickets than an unknown disabled actor. Sad but true. They got cast because the director thought they could do the role well AND sell tickets.

Why did they get praised for playing a disability? Because it was another thing they had to do in addition to all the typical actor challenges. The actors who play Barnum are usually praised for doing circus skills, if they do them well. It's not unreasonable to praise someone for accomplishing an additional challenge beyond the usual. Is it the most important factor? No. Is it worth mentioning? Yes.

Ultimately, directors should cast the actor they think will embody the character in the most compelling way for their version of the story, disabled or not. Are directors short-sighted sometimes and make the safe choice? Yes. Don't many people in every discipline?

And aren't rhetorical questions annoying?

Howlround, can you get this message to Eli Van SickelI via email? Or to any other authors who might be interested?

Is there any way you could write on this important topic? There has been an exceedingly large movement in the autistic community calling for Curious Incident to cast an actor who has autism, of which there are many: http://howlround.com/our-di...

While I am SO happy for Tyler Lea and his being cast to replace Alex Sharp on Broadway, the decision also feels like a slap in the face to the autistic community and feels like a huge missed opportunity for good. I know casting a show is hard but what is not hard is listening to those with the disability that you are profiting off of and making some small acknowledgment, even if not through casting, that you have heard them.

Here are some articles on the topic. I would love if you could write something tactful and kind giving voice to us autistics. Please look at a few of the articles below.

While I totally understand the initial casting of Alex, to have the replacement also a non-autisitc with out even a single reply or acknowladgment from the casting directors to emails from hundreds of autistics petitioning is what makes our community sad.

http://autisticavery.tumblr...

http://howlround.com/castin...

http://www.onstageblog.com/...

http://www.upworthy.com/hes...

http://www.rogerebert.com/b...

http://www.theatlantic.com/...

http://www.theguardian.com/...

http://www.xojane.com/issue...

I've hesitated commenting on this, concerned about highjacking the focused topic, but after 24-hours I'm still so disturbed that I'll risk it with apologies.

We seem to keep ignoring the fact that we are damaging actors daily (physically and vocally) by not giving them the proper training (and support) to play any character - but specifically a physically challenging character like those mentioned above. An "inversion table" is not a solution to the issues Cooper is facing. Giving him access to training to begin the role physically aligned, hiring an expert to assist him (if he hasn't learned how previously) to use muscular engagement vs skeletal misalignment to create the picture of the characters deformities, and then giving him a program of reverse training (as well as teaching him to release his own fascial casting before and after each show) is an actual prevention action plan that won't damage the actor. I won't even begin to describe the vocal injury an actor out of alignment is at risk of - but teaching them to use muscle vs skeleton to create character physicality and giving them tools to put themselves back into neutral nightly is again a prevention plan.

At this moment in (at least) American Theatre, I would love for anyone to bring me an actor of any age who hasn't been physically compromised by the roles he/she has played at the same time they are living in a world where the use of technology is not impacting their ability to be physically free to tell any story they choose. Long sentence, I know, but must start addressing these issues, and the fact that it is considered normal for an "able bodied" actor to wake every Monday feeling like he/she has been run over by a small truck and being vocally exhausted. This is not normal. It is not supposed to hurt to do your job, even one as rigorous as eight+ shows a week.

Hi Marcia! Thanks for reading and for the comments! You make great points and I really think you should consider pitching a story to HowlRound on the subject if you haven't already. As you said, the playing of any character can have adverse physical effects for the actor, but there can be particular harm done to able-bodied actors playing disabled roles (case-in-point: Bradley Cooper in Elephant Man). If the casting practice is not going away anytime soon, I agree that steps should definitely be taken to ensure the physical well-being and maintenance of the actor.

Well-written piece, thank you!I do find an unexamined assumption that I would argue with. You seem to feel that an able-bodied person "can never truly understand" someone else's experience. I find that position untenable. If it isn't possible to understand someone else's experience, then how does acting _ever_ work? More to the point, why do we bother going to the theater, if as audience members we can never understand the experience of the characters in the play who are not us? The basic premise of theater is that it can allow us to imagine the experience of people who are not us - if actors cannot do it, then how does theater work at all?I hear this argument a lot lately, but always as an assumption (that people cannot every understand the experiences of others) never with any argument as to why we should think that. It is not convincing as a reason why (persons without disabilities, black, female, etc) actors cannot portray (persons with disabilities, Asian, male, etc) roles. That said, your very last sentence brings up a reasonable point - one which you haven't addressed before in the article, but which is a compelling argument based on social justice. If actors with disabilities are not cast in roles of characters without disabilities, isn't it fair that at least they get to play the occasional character with a disability? And one would expect that actor to garner even more praise for effectively portraying the character's disability while dealing with her own (presumably somewhat different) disability.

I am glad you brought these questions to the fore. If a non-disabled actor such as Kelley O'Hara can win kudos for playing a non-disabled person, why couldn't she win for playing a disabled person (which she did in LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA). I don't see a problem praising actors for doing a great acting job, which is not to say actors with disabilities should not have opportunities to play roles for both disabled and non-disabled characters. Imagination Stage in Bethesda MD has had actors with disabilities playing characters without disabilities. (Kudos to them!) But to suggest that something is wrong with having non-disabled actors playing disabled characters is reminiscent of the suggestion that only a Jewish composer should write the music for SCHINDLER'S LIST. To me that seemed overly picky.

Hi Derrek! Thanks so much for commenting. I'm have to disagree with you, though, regarding your Schindler's List analogy. While there's something to be said for a composer having a particular experience/sensibility to a work, the political statement made via casting is a significant one. Actors are the literal embodiment of the story being told. Actors physicalize and humanize the characters and they turn the written words into actual, real speech. The actor-audience relationship is the most important, most significant relationship in theatre. It's why the art form exists. And by casting an able-bodied actor in a disabled role, and giving them a Tony Award nomination for it, the statement is made that disabled actors are more or less disposable and the disabled experience doesn't warrant truthful representation. I talk in the blog post about how an able-bodied actor cannot truly/completely understand the life experience of a disabled person, but that issue is, ultimately, secondary to the socio-political statement that is being made to the audience and the public at large. Having been hearing impaired my whole life, when I see a deaf character on stage or film being played by a hearing actor, I can't help but feel misrepresented. I don't get many chances to see people like me (in regards to deafness/hearing impairment) portrayed in art and for the actor to be someone who does not share my experience makes me feel exploited, cheated, forgotten. I also note in the blog post that maybe there's nothing wrong with an able-bodied actor playing a disabled role if they can do it "convincingly." After all, a talented actor is expected to "transform" into the character. But if the praise the actor receives is based largely on the false portrayal of a disability, you're essentially cheering the mimicry as the most important aspect of performance. And, again, maybe that's fine. But then, what's left for disabled actors? The VAST majority of opportunities for disabled actors are in roles that are written as disabled. Very rarely do disabled actors get a chance to play able-bodied roles or roles that are NOT written as disabled. There's a reason why you have a much greater chance of seeing Kevin Spacey playing Richard III than you do of seeing Marlee Matlin playing Lady Macbeth.

I didn't really get into all of this in the blog post because the purpose of the post was to examine the praise given to the able-bodied actors in disabled roles, not to blatantly argue for the casting of disabled actors in those roles. But I do believe that it's an important issue to consider. Because it makes a statement and it takes away an opportunity for a disabled actor to ply their trade. I don't know how "picky" it is to want to see truthful representations of characters onstage.

Hi Richard! Thanks so much for your comments! I'll admit, I didn't really address the issue of opportunities for disabled actors; I was more concerned with examining the three case studies and the ways in which able-bodied actors are praised for their performances in disabled roles. I will note that in the post I consider that maybe there's nothing wrong with having able-bodied actors in disabled roles, as the idea of transformation is at the forefront of acting. But in the cases I mentioned, the actors are mostly praised for their physical changes; the focal point of their performances seems to be mimicry. An actor with the same disability as the character might be judged more based on the other/more important aspects of his performance, since he would not have to concern himself with approximating the disability. But, more to your point, when disabled actors are cast in roles, the vast majority of those roles are written as disabled. There are far fewer opportunities for disabled actors to play roles that are able-bodied or that are not written as disabled. We have a much greater likelihood of seeing Kevin Spacey playing Richard III than we do of seeing Marlee Matlin playing Lady Macbeth. This is very significant and calls attention to the social justice argument that you introduced.

I think, despite any social progress, it still generally makes people uncomfortable to see disabled bodies. Lennard Davis wrote in Bending Over Backwards that representations of disabled people are made "for the examination and comfort of people who believe themselves to be able-bodied (177)." As I understand Davis, he means that by highlighting and delimiting norms for bodies and affect, people who believe they are not disabled cathartically comfort themselves that they are not the Other, that they exist well outside the boundaries of the Other. I think we could frame these performances as such, especially since, as you point out, "non-disabled" actors (I use the "scare quotes" because, like Davis, I take a dismodernist position that ALL people will be disabled at some point in their lives) are seen as "overcoming" the vast physical boundaries that demarcate disabled bodies. I'm not denying that it is a great feat of physical theatre to play a character with a vastly different body, but it takes a similar amount of effort and stamina to play, for example, a Muppet. It also takes a great deal of effort and stamina for some bodies to achieve LeCoq's coveted "neutral" body. But we don't frequently applaud people for the great deal of effort it may take to seem normal, or effortless.

What a beautifully elegant and gently provocative piece, thank you. You've placed us at what I hope will be the end of a long tradition in acting history.