I told him we could look into designs of Elizabethan wheelchairs but that we could come up with something better if we thought beyond just trying to make the wheelchair work. We had to crip our visioning of the production, working from the assumption that my disability is a rich source of artistic innovation and risk. This wasn’t about compromising or accommodating or making do, this was about unearthing opportunities for deeper truths to emerge.
He agreed. I think he was actually relieved. Not a lot of mainstream artists get the opportunity to work with disabled artists, and I think the unfamiliarity of it makes people apprehensive or afraid. But stepping into the unknown is always fertile ground for artistic exploration, and doing the scary thing usually yields artistic results. Our conversation gave Eric a way in and disrupted the impulse to pity me or see my mobility as a tragedy. It gave him permission to see my wheelchair as a new staging tool that he could use. The next day he called and asked for a meeting, because he had an idea he wanted to share.
The seashore is a recurring theme in the play, so Eric suggested performing in sand and using rocks, shells, and bits of driftwood as puppets. He built a table that could hold three or four inches of sand and collected branches and rocks from the riverbank near his house. The sand could be manipulated to create pictures, landscapes, water, and rain, and, as Anne speaks, memories could emerge from under it, revealing themselves. With my chair, I could glide gracefully behind the table, flowing seamlessly from moment to moment, as if in a dream or a memory.
Rather than the wheelchair calling attention to itself, it integrated seamlessly into the world of the play—serving the text and centering the story. In all the reviews, not once was the wheelchair mentioned. It was a beautiful re-visioning of a play that has been done dozens and dozens of times. This was possible because we had cripped it—embraced disability and explored the possibilities that could only be revealed through disruption.
What we all really need is a radical transformation of the way we make theatre based on crip principles of inclusion, access, and interdependence.
Cripping through Shifting Perspective
Cripping can also be done by shifting from the abled to the disabled point of view. In 2016, I got the chance to crip Richard III in a production I did with one of my companies, Shakespeare in the Ruins; I was the first disabled actor to play that role in a professional production in Canada. “Nothing about us without us” is a rallying cry that has its origins in the disability rights movement, a cry that has been historically unheard in productions of this play.
Our version wasn’t the expected play about an evil twisted person with an evil twisted soul, a story that comes from “othering” people with disabilities. Instead, it was a disability revenge play—a story of an excluded, underestimated, and disrespected person who seizes power from the family that has held him down all his life. This vision came from hours of discussion with the director, who was determined to “get it right.” He had had a brief experience of disability due to a spine condition and recognized there was a vast, largely unexplored realm beyond what he had encountered. He wanted to honor the truth of the lived experience of disability, to tell a story that hadn’t been told.
Cripping through Casting
A third way of looking at how cripping can be done is through casting. In the spring of 2019, my other company, Sick + Twisted, put on a production of The Threepenny Opera. This production featured a fully integrated cast including two Deaf actors, four physically disabled actors, and four able-bodied actors. This classic play with music is a brilliant indictment of capitalism, but with so many disabled bodies on stage, cripping it meant we exposed the capitalist underpinnings of ableism: the way a person’s worth is equated with their earning potential.
Our production also provided a vision for disrupting capitalism offstage through interdependence, the kind that emerges in integrated groups where individual vulnerabilities are a shared responsibility. When a culture of interdependence is established, suddenly everyone’s vulnerabilities can be given space: the stage manager whose kid has a fever and can’t go to daycare, the insomniac who needs a quiet space to nap on breaks, the service dog who needs to go out for a pee, and all the invisible conditions that we theatremakers spend our professional lives hiding in order to get through the twelve-hour cue-to-cue days. Suddenly all these things are manageable, all these things are welcome, all these things can be supported. They make us stronger, more human, more honest. And that culture of interdependence, established in the rehearsal hall, is evident in the powerful sense of ensemble that emerges on stage.