Disability, Identity, and Representation

Notes from a Dramaturg

Theatre is an art form that seeks to reflect and change society. As a Seattle-based dramaturg who identifies as a disabled artist, I recognize a glaring need for more disabled theatremakers in the industry—to enrich the theatrical landscape with diverse perspectives, challenge the norms, and encourage new ways of thinking.

My disability compels me to make accessibility a priority in my work and to advocate for accessibility in the work of others. Being from a historically marginalized community, I have a heightened awareness of who’s absent from the room or whose story is not being told. This awareness has fueled my interest in new plays and musicals, which I believe are essential to achieving true inclusiveness in theatre. New works are powerful vehicles for voices from underrepresented communities; it’s not enough to have representation on stage if the stories of marginalized people are not also represented in the work in a thoughtful and authentic manner.

two people talking

Andrea speaking to the group at a kick-off party for staged reading series Illuminate, produced by Sound Theatre Company. She is seated in a power wheelchair. Seated next to her is an ASL Interpreter, signing as she speaks. Photo Credit: Margaret Toomey.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there are so many challenges for playwrights who want to represent disability respectfully in their work. To begin with, reading about disability is not enough. Playwrights need to do their research by establishing a relationship with a person who has a disability and having several conversations with them throughout the play’s development. Disability has a specific culture that encompasses a range of experiences, and learning about the community should be a no-brainer. Being in contact with someone with a disability during the process can be thought of as having a cultural consultant.

However, this approach doesn’t necessarily address all of the aspects that are involved in creating a respectful representation of disability. A disabled dramaturg would be a huge asset in this situation. Dramaturgs by nature are particularly adept at asking questions: they look at the structure of the story, as well as the characters and the details, and contribute their perspective. A disabled dramaturg has a different lens informed by their lived experience, which would be immensely helpful to any playwright. All plays can benefit from being viewed through this lens, but it’s especially valuable when a play involves a disabled character.

New works are powerful vehicles for voices from underrepresented communities.

An advantage to establishing a relationship with a dramaturg early in the development process is that a dramaturg can act as the play’s first audience and give feedback to help support the playwright’s vision. For instance, if I were working with a playwright who had written a flashback scene for a character who had acquired their disability after an accident (a huge red flag among many disabled storytellers), I would question if that scene was really serving the story. It's important to examine and understand the ramifications of including a scene like this within the play. I would also examine the character arcs and how disability is being used within the narrative. 

Most disabled dramaturgs are familiar with historical usages of disability and other tropes to avoid, such as using disability as an outward manifestation of inner evil or the objectification of disabled figures, like Nessarose in Wicked. There are also common narratives and stereotypes, like the “supercrip,” inspiration porn, freak show themes, and more. Explaining these terms would take up another article in and of itself, but if you’re unfamiliar with these ideas then it just proves why someone like a dramaturg who knows about them is so necessary to writing respectful representations of disability. There’s a difference between representation that is not negative (i.e. that is neutral) and representation that is actually respectful. Respectful does not mean that a disabled character must be a saint, simply that they are a three-dimensional human being. Disability should be treated with the respect all identities deserve.

An additional challenge when attempting to write a respectful representation is that views are constantly changing within the disability community. We don’t necessarily agree on all topics. Some people prefer person-first language, which would be saying “person with a disability.” Others prefer identity-first language, which would be “disabled person.” The significance of these linguistic choices when writing is that the language used by someone expresses something about the user, such as their age or beliefs, as well as their relationship to disability (e.g. caregiver of a disabled person vs. the disabled individual). Dramaturgs zero in on word choices and question how those words fit into the work.

I understand that disability can be an uncomfortable subject for some people to consider, but when did theatres decide to shy away from uncomfortable subjects?

A practical tool that playwrights can use is the Fries test, which is similar to the Bechdel test. Proposed by disabled writer and activist Kenny Fries, this test lays out the minimum standards for accurately representing disability in literature. There are three questions to ask to determine if a play passes the test: 1) Is there more than one disabled character? 2) Do the disabled characters have purposes other than being there for the benefit or edification of the non-disabled characters? 3) Is disability not removed from the narrative through death or a cure? Or, in other words, are the disabled characters allowed to remain disabled? (It’s a common misconception that all disabled people must want to be “cured.”) Some people might think that asking for at least two disabled characters is a bit unrealistic. But considering that nearly one in four Americans has a disability, disabled people are far more common than most contemporary plays seem to suggest. Unfortunately, there are not that many works of fiction that meet the criteria of the Fries test, and even fewer plays that do. One good example of a play that does pass this test is peeling by Kaite O’Reilly.

three actors onstage

Photo shows three cast members during a scene from Sound Theatre Company's ASL Midsummer Night's Dream. The Deaf actor in the center of the group is signing, while the other two watch intently. Pictured from left to right: Brittany Rupik, Kai Winchester, and Liz Ayers Gibson. The production included ten Deaf actors and nine hearing actors with a range of ASL skills from none to proficient. Photo Credit: Ken Holmes.

Writing a play containing a respectful representation of disability is one thing, but, after that, there’s still the challenge of getting someone to produce it. There’s this mentality that because there are theatre companies that focus on disability, other theatres don’t need to diversify the work they program. I understand that disability can be an uncomfortable subject for some people to consider, but when did theatres decide to shy away from uncomfortable subjects? How many theatres have missions that address the social impact of our art form? A handful of companies scattered across the nation cannot be expected to represent the sixty-one million Americans who have disabilities.

American theatre is currently full of normative expectations and, for the most part, is not that reflective of our communities. The presence of disabled actors in plays that respectfully involve disability can emphasize the interdependence of humans and the need to accept differences without “othering” them or even seeing them as “special.” Disability can prompt a person to examine their own beliefs and prejudices. It can call into question the accepted normative standards and encourage new perspectives. However, representations of disability in plays and musicals should be viewed critically through the dramaturgical lens of a disabled person to determine if they’re actually progressive. Representation matters, but so does the quality of it.

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Thoughts from the curators

Accessible and inclusive theatre is not new. Nevertheless, more often than not, theatre companies today that are striving to include the disability community do so by welcoming disabled actors to their stages and disabled audiences to their performances. Yet there are dozens of jobs, on stage and off, beyond performers and patrons. In this series, a variety of disabled theatre artists: managers, designers, producers, and dramaturgs, will share how they do their work, as well as their vision for an accessible future in professional theatre. This series is curated by National Disability Theatre, which believes disabled artists and artisans are an asset to any theatrical process or production.

The Future of Theatre is Accessible

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Thanks for this article Andrea. I have read it with a keen interest. I am a theatre maker very much interested to work with people with disabilities. I would very much like to break this ground in Malawi. I have realised through the series how much we ignore untapped talent by not thinking of working with people with disabilities. I would like to know more what you mean by 'Representation that is not negative,' and 'Representation that is actually respectiful' Bceause I would like to get to know more of how people with disabilities could properly be represented in the works of art. And what would be your advise to someone like me, who would like to break this ground in Malawi...to do theatre of inclusion...what would be the best approach to start this

Thanks for your comment and excellent questions, Misheck! When I'm talking about representation that's not negative, I'm mostly talking about when disability is used as a metaphor and therefore is a narrative device, rather than an aspect of humanity. The most obvious examples of this are villains who have an eye patches or limp. On the other end of the scale, there's a character like Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. The latter example is not overtly negative, but Tim's disability is used as a symbol. His humanity is not recognized. Unfortunately, we still see work (plays, TV shows, movies, etc.) that use disability in this manner.

As for getting started, I would say that you should start building a network of disabled artists (if one doesn't exist yet).

Thank you for this article! As an artist who also identifies as disabled, it feels like normalizing our existence as people is a constant struggle. Your words are greatly appreciated. Thank you for getting the word out about the Fries Test!