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This Is How We Cripped It

I’m a wheelchair user. I began having trouble walking because of multiple sclerosis about fifteen years into my career as an actor. Once I started limping, I assumed I’d have to quit doing theatre. Instead, as my mobility progressed to using a cane, then crutches, and now a wheelchair, my artistic practice transformed. I now use my lived experience of disability to explore aspects of the human condition I didn’t have access to before. This has opened up challenging and important aspects of the work, even as my inclusion in mainstream theatre has all but disappeared.

Aside from a handful of courageous niche organizations, there have been very few opportunities for artists with disabilities to develop their chops. As a result, there are very few performers with disabilities who have decades of professional experience behind them. I’ve worked steadily over the years, which means that, among my disabled peers, I am extremely privileged. Yet among my non-disabled peers I’m probably living everyone’s worst nightmare. I’ll say that again: disabled theatre artists see me as privileged, while non-disabled theatre artists think my life is a nightmare. That tells you all you need to know about the status of performers with disabilities in our art form.

an actor onstage

Shakespeare's Will by Vern Thiessen. Photo by Christian Jordan.

While this exclusion and outsider status is a drag for me and my disabled colleagues, it’s actually a huge missed opportunity for the art form as a whole. The systemic exclusion of people of diverse identities within artistic practices is not only politically problematic, it is artistically detrimental. The justice inherent in the inclusion of diverse identities is obvious. Less obvious but equally important are the artistic benefits. Diversity expands the scope of our work by accessing a broader range of experience. By choosing to work with disabled artists, companies gain access to the opportunities that can only be found by “cripping” the work: embracing the disruptions created by disability to open up previously unimagined possibilities. Cripping the work can manifest in any number of ways, but it can only be achieved by working with crip artists. (To be clear, not all artists with disabilities identify as crip artists, in much the same way not all women self-identify as feminist.) A sense of disability justice is necessary to disrupt the ableism inherent in our art form.

There are many barriers faced by crip theatre artists, and I’m not referring to basic physical infrastructure. First, there is the assumption that any art created by people with disabilities must be a form of therapeutic recreation. It’s not. Then, there is a belief that people with disabilities must live smaller, less worldly lives and therefore lack a breadth of experience needed to make good art. But our lives bring a perspective that has been missing and is desperately needed—especially now, when we are all having to learn how to prioritize our bodies’ vulnerabilities through isolation and quarantine. The exploration of complex ideas through well-honed skills and a sophisticated aesthetic is achievable by people of all abilities.

By choosing to work with disabled artists, companies gain access to the opportunities that can only be found by “cripping” the work.

Cripping through Design

Just before the pandemic offered its own disruption, I was in a one-woman show as part of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s Shakespeare Fest in Winnipeg, Canada. I had been offered this role without auditioning. A role written for an able bodied actor. Amazing. I soon discovered I was replacing a non-disabled actor who had to withdraw, and it was clear that plans for the production hadn’t kept pace with the casting change.

The role was Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, in Vern Thiessen’s wonderful Shakespeare’s Will. The play takes place on the day of Shakespeare’s burial. Anne is mourning her husband, avoiding reading his will and, instead, unpacking their whole relationship—from the day they met to the day he died. In my first meeting with the producer and director, we talked about various production elements. I learned we would be working without a designer and that I would be performing on a small riser in a rehearsal studio converted into a theatre. The script called for a bench, a lantern, wooden toys, and an Elizabethan gown—all things that had already been sourced. I started to get nervous.

What would I need a bench for? In my wheelchair, I’m already sitting down. And Elizabethan gowns are not designed for the seated body type; the stays on the bodice would dig into my legs, forcing the neckline up to my chin, and the skirt would get caught in the wheels. How would I hold a lantern, or any other props, if I had to roll around? I need both hands to move. And no one had mentioned a ramp…

The next day I called the director. “Eric, let’s talk about design, about the world of this production,” I said. “I’m in a wheelchair and I’m not hearing anything that seems to recognize that. We can’t hide it, we can’t ignore it, and if we treat it like a problem to be solved we’ll end up with a Band-Aid solution.”

three actors on an outdoor stage

Toni Reimer, Tracey Nepinak, and Debbie Patterson in Richard III. Photo by Dylan Hewlett.

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.

five actors onstage

Carol Ann Bohrn, Prince Amponsah, Debbie Patterson, Natasha Torres Garner, Steve Yurkiw, and Andrea del Campo in The Threepenny Opera. Photo by Muni Muni collective.

Cripping the Art Form

These three productions each found different ways of cripping the work, and there are doubtlessly infinite other ways of transforming theatre through the disruption of disability. But what we all really need is a radical transformation of the way we make theatre based on crip principles of inclusion, access, and interdependence.

As artists, we rarely get the chance to own our vulnerabilities within the work: the philosophy of “the show must go on” is ableist, the hours we work are punishing, the expectation that we will show up for work even when we’re sick is inhuman. We are asked to be vulnerable and open, but in the hierarchies of traditional theatre practices this can lead to exploitation and abuse. We claim to be exploring and honoring the human condition, and yet the way we make theatre demands that we deny our own human condition. There is a better way.

I wish I could give all my temporarily able-bodied peers in the theatre the opportunity to explore what it means to crip the work. My most challenging, fulfilling, surprising, innovative theatre experiences have happened while being part of integrated teams of abled and disabled artists. The growth and expansion of the non-disabled artists in these situations is undeniable. If you get the chance, don’t give into apprehension, fear, or prejudicial thinking. There is freedom in limitation, there is power in vulnerability, there is opportunity in disruption.

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Thank you for this great article! I appreciate that your descriptions are clear and put us into the performance as you experienced it.

I especially like how you described yourself as both privileged and nightmarish. I live with an invisible physical disability and explaining this dichotomy can feel like an impossible task. You put it very well. The next time I lack the words, I'll reference your article.

I love how the work you describe here demonstrates the principle that "there is opportunity in disruption"! Indeed! I also appreciated your description of the way cripping Threepenny augmented the storytelling by deepening the critique of capitalism. A really wonderful essay -- thank you for sharing your experiences and analysis.