Moving from Disability Visibility to Disability Artistry
This past summer I attended a screening of the acclaimed documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution at a leading Off-Off-Broadway theatre. I had already seen the film (admittedly more than once) but was excited to watch it in a communal space where I hoped I could engage others in discussion about how to continue the work of the activists the film follows. As an introduction to the event, one of the organizers said she wanted to get to know who was in the audience. “Who here is the parent of someone with a disability?” Her question was met with applause and raised hands. “Who here works with people with disabilities?” She went on. “Who has a sibling with a disability? Who went to school with someone with a disability?” I waited through these increasingly distant associations to the world’s largest minority group, but she never asked the obvious question: who here has a disability?
As a disabled theatremaker with a personal stake in creating spaces that center disability, I can always tell, often almost immediately, whether an event is for disabled people or just about disabled people. I’m sure this organizer had good intentions, but I’m troubled by how often even those who say they want to engage with disability actually want to distance themselves from it. Often there’s a willingness to attend to some of the superficial elements of disability inclusion, but meaningful engagement stops there. Striving for an anti-ableist theatre community (and world!) certainly includes better physical accessibility and more frequent, accurate, and robust disability representation, but it also means undoing our internalized ableism and truly celebrating disability. We need to do more than include disability; we must allow it to shape our world.
Later in the summer I went to an event at Lincoln Center, In Conversation: Disability Artistry moderated by actor Gregg Mozgala. This evening showcased theatre by and discussion between playwright and dramaturg A.A. Brenner; actor and playwright Ryan Haddad; and Ben Raanan, artistic director of Phamaly Theatre Company, the country's longest-running theatre company that exclusively features actors with disabilities. In contrast to the conversations at the Crip Camp screening, which largely focused on disabled people as “inspirational” others, this discussion immediately felt rich. No one had to explain why disabled people are worthy of consideration in our own right outside of our potential utility to non-disabled people. Instead the talented artists onstage could spend their time on juicier questions like what does disability aesthetic mean to you, and how does it show up in your work? How do you navigate the intersections of your multiple identities? When do you choose to put yourself into your writing as a performer, and does that change your approach? One of the questions from the audience stood out to me: how do we move from disability visibility to disability artistry, and what comes after that?
Whereas disability visibility can be shallow or tokenizing, disability artistry says we are already here, we are already making exciting work, and the world of theatre will be made better by engaging deeply with that work.
I’ve always been skeptical of the notion of “artistry” or “excellence,” believing instead that everyone should have the space to express themselves creatively, regardless of skill. Nonetheless, I like this question because it invites disabled people to take ourselves seriously as artists. Whereas disability visibility can be shallow or tokenizing, disability artistry says we are already here, we are already making exciting work, and the world of theatre will be made better by engaging deeply with that work. I want to delve into both disability visibility and disability artistry, and I want to go further to dream about what disability makes possible on our stages and beyond.
Disability visibility is two-pronged. It requires both physical accessibility and representation of disabled people. Representation in theatre may be improving, but there’s a lot of work to do to build a catalog of disabled characters beyond what the theatrical canon (largely written by non-disabled people or those who don’t identify themselves with disability) has offered thus far. In “Naming the Trope,” Raanan helpfully outlines the stock characters disabled people are typically relegated to. These include the “Gentleman Freak,” “Magical Freak,” “Super-Crip,” “Misunderstood Weirdo,” “Rage-Filled Recluse,” and “Ambiguous Disability.” None of these tropes allow the disabled people who fill them to be complicated, fully formed human beings. Instead, these characters operate essentially as plot devices to teach lessons to their non-disabled counterparts. Given that these portrayals are often inaccurate at best and extremely harmful at worst, it’s up for debate as to whether or not this actually counts as disability visibility—especially because even these crumbs of representation are far too often given to non-disabled performers. Regardless it’s clear that to move from disability visibility to artistry we need complicated, diverse disabled characters and we need them written and played by disabled artists.
Another type of visibility through representation occurs when disabled actors play roles that were not originally conceived of as disabled, such as Ali Stroker’s Tony Award-winning performance of Ado Annie in Oklahoma! or the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening. This gives disabled performers much deserved opportunities to showcase their talents and often to add new layers to familiar stories. Of course, for disabled people to participate behind the scenes or onstage, they have to be able to get into the room. This is where physical accessibility comes in.
Physical accessibility includes ramps into buildings, suitable accessible bathrooms, and American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, and it can also include things like having scent-free spaces or flexible rehearsal schedules. Unfortunately, it is rare for theatres to meet even the bare minimum for physical accessibility. This past summer, I worked on a project involving disabled characters that was accepted and then later rejected from a festival and multiple performance spaces due to the spaces’ inability to accommodate the performers I work with. (I myself have psychiatric and neurological disabilities as well as chronic illnesses, but I am physically non-disabled). And let’s not forget that Stroker had to wait in the wings before her historic Tony win and couldn’t later join the rest of her cast in celebrating their win for best musical revival due to the lack of ramp between the audience and the stage. Many performance venues need urgent renovation, but physical accessibility is only part of the picture.
I want stories that revel in disability, those that do not dilute themselves by trying to convince people that we’re all the same, but those that willfully delight in the beautiful divergences of our bodyminds.
This brings us to the second half of the question: disability artistry. Disability artistry likely means a lot of different things to different people. For me, it’s about work that is informed, from the beginning and down to its core, by some aspect of the disability experience. This doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be “about” disability, but rather it can embrace a disability aesthetic or feature complicated characters whose lives include disability. That said, I am interested in theatre that centers disability as a driving force. I want stories that revel in disability, those that do not dilute themselves by trying to convince people that we’re all the same, but those that willfully delight in the beautiful divergences of our bodyminds.
For disability artistry, we need an active effort among audiences and artists to unpack their biases against disability and to instead embrace all that disability has to offer. As Jewish theologian Julia Watts Belser puts it “I fear that by conceptualizing disability primarily as an access problem to be solved, we fail to invite in the vibrant, transgressive potential of disability culture: of a ‘crip’ sensibility that celebrates disability as a way of life, a radically different way of moving through the world.”
There are already many artists exploring the “vibrant, transgressive potential of disability culture” through theatre. As part of the Disability Artistry conversation at Lincoln Center, Ryan Haddad performed hilarious, overtly sexual personal stories and directly challenged any audience member whose instinct may have been to pity or infantilize him. Later that evening, A.A. Brenner gave new life to an old classic with a scene from Blanche and Stella, their queer, disabled reimagining of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Moderator Gregg Mozgala did not perform but has spent his career delving into similarly rich disability-centered material including Teenage Dick, Mike Lew’s darkly comedic take on Shakespeare’s Richard III. Mozgala’s manipulative, power-hungry portrayal of perhaps the most famous disabled character in theatre history (who trades his reign over England for student presidency of his high school in Lew’s adaptation) is far from inspiration porn. The messy material questions how much our actions are due to our social situation versus our innate character and how much we must take accountability for them ourselves. This fall, Mozgala stars in Cost of Living at Manhattan Theatre Club, which explores the intimacy and vulnerability between disabled people and their care attendants.
I also think about work that allows disability to shape its form. Sarah Kaufman and Shane Dittmar are a disabled writing team who share their work on TikTok and are working on a musical, The Reality Shaper, to be released via podcast. Developing a musical for an audio-only podcast form means that blind folks (like Dittmar) won’t be missing any part of the story. It also means that Autistic folks (like Kaufman) won’t risk sensory overload by going to a theatre. The “theatre space” is your phone, so no one needs to worry about it being physically inaccessible or exposing people to COVID. At the same time, this form is more financially accessible to people who may not have the money to see expensive stage shows. By distributing their art through social media, Kaufman and Dittmar have engaged a broader audience than traditional stage musicals and are able to be more accountable to their community.
Likewise, the disability justice-based performance project Sins Invalid has been cultivating disability artistry since 2005 with work that investigates “themes of sexuality, embodiment and the disabled body, developing provocative work where paradigms of ‘normal’ and ‘sexy’ are challenged, offering instead a vision of beauty and sexuality inclusive of all bodies and communities.” Their shows have included wheelchair suspension, ASL signed spoken word poetry, medical examination magic shows and strip teases, dance without music meant to show what it's like to move with no external soundtrack, and many other mediums that center disability and desire.
“Disabled people’s liberation cannot be boiled down to logistics.”
Sins Invalid does not aim to inspire or make themselves palatable for non-disabled audiences, but rather to create “crip-centric liberated zones.” These are spaces built by and for disabled queer people of color away from ableism, homophobia, racism, transphobia, and other oppressions. In the book Crip Kinship: The Disability Justice & Art Activism of Sins Invalid, Shayda Kafai writes, “When directed inward, the love practice of a crip-centric zone gifts us with strategies for re-centering and decolonizing our bodyminds. When directed outward, the zone politically transforms the places we inhabit–even if temporarily–into hubs of communal bodymind witnessing.” Unlike the overused disability tropes, which Raanan notes are used “to create catharsis, or emotional release, in those who are part of the majority,” these crip-centric liberated zones may lead to catharsis, or emotional release, in those who are part of the minority. At the same time, they are transformative for anyone who engages with them, regardless of disability status.
What Comes After That?
Universal accessibility helps everyone. If there are adequate curb cuts and ramps, it helps wheelchair users as well as caretakers with strollers or anyone with a rolling laundry hamper. I like to think about how this principle might apply to the theatre community. This year, understudies and swings were rightly celebrated for stepping in and keeping Broadway afloat. While I never want to devalue the important work these performers do (and have done since long before the pandemic), I can’t help but wonder why we don’t disrupt the ableist notion of “the show must go on” entirely. It may be heroic to perform a new role onstage with only two hours of notice and preparation, but it’s also potentially dangerous, putting under-rehearsed and under-compensated performers in a very vulnerable position both physically and mentally.
What would it look like to have a theatre world that actually made space for the ups and downs of people’s fragile bodies and minds? What would it look like to slow down without the expectation of constant forward momentum? A lot would have to be reimagined, but disabled people have been doing this reimagining for all our lives. As Patty Berne, co-founder and artistic director of Sins Invalid, writes in the foreword to Kafai’s book, “Crip life invited us into fierce creativity. Because the world continues to treat us as worthless, creating new worlds is a matter of survival for us. Dreaming is a matter of survival.” We have always found creative ways to structure our lives, work, and communities. Maybe what comes after disability visibility and artistry is looking at the culture of theatre as a whole and asking who does this actually work for? Who does it leave out? How can we make theatre a space for communal liberation and joy?
Activist and writer Mia Mingus uses the phrase “access intimacy” to describe the feeling of someone understanding your access needs. She names this as a crucial piece of a more encompassing view of disability justice, saying that access intimacy “moves the work of access out of the realm of only logistics and into the realm of relationships and understanding disabled people as humans, not burdens. Disabled people’s liberation cannot be boiled down to logistics.” In other words, yes to more ramps, yes to more representation, but also yes to rethinking the entire world of theatre from the vantage point of disability. What if we assumed that in every room there were those with disabled siblings, those who worked with and went to school with disabled people, and those with disabilities? What if we assumed that theatre might be better for everyone if we followed the lead of those people and committed to making sure their needs were met?
It is likely that all people will be a part of the disability community at one point or another in their lives. I think that’s partly what makes disability hard for so many non-disabled (and even some disabled!) people to engage with. We are afraid of the ways our own bodies and minds may betray us. We are afraid of the inevitability that they will. We’ve seen this recently as many have rushed to “get back to normal” even as COVID still endangers our immunocompromised community members and even as, due to long COVID, this pandemic has been a mass-disabling event.
While many of us are so hungry for live theatre, I hope we do not go back to normal, but instead use this moment to make room for possibility. We can start with more physical accessibility and disability representation, but we must also pursue disability artistry by centering disabled artists and the creative potential the disability community holds. Beyond that, I think we must reconsider the culture that rewards pushing through adversity over honoring our bodies and minds. Stories are how we understand the world and therefore stories are how we shape it. But to make use of the radical potential of theatre, we have to turn that probing, ever-imaginative eye inward towards our own community. Disability has a lot to teach all of us when we are ready to listen.