In Search of Authenticity

Including Disability in Theatre

In an interview with the San Francisco Observer in 2005, playwright John Belluso eloquently explained why he chose to write about disability in his body of work:

It is an experience that shapes my life and view of the world, and a topic that I find endlessly fascinating because there is that universal element… It is the one minority class in which anyone can become a member of at any time.

As a wheelchair user, Belluso, who died in 2006, wrote complex and richly nuanced plays that defied the dominant disability narrative of “extraordinary-individual-who-overcomes-personal-tragedy.” Instead, he provided a critical examination of how American society treats individuals with disabilities. Resisting the commercial desire for these stories to be inspirational, Belluso’s work challenges audiences to view disability as an experience shaped by socially constructed notions.

Known as the “social model of disability,” this concept identifies the biological condition as the impairment, but points out that it is society that creates the physical and attitudinal barriers that lead to the label. Seen from this angle, disability is actually the result of social conditions that will, at some point, affect every person’s life—whether through aging, an accident, or the experiences of loved ones and friends. The comprehensiveness of this view and the specificity of the voices of disabled playwrights such as Belluso, who speak from their own experience, create compelling and authentic stories.

Theatre has the power to help us recognize the social forces that we have created as a society and allows us to envision how we can change them. To incite positive social change and critically alter the way society views differences, voices from the disability community must be included in what we present onstage. When individuals from the represented community write from their own experiences, the work challenges established attitudes, myths, and stereotypes that those people confront daily and shows the complexity of the disabled identity. These stories are desperately needed in this day and age, but many people are still unfamiliar with this work, which is often marginalized and infrequently presented.

To incite positive social change and critically alter the way society views differences, voices from the disability community must be included in what we present onstage.

As an early-career dramaturg who identifies as a disabled theatre artist, I recently collaborated with Seattle-based Sound Theatre Company on two projects that focused on Deaf and disabled playwrights: a series of staged readings and the presentation of a full production.

The series of staged readings, presented in summer 2018, was called ILLUMINATE: Six Plays by Deaf and Disabled Playwrights. The selected plays were A Nervous Smile by John Belluso, Ultrasound by Adam Pottle, Schism by Athena Stevens, Peeling by Kaite O’Reilly, The Things We Carry by Oya Mae Duchess-Davis, and a developmental workshop reading of Holy Water by Howie Seago.

The range of work presented challenged accepted notions of disability and deconstructed ableism from multiple standpoints. While each play was different, there were some common threads that ran through various pieces: feminism, the complexity of life-altering choices about pregnancy, and struggling against ableist power structures. The plays visibly centered on stories by and—in all but one—about the respective communities. By exploring what authenticity can look like when these individuals are involved, the ILLUMINATE project sparked necessary discussions among audiences about the inclusion and representation of Deaf and disabled people onstage. 

two people taking a picture of a wheelchair user

The cast of The Rules of Charity (pictured: Andrew Litzky, Maile Wong, and Hisam Goueli). Photo by Ken Holmes.

There were many challenges and many lessons learned throughout the project. We struggled and had mixed degrees of success in managing audience accessibility services, including CART (real-time captioning) services and ASL interpretation. In particular, we had trouble engaging skilled ASL interpreters who would help out for low, almost volunteer, rates. Another difficulty we encountered was providing the right contrast in lighting for projected portions of the script to be seen on the backdrop. That being said, we were able to meet our goal for community engagement through post-show discussions after each reading. The talkbacks touched on a range of topics brought up by the plays, such as eugenics and disability rights. These discussions were further augmented by additional information provided in our lobby, including posters highlighting persistent disability tropes commonly found in media and pop culture.

The directness of this play perplexed some audience members, who were unfamiliar with disability theatre and were unsure how to react.

Shortly after the reading series concluded, we presented a full production of Belluso’s The Rules of Charity, a play that boldly confronts society’s treatment of people with disabilities. True to Belluso’s direct and honest style, it’s an unflinching look at some uncomfortable truths prevalent in our society. For instance, one of the themes focuses on the desire of non-disabled people to be inspired by the lives of disabled people, positioning and consuming their story (i.e. “inspiration porn”). The directness of this play perplexed some audience members, who were unfamiliar with disability theatre and were unsure how to react. Despite the somewhat-mixed reception, the show was meaningful to others in the audience, who were unused to seeing themselves represented onstage.

From my experience as an artist working in Seattle, the community here has started to embrace work that is more representational in terms of race and gender, but there still remains very little disability representation on our stages. Talented artists from the Deaf community have started to make inroads for their community, but disability has not achieved the same recognition. For this reason, these two projects were important steps for the theatre community here. Instead of just discussing the importance of including disability onstage with other artists and community members, we made something happen.

Immediately following our announcement of the ILLUMINATE series, a professor contacted us to find out how she could incorporate some of the plays we had selected into her syllabus. Inquiries like this give me hope that future theatremakers will be more familiar with the work of disabled and Deaf playwrights. Perhaps then these projects will be like stones thrown in a pond: there will be a ripple effect, and in time we’ll start to see some positive changes in the representation of disability in theatre and the inclusion of disabled theatre artists.

As Jack Reuler, artistic director of Minneapolis’s Mixed Blood Theatre Company, states in the HowlRound article “At the Crossroads of Disability and Theatre at Mixed Blood”: "While equity, diversity, and inclusion have risen to the surface and forced us, as a field, to be introspective and proactive about race, culture, and gender, disability is the next frontier." Some companies have made significant efforts to include disability in theatre. But there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done for theatre to truly be inclusive. Brilliant, like-minded disabled theatremakers are coming together and the murmurs of change can be heard. The first step is understanding that part of being inclusive is creating space for the authentic voices of disabled playwrights. Listening to those voices is the next.

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