Theatre-ing While Disabled

Actor Edition

In this series, Kate highlights some of the twenty theatre job titles she’s held over the years, rating them based on their level of awesomeness / non-awesomeness through the lens of her physical disability. Each position is ranked on a scale of one to five possible canes.

Ahhhh, acting. My first love. To hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of—What? Like “walk sexier” how?

I rarely auditioned for the overtly sexy parts, knowing that the physicality required isn’t easy for me. But I still looked young and blonde, so the acting notes were unfailingly focused on the need for me to move sexier.

I’ve been theatre-ing since I was seven, starting with my breakout role as “Person” in the Christmas pageant wherein my single line, “What’s wrong with Zachariah?” set a new standard for theatre excellence. Acting earned me my first theatre paycheck (and dozens of dollars thereafter), and for that I am grateful. Even as teenager, though, I was aware of the ways in which my work onstage was limited by gender. It’s only with distance that I see the ableist paradigm that created further barriers to success.

I’ve never been especially graceful, nor one who performs traditional femininity well. I’m clunky and clumsy and generally quirky, and I’m not convinced that I’d be otherwise in the absence of disability. Still, when I think back to the acting notes I received as a young woman, an unmistakable theme shakes out. As a curvy blonde, the expectation was that I ought to have a more seductive, hip-swaying, “Hey, sailor” kind of thing going, even if I hadn’t been cast in a sexy part. Elderly ranch-hand? You mean seductive elderly ranch-hand. Angel of Death? You mean sexy Angel of Death. Non-Speaking Townsperson #3? You mean Non-Speaking Townsperson #3 who you can tell gives good hand-jobs. I rarely auditioned for the overtly sexy parts, knowing that the physicality required isn’t easy for me. But I still looked young and blonde, so the acting notes were unfailingly focused on the need for me to move sexier. The specific note that was the beginning of the end for me was, “During the second act, you looked like you were in pain.”

I’m often in pain, so it’s not outlandish to think I might look that way. This comment came when I was rehearsing Elderly Ranch-Hand; I imagine real-life elderly ranch-hands often find themselves in pain. It didn’t seem like a conflict. But, turns out, onstage ladies must be sexy at all times, and the manifestation of pain is a real boner-killer. It seemed that as an elderly ranch-hand, I wasn’t effectively conveying my underlying desire to sleep with all the other characters because I was more focused on things like ranching and musculoskeletal pain. And no one wants to buy tickets to that.

Among my most positive acting experiences was Don DeLillo’s The Day Room at the Garage Theatre in Long Beach. The official character title was “Orderly/Desk Clerk,” originally written for a dude. As such, I was free to move in whatever non-seductive ways my body would let me. This was during an especially rough era for me physically. I didn't have a comprehensive diagnosis yet, but everything hurt, and it showed. To gild the lily, I'd gained maybe thirty pounds during this Era of Bad Feelings, at which point I stopped being in the running for the role of Exotic Dancer #4. I’d chopped off the "classical actress" hair and dyed the remaining bob brown. The roles started drying up, but the ones that remained were awesome. In The Day Room, I was able to deal with my physical pain rather than trying to "overcome" it. So I hurt onstage and off, but, you know, sometimes people's bodies don't cooperate. It was okay for the Desk Clerk's body to have the same limitations as mine. There was no expectation of a Sexy Desk Clerk.

two actresses on stage
Kate Langsdorf and Amy Louise Sebelius do their jobs in The Day Room at the Garage Theatre, 2005. Photo by Andy Langsdorf.

Several years ago, I decided not to audition anymore. There aren’t a ton of roles for “lady with a cane,” and though I think the industry is making great strides in this regard, there’s a myopic viewpoint about which bodies can play which roles. People with disabilities are so often overlooked even to play characters with disabilities that the idea of me being cast as, say, Titania seems completely outlandish.

I know many DC-area directors to be social-justice-inclined, equity-and-inclusion-loving hippies, and I could perhaps lobby myself back onto the stage. But then: rehearsals, man. It’s so much hopping around, so very late at night, usually after a day-job. As a rule, all of us in theatre hustle until we break. I have the hustle-until-I-break instinct deeply ingrained in my soul, but I need to fight it, per my rheumatologist’s orders.

I was in rehearsal for the first production of dog & pony dc’s Beertown when I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and spondylolisthesis (a.k.a. “spine stuff”). When my rheumatologist was talking to me about treatment, he started a sentence with, “So, around 9:00 when you’re getting ready for bed…” I don’t know how that sentence ended; I couldn’t hear him over the sound of my own incredulity. Who gets ready for bed at nine? Normal people, apparently.

So I started going to bed. It’s been revolutionary. I don’t miss acting the way I expected. The thing I really miss is seeing all my theatre friends on the regular. Turns out, we can only spend time with each other if we’re working on a project together. None of you can meet up for happy hour; you’ve got rehearsal till 11:30.

In conclusion, acting gets the lowest possible Disability Awesomeness rating: 1 out of 5 canes.

Would not recommend acting to a cane-walking friend for reasons of pervasive ableist casting practices and ridiculous levels of hustle required.

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Kate Langsdorf writes about her experience with different jobs in theatre.

Theatre-ing While Disabled

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One of the things I like about continuing to audition and occasionally act nowadays is that my potential character simply has to have a mobility impairment. In our theater community, no one wants to conclude that the backstage of a venue is too challenging or a visible disability is too weird, because they're good and creative people. (In addition to there being laws.) I used to alert stage managers or directors about my inability to wear heels, run, or climb stairs. Now, when I let them know I will be walking with a walker or not at all, they are usually accommodating to the extent of "girl, you didn't even need to tell me that." Whoever I play is going to get around the same way I do, unless she happens to spend the whole show in a chair or bed. In many ways, I like this better than trying to pass. And with respect to new works, I know writers who include characters with disabilities in every work.

But God, yes, fatigue. I am okay with staying up at night because I don't have to get up in the morning. But I'm currently costuming six performers. Six. And I can scarcely head out the door to rehearsal.

This is a great series!

Hi Kate,I'm currently working on an MFA in Directing, as I transition out of ten years as an actor after a lupus diagnosis a few years back. I love the craft, but my body was just not holding up anymore. Rheumatologist was not thrilled about the stress of grad school and what it might do to my body, but so far I am making it. Surviving and even thriving. Some weeks are definitely better than others. I'd give it two and a half canes. :) Thanks for your honesty - it's encouraging to hear from others who are out there dealing with this with humor and grace!

zing! on point notes on expectations re: feminized bodies, and the limited permission to express or accommodate physical (or emotional too) pain and fatigue.... rock on for initiating this series. and your cane's style is snappy. regards, a comrade with experience in multiple arenas of theatre work, and in multiple kinds of disabilities :)