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Theatre-ing While Disabled

Writer 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.

Spoiler: This is the best job.

I write mostly from bed, mostly at hours I find to be personally agreeable, and mostly on the Internet. Unless I explicitly tell you that I use a cane, you'd have no way of knowing. Except when explicitly writing about disability, I've never yet had occasion to use the phrase, "As a writer with a disability, I..." As much can’t be said for other theatre jobs I’ve held, where there usually comes a time when it’s requested or useful for me to weigh in on the nature of the position “as a person with a disability.” So far, in writing about theatre, I can think of zero accommodations I've needed, because writing is an accessible art form unless we put up artificial barriers.

You can go home and start writing immediately after declining that weirdly inflexible job offer. Unlike with most other areas of theatre arts, no one needs to give you permission to get to work.

Some institutions do put up artificial barriers for workers: "We really need someone to be present in their cubical, on the third floor of our elevatorless office, during our core office hours, for the purposes of team cohesion. Otherwise we just can't be sure that you're really working/collaborating/wearing the company t-shirt." However, if you find yourself in a writing job that for some reason can’t be made accessible, it means that something’s gone awry at a more fundamental level than the wording of your job description. Good news, though: You’re a writer! You can go home and start writing immediately after declining that weirdly inflexible job offer. Unlike with most other areas of theatre arts, no one needs to give you permission to get to work.

When I was in college at Cal State Long Beach as a directing and performance major, I was no more than six weeks into my academic career before I started have symptoms of “health stuff.” Junior year, I got my first diagnosis of Thing That’s Probably Genetic and Will Never Go Away. As for acting, I became aware that I’d need a plan B. It never occurred to me that I might one day live in a world where I could be employable as a disabled actress (See “Actor Edition.”)

At that time, I was in a “Writing for Theatre” course (taught by now-acclaimed crime writer Tyler Dilts). I count myself lucky that he was in a leadership role during that time of my life. I had a weekly medical procedure that affected my mental and physical presence on campus. In my post-diagnosis panic, I brought Tyler the packet my doctor gave me, explaining my newly discovered condition. “It will never kill me, except for the part about how people with this are way more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population. Also, acting’s probably not a good long-term plan for me anymore. Could I write?”

I don’t remember his exact response, but it was something in keeping with a theme of the class: “Yes, duh, everyone can write. You just have to do it. Also: Take care of yourself.”

selfie of the author
Greetings from Fabulous Bed! (It’s my favorite office.)

There’s no gatekeeper for writers. There are a million gatekeepers when you want to get paid to write, but we can start writing something, finish it, and possess the work as proof of our productivity without anyone saying, “Go. I’ve decided you are worthy to string words together.” Actors can do this to an extent, but when there’s no audience, there’s a fine line between a monologue and straight-up talking to yourself.

I've never had to turn down writing work for reasons related to my disability status, and as best I know, I've never been turned down for a position or underpaid in a discriminatory fashion because of it. I have turned down writing work for normal-person reasons, like:

  • That project is budgeted below my minimum rate
  • I'm not currently taking on new projects
  • That content is outside of my area of expertise
  • That job sounds like it might be boring.

There are tons of ways in which writing professionally is a bummer; but again, I’ve only encountered non-disability-related, normal person reasons, like:

  • The work’s not steady
  • Some folks want to pay you in “exposure”
  • You’ve got to hustle like crazy to become reputable
  • The self-loathing and/or existential dread seeps into the spaces between unfinished sentences.

None of these is to do with my disability. This is just what it’s like to be a human who works on creative material. The last one, though treatable with therapy and/or medication, is at least a unifying factor among writers. At the very least, the first-draft self-loathing has nothing to do with my cane.

I can write plays and make them available on the New Play Exchange without ever leaving bed if I don’t want to. (I haven't put one up yet, but only for standard writerly reasons of crippling self-doubt; not for being, you know, actually crippled.) NPX doesn't care how well my legs work. I can submit to have a blog series on HowlRound. And if they accept it, they’ll pay me the same $50 per post whether I’m disabled or non-disabled. (Thanks, HowlRound!)

Conclusion: I give writing for theatre the highest possible Disability Awesomeness Rating, 5 out of 5 canes.

When writing for money, I am just a person being paid to do a job. And I love it. I'm productive, bills get paid, I don't (usually) do anything injurious in the process, I feel all self-actualized, and everyone's a winner.

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Thoughts from the curator

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

Theatre-ing While Disabled


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