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Disability in Theater

So I have always kind of vaguely been aware of the fact that people with disabilities are hugely underrepresented in the theater. Like, duh. How many productions of have you seen where the lead actor is actually in a wheelchair because he can’t use his legs? If you said zero, we would have said the same answer. And the more I think about it, the more it bothers me that I didn’t think about it. I was even in a play with someone who has a physical disability and I didn’t think about it (like how unaware of my own privilege can I be, right?). The only reason I’m writing about it now is because I was doing research on John Belluso and felt like I needed to think and reflect on the topic some more (you know, to make up for about two decades of ignoring the lack of representation of people with disabilities in the theater world)

My freshman year of college I was in a production of Hedda Gabler and the woman who played Hedda was born without a right hand. At first I was a little taken aback. I remember allowing myself to glimpse at the end of her arm, where her wrist tapered off. I remembering wondering how she did certain things. I would watch her scroll on her computer with her not-a-hand, thinking oh whelp, I guess that solves the first question. But I never asked her about her disability. It seemed rude. I was embarrassed… I am still embarrassed. So eventually that part of her faded into the background. I don’t think I even thought about it as a disability. I just stopped thinking about it altogether. She was a great actress. I would watch her act, interact with her on stage, going to cast bondings with her, and so what originally seemed strange almost became invisible. Quite honestly, I don’t know what is worse–focusing intently on a disability or ignoring it completely. Obviously neither is ideal. I can’t imagine it is fun to have someone ogling at a part of your body, especially if that part of your body does not look like “the norm.” But at the same time, no one wants a piece of them ignored or forgotten about. Looking back, I wish I had had a dialogue with her about her disability and about the way that others interact with her. Yet, I would not have known how to have that conversation, and I still do not know how to have that conversation.

Looking at this in a larger scope, there are some issues that come up. For instance, when is it appropriate to cast an actor with a physical disability? In some senses it would be nice to say “do it all the time!” but if I cast an actor with a disability in a role that is written as an able bodied part, am I erasing the disability? On the flip side, it feels confining to only cast actors with disabilities as characters who share that disability. First of all, there are not enough parts. Second of all, isn’t part of the point of acting putting on a new persona? Playing someone who has a different experience? If actors with physical disabilities are confined to roles with disabilities, we do them disservice. It is as if we are saying that they are only good enough to do one thing, and that is not the case. So what is the theater community supposed to do here? Obviously we should be telling more stories that share a wider breadth of experience, but beyond that I am at a loss. I need to do some more research on this. This is clearly a subject I know little about. Maybe I’ll do a follow-up piece considering this question after I have learned more about the subject of disability in theater.

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