A few months ago I wrote a post called “Disability in the Theater” in which I gave my embarrassed account about how little I knew about physical disability in the theater. At the time, I focused more on the idea of people with physical disabilities playing roles typically performed by abled bodied actors. Since then I have thought a lot about what it means for an able bodied person to play someone with a disability. I have come to the conclusion that if it is down to an able bodied actor and a disabled actor for a character with a disability, it should go to the actor with the disability. Obviously there are more factors than that hard and fast rule, but actors with physical disabilities are underreprestented–they don’t need any more able bodied people taking parts from them. And audiences deserve to see something truthful. At the end of the play, the actor without use of his legs does not get out of the wheelchair. When that actor struggles to transfer himself from a wheelchair to a bed, we should see that struggle as it happens every day for that actor. Not everything on stage has to be true, but when you are representing a group that is so often shunned from the spotlight, you better do it right.
However, the situation becomes a little more complicated when you consider disabilities that are not purely physical. I just finished reading an opinion piece on Howlround.com called “Casting a Non-Autistic Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime on Broadway.” The author, Stiofán MacAmhalghaidh Âû, makes a compelling case that curious Incident should feature an actor diagnosed with autism as Christopher, not only because of the element of lived experience but also because of differences in neurological make up. Though many people may think of Autism Spectrum Disorder (or ASD) purely in terms of the outward signs (lack of eye contact, lack of empathy, difficulty interpreting social cues–just to name a few examples), ASD is not a social disorder. Autism is often diagnosed because of social interaction, but a disorder is not its symptoms. ASD is neurological, meaning that the wiring in the brain of someone with ASD is different from the wiring in the brain of someone who is neurologically-typical.
What I find interesting about Stiofán MacAmhalghaidh Âû’s argument is that by presenting autism as a neurological disorder, it becomes a physical disability–not physical in the sense that it is visible, but in the sense that the physical make up of the actor with ASD is different from the actor who is neuro-typical. In that sense, I am compelled to treat casting an autistic part with the same rationale I would treat casting any other physical disability–visible or not. Neuro-atypical roles should be played by neuro-atypical actors. This is both to create a sense of truth in theater and create a role (or kind of role) that is exclusive. Though exclusivity may seem counterintuitive, it actually makes sense in this scenario. When you decide that only neurologically atypical actors will play neurologically atypical roles, you set exclusive boundaries around those types of roles. It ensures a place for a more diverse stage (something that we as a theater community *should* always be striving towards). It is not that a neurologically typical actor is incapable of portraying a neurologically atypical part, but rather that neurologically atypical people are so often cast aside in our society. If we allow them to play the roles specifically written with them in mind, we bring them out of the margin and onto the page. This type of representation and recognition is important not just in the theater, but also in broader mainstream culture. Just because someone is not neurologically typical, does not mean that they are any less human. When we make sure there is room on our stages for those who are othered, we help audiences see them as human.