I wanted to be an actor when I was a kid, although I now suspect it was more because it was the only creative field I knew about rather than any intense personal desire. At the age of 12 my mother packed me off to Chicken Shed (the inclusively children’s theatre company); not because she was a fan of inclusivity but because it was the closest thing to arts available in my commuter-orientated hometown.
I then spent the next five years of my life engaged with this small troupe, transgressing fields of classification because I was so great they couldn’t work out where to put me…ok, here’s the truth: I had an accident. Metal ground in tissues which ground into bone. The pain never goes away. Three years, one walking stick, and several physio-terrorist sessions later, I was officially classified as disabled. Not that it’s much of a classification these days, as the closest thing we have now to a disability register is claimants of certain benefits, and we all know how the public like to think of that.
These days it’s more about your attitude towards things, whether you’re following the twelve stages of grief or, in my case, creeping on BBC internet forums and discovering that the term ‘inclusive’ could describe disability itself, as between the myriad of different experiences we are united in our otherness from the central population. There’s a sort of secret cripple club, where you compare pain treatments and complain outside disabled loos which almost always smell of shit or semen. The saddest struggle of my teenage years is that it took me almost all of them to feel accepted into this exclusive club, as though I couldn’t wait to be looked at like I wasn’t an actual person.
It’s ironic, then, that what made me feel like an actual person was a fictional character. Long before I was the weird kid with the pimp stick, I was just the weird kid, one who got half his accent by attempting to imitate Jeeves & Wooster; one who definitely was front row centre of the sofa for the first UK showing of House M.D., a re-interpretation of Sherlock Holmes with Bertie Wooster himself as the disturbingly American lead. House was a jerk with a cane of gold, a cripple in constant pain who took my idolisation of Hugh Laurie and turned my life into a horror show where I became represented by the man himself. We shared our disability and so therefore, my stunted developing brain believed, we must share a personality too; it got to the extent that I had to stop watching the show as I realised I was over-indulging in my own medication as whenever he took something on the screen my throat would reflex and follow suit. I got over that to some extent and returned for more, as nobody in the world understood me better than a character who felt exactly the same.
Then came the now-inevitable miracle recovery episode. House is running. House is skateboarding. House doesn’t have any pain.
To this day I can’t put my fury into words, cannot truly express my hurt, or properly explain the water hitting my eyelids. My created confidante was before me doing everything I couldn’t, taunting the sense of self I’d replaced the active me with in echo of House. Hugh Laurie wasn’t crippled, so House wasn’t crippled, so actually I was stupider than I’d realised. I really was completely alone.
This is what people dismiss when they think it’s fine to crip-up. The little kid who finally finds something which makes them acceptable in the world, torn away and gone for the sake of a story arc, that all important option so often used as a defence for casting able-bodied actors.
How many more normie actors do we need to see contorting their bodies and altering their speech to portray disabled people as imagined by normie writers, as perceived by normie directors? This article by playwright Brad Fraser, discussing his 2015 play Kill Me Now, gives several non-reasons for doing all of the above. So when, if ever, is there a genuine reason?
When disability is in the story, after all, it’s often the point of the story – there’s literally nothing else to say about disabled people once you’ve covered the fact that they’re disabled. When an able-bodied character feigns disability it’s merely comedic (as seen most recently in BBC’s Siblings episode ‘Wheelchair Conference’, broadcast earlier this year), yet when an able-bodied actor does it’s a challenge to grab the awards; the film Tropic Thunder famously had white Robert Downey Jr’s black-face Kirk Lazarus warn an actor to ‘never go full r****d’ if he craved awards, which is a level of such satire that even 1980s England must be bowing down to it in some time continuum somewhere.
It isn’t just professional actors, either. As Andy Kempe points out in his book, Drama, Disability, and Education, school students craving a top grade will often crip-up order to get an A, which can hardly be surprising when movie stars are going all Elephant Man in the West End, and televisual faces are playing pirates in the National Theatre’s flagship family Christmas production of Treasure Island, where Long John Silver’s disability is treated as a consistent throwaway line to demonstrate his evil as a ‘man with one leg’.
Long John Silver provides an intriguing dissent, however; if a cripple is not seen to be one by her audience, is she really a cripple at all? A reverse of the original problem, if you will. Long John Silver isn’t a disabled man, he’s a bad man; which is actually pretty great, if you consider it. Bill Nighy’s characters are defined by his acting and not how he moves his hands, so are all of his characters disabled, or just the actor? Regardless of this, Bill’s disability does not make him a worse actor. But what if it did?
At an Act For Change event at the National Theatre in June of this year, artistic director Rufus Norris defended his inability to cast disabled actors by explaining that he felt a duty to only bring ‘excellence’ to the National’s stage. This is the moment in which I stop writing the article and punch a hole in the wall because even thinking of it now makes me so angry I feel entirely hopeless.
The de-facto voice of the theatrical nation, the man in charge of the place I used to be so scared of entering that I stayed away from the theatre for years, the guy who’s kicked off his new job with a stream of work celebrating social diversity…this guy thinks disabled actors just aren’t good enough. Makes you wonder why able-bodied ones get awards for playing us, but you know, logic has never affected casting decisions so why should it start to now.
Also, the brute made the incredible Jenny Sealey, artistic director for disabled company Graeae, ‘want to cry’. She explained the problem perfectly; Norris is not only ‘patronising’ her as a director but blaming disabled actors for not being good enough, and never considering the challenges they face just to get trained. It doesn’t help, of course, that major news outlets celebrate what good he said whilst ignoring the bad (also why has nobody noted that the temporary theatre, where he hopes to stage a ‘disabled issues’ play, is the most inaccessible one they have?!)
I thank a higher power every day that I swayed from becoming an actor. Wanting to be a director, I’ve long searched for some sort of adequate training, falling foul of both a university and a drama school in the process as it became obvious that their courses are not designed to cater for the disabled.
I have been asked to leave both a drama school and a university due to my inability to complete the physical portions of their courses, despite my open declaration from the start. I never tried to hide my disability or its effects upon me, but anything other than perfection in this industry is a demand to leave it. It’s also worth noting that these places will delay your graduation if you break your leg before your final performance, as obviously this deems you unable to perform.
So in my experience, even if you manage to get in to drama school, a disability means you won’t be staying for long. After all, it really is entirely unfair on both the able-bodied and disabled actors alike if one misses out on something vital or the other gets an easy ride and graduates relatively untrained. Perhaps the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama have the right idea in making use of positive segregation, offering a diploma for learning disabled actors which has been well received by participants and industry alike. Perhaps we need one for physical disabilities too, and while the problems of who-can-do-what will remain, they won’t be as stark as if trying to train the able-bodied besides them, and if it can be done with learning disabilities there’s no real reason this solution isn’t a good one; we just need to find the funding.
Ian Kellgren, the head of Drama UK, feels that drama schools do not often accept disabled candidates as the industry ‘isn’t demanding it.’ When your only defence comes from the pure passion of those wronged, such as the astounding yet rarely cast Mat Fraser, it’s hard to be taken seriously by the rest of the industry and get them to do so. After all, even the suffragettes would be without the vote if they hadn’t recruited men to their cause. So perhaps some of the blame can be placed with us, and the development of disabled-only companies, and perhaps we should shun such things; but if disabled actors are being shunned by both training institutions and default-normie companies, where are they to go? The answer is obvious: away from the theatre.
After all, even if this magic course does become a reality and we produce a bunch of fine disabled actors, there’s very little point in doing so if disabled roles continue to be seen as an impressive challenge for a celebrity actor. The same disabled actors are seen in our media time and time again because when the potential of a part is combined with a casting director willing to actually consider a cripple, they’ll usually think of the same people. David Proud, Mat Fraser, Ade Adepitan, and of course Warwick Davis. There’s a chance you know some of their names, but I am certain you know all their faces. The fact that they’re all men is another note which touches upon something else in our society – thank heavens for the gems like Lisa Hammond who have the temerity to be both women and disabled whilst pursuing a career as an actor. Of course, even as you know these faces, you’ll know it’s rare to see them beyond the screen. That’s because, even if somehow the training and casting issue goes away, there’s little point of casting a disabled actor if they can’t get through the literal door.
Anyone who’s been backstage or even into a rehearsal room will know just how inaccessible they can be, and just how good the reasoning is for that – the buildings are beautiful. Especially in the West End, dominated by Grade Listed monuments which do not have to comply to modern equality laws, mounds of stairs and narrow walkways are standard; from the Playhouse to the Almeida, backstage is mythical for the cripple. Of course changing our history, for an industry so reliant upon tradition, for the sake of the potential few, is ridiculous. But there are plenty of other places disabled actors can play, and there is no legitimate reason for smaller fringe, above-the-pub theatres to shut out young disabled talent from the opportunity of developing themselves there safely, just as their able-bodied peers are able to. Such on-the-job training is even more vital when you consider the implausibility of disabled actors training in a drama school.
We need lifts, is what I’m basically asking. Pretty please can we install some of those fancy embarrassing stair lifts, if we have to. Let’s do it front of house as well so disabled people can actually go to the theatre and consider it as a career option, because the inaccessibility of just watching a play doesn’t help either. I’ve never been to the Donmar because my leg can’t handle their seating, and rude box office staff refused to help when I inquired about about access. So better training for everyone involved with the sector on disability issues would be a first perhaps surprising step into changing our world, too.
The problem is parts. The problem is attitude. The problem is training. The problem is access. The problem is solvable, we just have to want to.
Kate Hill says
An insightful article which touches on both the personal struggle of disability within the arts industry along with the issues that aspiring actors face. It is interesting to consider that ‘blacking up’ was once acceptable for actors, I wonder how long it will take until ‘criping up’ is considered just as ridiculous.
Mei Yen says
Probably the first article I’ve read that puts in realistic terms what it means to be disabled in the theatre industry. Pretty disgraceful that this is happening in modern day Britain, and in the arts at that, when you’d think it’s an industry that’s supposed to welcome diversity.
Imo, more articles in this vein need to be written to raise awareness on the challenges of being disabled in the creative industry.
Thomas Webb says
this artical is like a flashlight, highlighting a subject that is overlooked/pushed aside by far to many, with a stunning compassion of words that cut swift and leve no ambaguaty. i love how well balanced the artical is, giving not only an “eyes on view” but a broader cultral look to balance it. if anything this artical shows a needed shake up of the thearte and perhapse the genral public’s veiws as well. the artical does not hold back the punches and has a refreshing quilty to it, i think we are ready nay needing of a change in not only the workings of thearte but its ethical stance and this artical will be the mantra by which it is lead kicking and screaming into common knowalge.
Very interesting article to read. Puts a light on what is going on behind the scene and raises issues I was not fully aware of since I am not disabled myself.
Erin Rutter says
wow really interesting insight into this largely unspoken about side of theatre! Something that should definitely be addressed more within our industry!
I can tell so much research and careful thought has gone into this article. It’s definitely a problem that needs addressing and I think I’ve been educated a lot here. Will definitely share this, as I think more awareness should be made.
Hannah Turk says
This is a truly engaging article – with some serious research behind it. I feel like I have learnt so much that I never knew about the issue – particularly the lack of ‘need’ for disabled actors, when in-fact I feel stories are much more publicised than ever before. I really agree with the fact that it is a problem, and something that can be changed too. Possibly there needs to be more support from smaller and grassroots organisations, to then develop work with disabled actors and stories in mind.