The most quoted line from my play peeling is ‘Cripping up is the twenty first century’s answer to blacking up.’ Although produced by Graeae in 2002, the issues around casting non-disabled actors in a disabled character’s role (and the knack of this impersonation winning acting prizes) is as ubiquitous and valid as ever. However, it is not just this issue around casting I’m concerned with. Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae Theatre Company, recently reflected most eloquently on the disaster that the closure of the Independent Living Fund and cuts to Access To Work are making on disabled and Deaf theatre practitioners.
These cuts will make disabled and Deaf actors invisible, and less likely to be employed by theatres because of a virtual pound sign over our heads – but characters with impairments will not disappear. For millennia disability has been used dramaturgically both as plot and metaphor in the Western theatrical canon, and this penchant for dramatic impairment is not likely to end any time soon. We will lose the ground we have gained in diversity and offering alternative – and more truthful – representations of living in a disabling world, where we are not necessarily the victim, villain, or plot device, but complex human beings like anyone else, with lives which don’t necessarily revolve around hospitals or medical diagnosis. This is why it is so essential to have more disabled and Deaf playwrights, directors, and makers creating the work in the first place.
Paul Darke has written in depth about how contemporary dramas around disability written by those without lived experience of impairment invariably present it pathologically, as a problem the individual must overcome or solve themselves, invariably by becoming (or passing as) ‘normal’. Society and its fears, prejudices, preconceptions and love of inaccessible architecture is not implicated. Diversity and all the possibilities of human variety is not even touched upon, let alone valued. Without alterative stories being told, from unfamiliar perspectives, society will go on believing these slanted and biased narratives are ‘true’, with the audience believing they ‘know’ and understand disability experience from what they have seen through these often hackneyed medicalised plotlines. This also falls into the current dangerous and untrue representation of disabled people from the government as scroungers and wastrels, expensive with their access needs (which allows participation and independence), and greedy with their extra bedroom (never mind it is needed for Personal Assistants or equipment).
We need more disabled and Deaf writers being produced, and more makers sharing stories that potentially have never been staged before. This is why Graeae’s ‘Write to Play’ initiative for playwrights with The Royal Court, Stratford East, National Theatre Studio, and Soho Theatres is important, and the new BA in Performance in British Sign Language and English launched this month at The Royal Conservatoire for Scotland.
Another vital initiative is the Unlimited Commissions, delivered by Artsadmin and Shape, growing out of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Unlimited offers commissions to disabled artists to develop, produce and show ambitious and high quality work, funded by Arts Council England, Creative Scotland, Arts Council of Wales and Spirit of 2012. I have just received the sole Unlimited commission for Wales for my play Cosy and know this collaboration with such vital and prominent ‘mainstream’ venues such as Glasgow Tramway and London’s South Bank Centre bring visibility and with it the possibility of societal perceptions of disability to be challenged and changed.
These partnerships are essential, alongside the London Theatre Consortium/ Unlimited initiative initiated by Simon Statin to bring disabled and Deaf artists together with artistic directors and producers, to ignite conversations and move towards cultural change. With the cuts in the Independent Living Fund and Access to Work, we are at risk of disabled and Deaf people becoming invisible again, and representations of us in the media, theatre, television and film created by those without experience of the reality of our lives. We need to shift the fear of difference and predominantly negative societal perceptions around disability and to embrace all the possibilities of what it is to be human. Drama is the site where this can happen.
Main image: Graeae’s Blood Wedding
Kaite O’Reilly is an award winning playwright and poet who identifies as disabled. She works in, between and across disability culture and the so-called ‘mainstream’ culture, and reflects on this as Fellow of the International Research Centre ‘Interweaving Performance Cultures’ in Berlin. She has recently received an Unlimited Commission for her play Cosy to tour nationally and at Unlimited Festivals at London’s South Bank Centre and Glasgow’s Tramway in September 2016.