Features Performance Published 21 May 2014

The Art of Passing

In the latest in her series on disability and performance, Amelia Cavallo explores seeing and 'un-seeing' in theatre, and what it is to pass.
Amelia Cavallo

I have just come to the end of an extremely fulfilling and exciting four month tour playing Jenny Diver in The Threepenny Opera – reviewed here – a co-production between Graeae Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Birmingham Reperatory Theatre, the New Wolsey and Nottingham Playhouse. As I’ve stated previously, this was a production which sought to promote disability awareness on various levels, and I believe it was very successful in this respect.

On a personal note, it also allowed me to do something I have never had the chance to do on a mainstream stage before. It allowed me to use my cane, not only as an access tool, but as a signifier of who I am (a blind woman), and as a part of the creative process. (My cane was integrated into my costume, my physicality as a character and my choreography) This may seem like a small and fairly obvious thing to do as a blind actor, but is far less common than one might think.

In other productions, the character I played was directed to be sighted. In other words, I was asked to pass as able-bodied. Make of this what you will. Depending on the type of show, it can be difficult to integrate my cane into the action. Dance and circus in particular fall under this category (though I have performed an aerial silks routine that used my cane).

Not all blind/visually impaired people use canes (or dogs). In the production of Threepenny, the woman playing Mrs. Peachum is blind, played her character as such, and did not have a cane on stage at any point in the performance. As far as I am aware, this was a conscious choice on her part.

It is one thing to be asked to “pass” and mime sightedness as an actor, something that I did much more readily when I was younger and had less exposure to disability culture, politics and art. There is, however, another related bit of tension that I have dealt with past, present, and undoubtedly will in future. I often get “passed” by people, even when I am working hard to own my identity as a blindy. This production of Threepenny was no exception.

I will state for the record that I think generally people “got it” in this show more than in other pieces I’ve done. Graeae doesn’t tend to fake disability on stage without good reason (for instance, in Threepenny, some of the able-bodied actors played characters that were forced to pose as disabled beggars in order to make more money. This was done as a conscious, political statement). I did however have a few conversations with people after shows where they asked me if I was “really” blind. Every time I said, “yes,” the response was shock and amazement. One woman even said, “Oh, well you just rocked it so I figured…” Apparently, prior to that moment, she did not believe blind people could “rock it” as hard as sighted ones.

I would love to experiment with this idea of “being passed” more, because I have a feeling there are a few things going on. My first theory is that the more capable a person looks, the less “disabled” they seem. My second is that there is something about visual impairment which (ironically) can be harder to see. By this I mean that the wheelchair users, people with physical/visible disabilities and even deaf people to a certain degree, have very clear physical signifiers that are constantly there. The chair is always being used, a person can’t change their body shape, most deaf people speak with a specific accent and tone of voice, even if they don’t sign. Therefore, even while being completely capable, the disability is always there, audible and visible to the audience. For me, if you take the cane away and I look, sound and (to a certain degree) move within the realm of normalcy. When that happens, my visual impairment becomes an invisible disability.

That might work towards explaining why I get passed without my cane, but why with my cane do some people still not “see” it? Have people been trained to “unsee” things as theatre audiences? Western theatre loves naturalism (even when doing Brecht), which means we unsee things constantly. The proscenium, microphones, speakers, lights, the tech person moving the set – all disappear so we can be transported into a story. If a piece of the puzzle doesn’t make sense, such as a person using a mobility cane while seeming to behave as though she is sighted, is it easier to “unsee” that than to try and make sense of it?

Authors have written about this idea of unseeing in various contexts. (Peggy Phelan for politics and art, and Martin Esslin for theatre are both good names to check if you’re curious) I have no idea how it relates to the idea of “being passed” or if anyone else has written about it. (I’m sure someone has) I do know that it is an experience I often have on and off stage, and that being passed can hold a great deal of power. Every person I speak to who doesn’t believe I’m blind has to shift their entire understanding of what blindness is in order to fit me into it. With Threepenny, as with most of my life, all I have to do is kindly say, “I may seem like you, but I’m not the same as you, nor should I be expected to be,” to get said person to think and hopefully change perceptions around disability and able-bodiedness. That is exciting.

Photo by Patrick Baldwin

Amelia Cavallo on crip theory and performative politics in disability culture.

Amelia Cavallo’s Threepenny co-star, Natasha Lewis, on the campaign to save the Independent Living Fund.

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Amelia Cavallo

Amelia Cavallo is a visually impaired, USA born actor, singer, musician, circus aerialist and aspiring academic. As a performer, Amelia has worked with various companies throughout the UK including Graeae Theatre, The Raven Theatre Company, Extant Theatre, Future Ruins and Natural Diversions. She also worked as a sway pole performer in the 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony, and conversely as a burlesque artist for Criptease Unlimited as part of the Southbank’s Unlimited festival. Amelia is currently a Phd candidate at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama researching the potential normative structures in acting processes via disability studies and crip theory.

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