Milton Lopes and Amelia Cavallo in the Graeae production of The Threepenny Opera
There are a few subjects in the theatre studies world that are popular at present. One that is emerging (and it’s about time) is disability performance in its various forms. Another that is more widely established, though still fairly new when considered within an academic time frame, is performativity. This term often scares people when they first come across it as it sounds like one of those made up words that academics use to seem intelligent and therefore unintelligible. It is a word that was invented to describe a fairly complex philosophical concept. To put it simply, performativity is… well, it’s not something that one can really put simply… I will however argue that disability and performativity are interconnected, and that this has implications on how disability interacts with theatrical performance.
Performativity comes from J.L. Austin’s book How To Do Things With Words. In this, Austin says that certain speech acts or performative utterances “do” things. The iconic example is that of a marriage whereby saying “I do” to someone in that setting, with an audience, in the right “costume”, creates a married couple. I could turn to someone on the bus and say the same things one might say in a marriage ceremony, but it wouldn’t have the same meaning, legal and social connotations, or performative quality. It wouldn’t “do” anything other than make the person next to me extremely uncomfortable.
Since Austin, performativity has been made popular by Judith Butler and Queer theory. Butler uses performativity to describe how identities manifest themselves in society, particularly when relating to gender and sexuality. In a nut shell (a very general one) Butler says that the signifiers for man, woman, straight, gay, and all identities in-between are performed, that these performances are repeated constantly on a subconscious level, and that these performed behaviors are learned social constructs. The fact that I wear make-up and skirts denotes “woman”, and is something I was taught. It is not a necessary part of being “female”, but is something that I do constantly as a socially excepted (expected?) behavior. This has also been related to race and culture. My accent is American and some of the ways I carry myself socially fit much more snuggly into US culture than that of my British second home.
Now add this to disability studies, or more specifically crip theory, a close relative of queer theory. Crip theorists such as Carrie Sandahl state that disability is a performed identity, and that while Butler says performativity exists through subconscious and repeated behavior, Sandahl argues that disabled people are constantly aware of and using the performative in a fully conscious way. To explain what that means, I’ll give a personal example. I’m a blind woman (a performative statement in itself), and walk around with a white cane. I often have an “audience” when I walk down the street as people who are not use to seeing visual impairment out in the open tend to stare as I pass. I also often have to interact with and respond to performative utterances such as, “do you need any help?” or “Are you completely blind?” or “You’re doing so well/are so inspiring/insert patronizing compliment here,” with an appropriate, polite response. On a more general level, Sandahl in particular discusses various performative constructs that disabled people often find themselves faced with, usually consisting of “passing” (deflecting attention from disability through humour, intimidation and various other means) or “cripping up” (enhancing signifiers of disability in order to look “more” disabled).
Finally, add performance into the mix and what do you get? An inherently and consciously performed identity in a performance space that tends to cater much more to the non-disabled world. When one does see a disabled performer, often the shock value of something other than the norm happening is just as impressive as the individuals performance. That or, in my experience, people get “passed” in that people think the person is faking for the sake of some character choice.
That may sound ridiculous, but I often find myself fighting to own my identity on stage as, according to the vast majority of people I have spoken to, I don’t “look” blind… whatever that means. (Sorry for not following the social construct. I’ll quickly get some sunglasses and start rocking back and fourth like Stevie Wonder…) Imagine saying to someone they don’t look black. Thing is, in my opinion, putting disability on stage and studying it in the academic world is a political statement in its vary nature, because it is currently not of the norm. Yes, when one sees a fantastic disabled performer, hopefully the judgement is on their performance. However, it seems impossible at present to get away from statements like “While watching your performance, I forgot you were disabled!” (“How much can you see? You’re so inspiring! You don’t look blind…”) No one says to Brad Pitt when they see him perform, “I forgot you were a white, heterosexual male.” He gets to own his identity.
Until disability gets to that point, we clearly have more work to do, and by “we” I mean everyone. In the meantime, in my humble opinion, it is those who embrace this performative and political nature of disability on stage who will push boundaries and create interesting work. Here’s to the now then and the continual mixing of these subjects, both on stage and in the academic brains of the future.