Last week, I attended a panel on diversity, disability, and representation in theatre. I’ve written about diversity before, but there is so much to learn and discuss about it, so I continue to write about it.
The panelists were Ryan J. Haddad, Laura Savia, Chris Lopes, Katy Sullivan, and Michael Arden, who brought a wide range of personal experience with disabilities to the conversation, from cerebral palsy to Down Syndrome. We started the conversation with a quotation from an essay Katy Sullivan recently wrote for BroadwayWorld:
“Individuals with disabilities are the largest minority in the country and the least represented in our media and entertainment. We need MORE of this type of authentic, three-dimensional story telling that treats us as human beings, flaws and all, and instead of focusing on being inspired by or feeling bad for these characters, learning from their humanity. If you aren’t seen, you don’t exist. It’s time to change that for this community.”
The conversation was long and vast and varied, and I’m going to break down some of the the themes and highlight ideas, so as to help continue the conversation. Everything written here was inspired by or discussed during the panel.
Often, the only obstacle in working with people with disabilities is fear: fear of saying the wrong thing, of doing the wrong thing—do I acknowledge your disability? But, the minute one gets over the fear, it becomes easier. It’s easy to say, “Yes, we are different, but how can I connect with you?” In doing this, one finds both personal and artistic growth.
“People are way too careful. They’re so terrified of being politically correct that they shy away from having a conversation at all. I would prefer the conversation to be happening period, instead of being afraid of having a conversation…Just ask. Start the dialogue. Start from somewhere. Then we can all get together and agree on a common home base, because at this point it feels very much like ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and it’s totally fear-based.” — Katy Sullivan
If you can see it, you can be it. Seeing people who not only look like you but to whom you can relate removes obstacles and helps break down any socialization that has taught you that you can’t become a professional blank simply because no one who looks like you has done it before.
“That’s half the battle—if our stories are being told, usually they’re not being told by us. So, how do we bang through the door in that way, too?” — Ryan J. Haddad
Someone isn’t just disabled. They can be disabled and black, disabled and gay, disabled and, and, and. There’s not just one definition of diversity, but many, that must all come together and represent people for what they are as a whole, not just as one thing, one box.
“Bias and prejudice also exist between the various communities of disabilities, which is shocking and needs to be addressed, too. Not only are people with disabilities the largest minority, they are also among themselves the most diverse. There are people with spinal cord injuries and amputations and hearing and visual impairments all standing under one umbrella, which can be challenging at times because they are not all telling the same story.” – Katy Sullivan
Even if an actor with a disability does not end up being cast in a certain production, it’s important that they start getting in the room, to have that access, that opportunity. When their audition is over, eight new people will have seen their work and can now consider them for other roles, or consider certain characters in ways they hadn’t considered them before.
“None of the characters in the musical [I was workshopping] were written to be disabled, but one day, the casting director asked only actors with disabilities to come in, and it happened that four of them were cast. It was one of the most diverse casts I’ve ever been a part of.” — Ryan J. Haddad
Casting starts on the page. How characters are created and written can heavily influence the casting process. Writers are the best advocates for their characters, and if they put in the breakdown that this character is x, y, and z, then the casting directors have no choice but to do what the writer says, because in theatre, the writer comes first.
“Casting isn’t just about casting directors, it’s about playwrights…Playwrights are the first advocates for their characters. We have a playwright on board before we have a director on board, and so those early conversations with playwrights are important to how we think about casting and what elements are articulated in a character breakdown and are structurally central.” – Laura Savia
When you come up against a road block in theatre, it always leads to finding a more interesting, and often actually a deeper, alternative. It’s sometimes harder, but always worth it, to do the thing you’re uncomfortable doing. That’s how change happens.
“Every single time when we’ve worked with someone with a different ability, every single time that it’s required an innovation on our part, after that person left, we kept that innovation…What might feel like an inconvenience in the moment often really benefits the organization.” – Laura Savia
When actors with disabilities get cast as characters who do not traditionally have disabilities, they add new insight into the characters. It offers an opportunity to tell the same story through a different lens, and can change the story for the better.
“It’s important that we as theatre makers think of disability as the opposite. It’s vital that we think of it as a different ability. You as an artist with a disability have an ability that I do not have as an “artist without a disability.” It’s language we’ve made up—it’s about how we invite and think about diversity in general. So it’s a matter of thinking about disability as diversity, and the fact that it heightens the stories we tell, that we can tell stories about said disability or said diversity through the eyes and the pages and talents of artists with those so they are telling their story. It’s also important to give opportunity to actors with disability to tell the stories of people without [disabilities], as their life experience can bring more depth to the work we’re all making.” – Michael Arden
Theatre is alive and breathing and constantly changing and telling new truths, and when looking at new works, Williamstown Theatre Festival Artistic Director Mandy Greenfield poses this question: “Does it illuminate a corner of the human experience that I haven’t seen before, or haven’t seen much before?” when the answer is “yes,” there is something thrilling about the moment you meet an audience with it, with something they probably haven’t seen or felt before.
“It’s about making a commitment to holding up a mirror, to reflecting, the entire human experience. I often think about, when I see a year’s worth of theatre, I’m like, ‘Well, it’s holding up a mirror, but there are some big spots on the mirror.’ I see more of humanity on the subway in the morning than I do in a year’s worth of theatre.” – Laura Savia
“Our job is to tell stories. How do I tell this story clearly and honestly? By being mindful about bringing to the table as many options and opportunities as possible. The most interesting and most honest way [to do that] has been by employing people with disabilities or outside the realm of traditional possibility…Don’t tell playwrights what to write, but be encouraging and create opportunity in the community and in the business so there are more varied voices and experiences writing these things. Make it as open as possible, then be able to forget it, and at a certain point just tell the stories, and see beyond people’s disabilities. That’s how we change the conversation—by advancing and opening as many doors as we can, and once we have all the doors open, we can just focus on the work on the page. It’s a commitment. It’s a challenge we have to accept.” – Michael Arden
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