Actors with Disabilities, or This is How I Roll
C. Austin Hill
This column is inspired jointly by Anthony J. Piccione’s brave column “Being Autistic in the Theatre Community” (Aug 18, 2015), and by a recent conversation I had with my dear friend Dr. Jill Summerville. Jill is an artist and a scholar; she holds a PhD in Theatre History, Dramatic Literature, and Criticism, and she is a phenomenal playwright and actor. I feel very fortunate to have been asked to direct Jill’s beautiful play Elysium Interrupted when we were both in grad school at Ohio State. Jill also has cerebral palsy, and spends much of her life negotiating with Chitara—her manual wheelchair.
As Piccione said in his column, one of the best ways to address our differences, and the challenges faced by autistic actors, and those faced by actors with disabilities, is simply to talk about the issues at all. Jill, to her credit, is willing to speak up…but to our mutual dismay frequently has difficulties in getting people to listen. Though she is a tremendous writer, and though she does write frequently, in addition to giving presentations on the topic of disabilities in theatre at academic conferences, she lacks access to a platform like this blog. Today, I wish to change that, to turn over my weekly column to help ensure that all of you have the chance to meet Jill and hear what she has to say.
Rather than attempting to speak for Jill, I asked her some questions…which I share with you along with her beautiful answers:
Can you tell me some of the challenges you have had as an actor with a disability?
The most basic challenge is theatre and rehearsal spaces are inaccessible to actors with physical disabilities; as you know, I had to give up my chance to work with you as an actor in The Illusion simply because I couldn't navigate the rehearsal space. I was lucky to be your dramaturg...but of course I was sad to lose the role.
The most pernicious challenge is the idea that my wheelchair, Chitara, constitutes the totality of my stage presence. More than one director has communicated to me that I, as a gimp woman, am not worth seeing. My wheelchair, which in a theatrical context is an extension of my body, is the only thing about me that deserves attention. I acknowledge Chitara is fascinating. I acknowledge she'd make a better date than I; she loves long walks on the beach. However, there's no question I have the more expressive face!
Do you find that people have difficulty in seeing you as an “actor” as opposed to as a “disabled actor”?
YES! A cornerstone of disabilities studies is that this attitude comes from American society's wish to render the disabled body invisible. A disabled actor has broken that contract. When an audience responds to her, it's primarily responding to that breach. These points have merit, but the perception of me as a “disabled actor,” is due to more complex factors. First, Chitara often upstages me. Second, she's a metaphor for all of the negative qualities disability represents to an able-bodied audience. Third, sometimes those qualities contradict qualities of a character I'm playing. If these complications remain unaddressed, my performance will be regarded as a failure.
Imagine the “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” scene from Dirty Dancing. Now imagine I'm playing Baby. If you can't, take a moment to ponder why you can't. The conclusions you reach will probably be good illustrations of how qualities associated with disability can confine a trained actor who happens to be physically disabled into a “corner” labeled “disabled actor.” For the record, I'd make an excellent Baby. I'm frequently parked in corners, and I always dance out of them!
When I directed you in Elysium Interrupted and in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, you and I had already developed a short-hand that helped that process. Can you tell me some tips that other directors might use when working with a disabled actor? Essentially, how can you and I help other artists to better work together?
The most effective solution I've developed is to keep working with you! For those who aren't so lucky, these are my tips: First, the director and the disabled actor should do dramaturgy together. The presence of a disabled actor is like a stone dropped into a previously placid pond. It will create ripples, and the effect of each ripple has to be tracked. Second, the director and the actor will have to decide what constitutes virtuosity for this particular actor in this particular role. (Hint: It won't be “becoming” her character.) Then they should decide when she succeeds at displaying that virtuosity---and when she doesn't. Third, they should enjoy themselves. Hopefully, they'll create work that challenges the perceptions of disabled actors I've discussed. That may create moments that are uncomfortable or scary for them, as well as their audiences. That's promising, but don't forget that unexpected joy is just as captivating as justified angst. One of Chekov's characters said that, or at least one should have.
Working with Jill is a singular pleasure—and the fact that she has difficulty getting attention as an actor is very upsetting to me. She is a very generous actor, patient and professional with everyone in the room. She’s quick with a joke, and will always make you smile. Jill also happens to be the best dramaturg I’ve ever worked with—she has an impeccable eye and ear, and she has talked me through some very complicated theatrical moments. If anyone out there in the OnStage-o-sphere is looking for an amazing artist, of for a consultant to help you work better with actors with disabilities, I’d be proud to make the introductions. This won’t be the last time you hear from her in my column.