Casting Disabled Actors Leads To Better Shows

Noah Golden 

  • OnStage Connecticut Columnist

The New York Times published Alexis Soloski’s article “Actors With Disabilities Are Ready, Willing and Able to Take More Roles[NG1] ,” which is about another facet of the diversity in theater issue. The surge in colorblind casting is perhaps the most important theater trend of the year but Soloski points out that true diversity on stage means more than skin color. Increasingly, disabled actors are being showcased, whether portraying a character written with a similar condition in mind (like having Gregg Mozgala, an actor who has cerebral palsy, play a CP patient in the Williamstown Theater Festival’s production of “Cost of Living”) or casting a disabled actor in a role that wasn’t written specifically for one (like casting paraplegic Ali Stroker as Anna in “Spring Awakening,” making her the first wheelchair-user to perform on Broadway and at the Tonys). We’re seeing this on a smaller scale outside the theater too. Deaf model Nyle DiMarco recently won “Dancing With The Stars” and Hollywood is starting to wise up the issue, albeit slower. [NG2] Much, much slower. [NG3] 

Soloski’s article is wonderful and brings up some good points, especially when she quotes Howard Sherman who says “playing someone with a disability should not be considered a talent or a skill for nondisabled actors. It should be considered taking a job away from someone with the unique life experiences to portray that role.” But Sandra Mae Frank, the deaf actresses who made a stunning professional debut in the Tony-nominated “Spring Awakening,” goes a step further, saying in an Op-Ed for the Washington Post[NG4] , “I am just an actress. Even though my deafness is a huge part of my identity, I can perform any role a hearing person can, and it matters to me that I receive the same opportunities as my hearing colleagues.”

There is one aspect of working with disabled actors that both Soloski and Frank don’t touch on that I can speak about with experience. Besides seeing Deaf West’s aforementioned “Spring Awakening” (which I reviewed for this site[NG5] ), I have also worked on three community theater productions (most recently as an assistant director) where over half the cast had neurological, cognitive and physical disabilities. So, not just do I know what it’s like to watch disabled actors perform, I’ve seen the process from auditions to tech week. Although the shows I’ve worked on are very different from the professional ones mentioned earlier (our cast were all amateurs and had largely cognitive issues rather than physical ones) the biggest take-away remains the same.

There are a lot of reasons why working with and watching disabled actors is incredibly worthwhile. It gives eager performers the chance to showcase their talents, it teaches through theater and makes sure the world onstage accurately mirrors that beyond the proscenium. But those observations can be gleaned from sitting in the audience. What might not be as obvious is that, in my experience, working with disabled actors often means a better, more thoughtful and inventive final product.

The job of a director is largely one of problem solving, even in the most lucrative and professional companies. The director has to figure out how to make an indoor stage look like a beach or figure out how Actor A can pick up his prop placed on the other side of the set or how to inventively block a scene where Actor B sits at a table and eats a sandwich. And those are just staging issues. Working with differently-abled actors just presents another set of puzzles to solve. But these puzzles often feel less like obstacles and more like opportunities. In fact, the most creative and interesting staging choices we made in the shows I’ve done with disabled actors came from figuring out ways to overcome and even incorporate their challenges. How many ways can we utilize an electronic wheelchair? What do you do when an actor is having trouble memorizing lines and needs to be prompted? How do you create choreography that suits actors with a limited range of motion and/or short-term memory?

The possibilities are endless. An electric wheelchair can become a horse to ride, a self-moving set piece, the perfect vehicle to transport fellow cast members. Memory challenges can result in one role being shared among a group or building in a running gag where the actor’s forgetfulness becomes integrated into the fabric of the show in a fun and innocent way. Choreography as well follows suit, although that is far from my expertise. These decisions can also resonate emotionally. In a production I recently watched on YouTube, a paraplegic Aldonza’s wheelchair[NG6]  is stolen during her attack, forcing the actress to sing her spiteful titular song crawling across the stage, brilliantly physicalizing her helplessness. In a job that is all about making interesting choices, working with disabled actors, not just forces you to think more creatively, it gives you a new set of tools to work with.

This perhaps sounds difficult or makes it seem like casting disabled actors turns the show into a giant staging quagmire even if the result is worthwhile, but that is often not the case. Sure, it can present challenges but, at the end of the day, all performers come into the rehearsal room with strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are brilliant dancers but struggle to stay on pitch while others sing like a bird but can’t even execute a box step. Some of us memorize and rehearse quickly while others need more time to study. Some of us have bad knees or are very tall or too old to run up and down stairs. Disability or not, all actors have limitations. It is a director’s job to turn everyone’s weaknesses into their strengths, to turn everyday into art. This is no different.

In a previous article for On Stage “Avoid the ‘The-OBC-Did-It-That-Way-Syndrome,’” [NG7] I wrote about how too much theater is carbon copied from the original Broadway productions and feels predictable and dull. We know before the lights dim what each character will look and sound like. Working with disabled actors is one more way to make a show seem totally fresh. If you stage “Cabaret” with an Emcee in a wheelchair, it wouldn’t just offer the director and cast a plethora of new staging options, it could deepen the meaning of the piece since the disabled were often victims of Nazi violence. The message of “any dream will do” is made all the more poignant when the tribe telling Joseph’s Technicolor story has developmental disabilities, the theme of “children will listen” explored even further with a deaf cast of fairy tale folk. [NG8] This is one of the reasons Deaf West’s “Spring Awakening” was so powerful; besides the beauty of ASL and the many added layers double casting lent to the show, the cast’s deafness perfectly mirrored the cultural and generational deafness that haunted the German schoolchildren at the show’s heart.

That is all to say the more we rethink, recast and re-imagine our favorite shows, the more thought that goes into each directorial choice we make and the more kinds of people that get involved, the better theater we will create.









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Photo By: Kevin Parry