Moving from Disability Visibility to Disability Artistry


This previous summer time I attended a screening of the acclaimed documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution at a number one Off-Off-Broadway theatre. I had already seen the movie (admittedly greater than as soon as) however was excited to look at it in a communal area the place I hoped I may interact others in dialogue about the way to proceed the work of the activists the movie follows. As an introduction to the occasion, one of many organizers stated she wished to get to know who was within the viewers. “Who here is the parent of someone with a disability?” Her query was met with applause and raised fingers. “Who here works with people with disabilities?” She went on. “Who has a sibling with a disability? Who went to school with someone with a disability?” I waited by way of these more and more distant associations to the world’s largest minority group, however she by no means requested the plain query: who right here has a incapacity?

As a disabled theatremaker with a private stake in creating areas that middle incapacity, I can at all times inform, typically nearly instantly, whether or not an occasion is for disabled folks or simply about disabled folks. I’m positive this organizer had good intentions, however I’m troubled by how typically even those that say they wish to interact with incapacity really wish to distance themselves from it. Often there’s a willingness to take care of a number of the superficial components of incapacity inclusion, however significant engagement stops there. Striving for an anti-ableist theatre neighborhood (and world!) definitely consists of higher bodily accessibility and extra frequent, correct, and strong incapacity illustration, nevertheless it additionally means undoing our internalized ableism and actually celebrating incapacity. We must do greater than embrace incapacity; we should enable it to form our world.

Later in the summertime I went to an occasion at Lincoln Center, In Conversation: Disability Artistry moderated by actor Gregg Mozgala. This night showcased theatre by and dialogue between playwright and dramaturg A.A. Brenner; actor and playwright Ryan Haddad; and Ben Raanan, creative director of Phamaly Theatre Company, the nation’s longest-running theatre firm that completely options actors with disabilities. In distinction to the conversations on the Crip Camp screening, which largely centered on disabled folks as “inspirational” others, this dialogue instantly felt wealthy. No one needed to clarify why disabled individuals are worthy of consideration in our personal proper exterior of our potential utility to non-disabled folks. Instead the gifted artists onstage may spend their time on juicier questions like what does disability aesthetic imply to you, and the way does it present up in your work? How do you navigate the intersections of your a number of identities? When do you select to place your self into your writing as a performer, and does that change your strategy? One of the questions from the viewers stood out to me: how will we transfer from incapacity visibility to incapacity artistry, and what comes after that?

Whereas incapacity visibility will be shallow or tokenizing, incapacity artistry says we’re already right here, we’re already making thrilling work, and the world of theatre can be made higher by participating deeply with that work.

I’ve at all times been skeptical of the notion of “artistry” or “excellence,” believing as an alternative that everybody ought to have the area to precise themselves creatively, no matter talent. Nonetheless, I like this query as a result of it invitations disabled folks to take ourselves critically as artists. Whereas incapacity visibility will be shallow or tokenizing, incapacity artistry says we’re already right here, we’re already making thrilling work, and the world of theatre can be made higher by participating deeply with that work. I wish to delve into each incapacity visibility and incapacity artistry, and I wish to go additional to dream about what incapacity makes attainable on our levels and past.

Disability Visibility

Disability visibility is two-pronged. It requires each bodily accessibility and illustration of disabled folks. Representation in theatre could also be bettering, however there’s a variety of work to do to construct a catalog of disabled characters past what the theatrical canon (largely written by non-disabled folks or those that don’t determine themselves with incapacity) has provided to date. In “Naming the Trope,” Raanan helpfully outlines the inventory characters disabled individuals are usually relegated to. These embrace the “Gentleman Freak,” “Magical Freak,” “Super-Crip,” “Misunderstood Weirdo,” “Rage-Filled Recluse,” and “Ambiguous Disability.” None of those tropes enable the disabled individuals who fill them to be difficult, totally shaped human beings. Instead, these characters function basically as plot gadgets to show classes to their non-disabled counterparts. Given that these portrayals are sometimes inaccurate at greatest and very dangerous at worst, it’s up for debate as as to if or not this really counts as incapacity visibility—particularly as a result of even these crumbs of illustration are far too typically given to non-disabled performers. Regardless it’s clear that to maneuver from incapacity visibility to artistry we’d like difficult, numerous disabled characters and we’d like them written and performed by disabled artists.

Another kind of visibility by way of illustration happens when disabled actors play roles that weren’t initially conceived of as disabled, corresponding to Ali Stroker’s Tony Award-winning efficiency of Ado Annie in Oklahoma! or the Deaf West manufacturing of Spring Awakening. This offers disabled performers a lot deserved alternatives to showcase their abilities and sometimes so as to add new layers to acquainted tales. Of course, for disabled folks to take part behind the scenes or onstage, they’ve to have the ability to get into the room. This is the place bodily accessibility is available in.

Physical accessibility consists of ramps into buildings, appropriate accessible bogs, and American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, and it could additionally embrace issues like having scent-free areas or versatile rehearsal schedules. Unfortunately, it’s uncommon for theatres to satisfy even the naked minimal for bodily accessibility. This previous summer time, I labored on a mission involving disabled characters that was accepted after which later rejected from a pageant and a number of efficiency areas as a result of areas’ lack of ability to accommodate the performers I work with. (I actually have psychiatric and neurological disabilities in addition to continual diseases, however I’m bodily non-disabled). And let’s not neglect that Stroker needed to wait within the wings earlier than her historic Tony win and couldn’t later be part of the remainder of her solid in celebrating their win for greatest musical revival as a result of lack of ramp between the viewers and the stage. Many efficiency venues want pressing renovation, however bodily accessibility is simply a part of the image.

I would like tales that enjoy incapacity, these that don’t dilute themselves by making an attempt to persuade those that we’re all the identical, however those who willfully delight within the stunning divergences of our bodyminds.

Disability Artistry

This brings us to the second half of the query: incapacity artistry. Disability artistry seemingly means a variety of various things to totally different folks. For me, it’s about work that’s knowledgeable, from the start and all the way down to its core, by some side of the incapacity expertise. This doesn’t essentially imply it must be “about” incapacity, however moderately it could embrace a incapacity aesthetic or characteristic difficult characters whose lives embrace incapacity. That stated, I’m occupied with theatre that facilities incapacity as a driving drive. I would like tales that enjoy incapacity, these that don’t dilute themselves by making an attempt to persuade those that we’re all the identical, however those who willfully delight within the stunning divergences of our bodyminds.

For incapacity artistry, we’d like an lively effort amongst audiences and artists to unpack their biases towards incapacity and to as an alternative embrace all that incapacity has to supply. As Jewish theologian Julia Watts Belser places it “I fear that by conceptualizing disability primarily as an access problem to be solved, we fail to invite in the vibrant, transgressive potential of disability culture: of a ‘crip’ sensibility that celebrates disability as a way of life, a radically different way of moving through the world.”

There are already many artists exploring the “vibrant, transgressive potential of disability culture” by way of theatre. As a part of the Disability Artistry dialog at Lincoln Center, Ryan Haddad carried out hilarious, overtly sexual private tales and immediately challenged any viewers member whose intuition could have been to pity or infantilize him. Later that night, A.A. Brenner gave new life to an outdated traditional with a scene from Blanche and Stella, their queer, disabled reimagining of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Moderator Gregg Mozgala didn’t carry out however has spent his profession delving into equally wealthy disability-centered materials together with Teenage Dick, Mike Lew’s darkly comedic tackle Shakespeare’s Richard III. Mozgala’s manipulative, power-hungry portrayal of maybe probably the most well-known disabled character in theatre historical past (who trades his reign over England for scholar presidency of his highschool in Lew’s adaptation) is much from inspiration porn. The messy materials questions how a lot our actions are resulting from our social scenario versus our innate character and the way a lot we should take accountability for them ourselves. This fall, Mozgala stars in Cost of Living at Manhattan Theatre Club, which explores the intimacy and vulnerability between disabled folks and their care attendants.


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