Representation of Disability in Theatre

Representation and diversity in theatre is something that is really important but unfortunately there is often a distinct lack of it. And because of this I feel its a topic that needs to be discussed.
Not only is representation important, accurate representation is vital. Recently the play All In a Row at the Southwark Playhouse used a puppet to portray an Autistic character.
This saw the autistic community take to twitter to express their concerns and feelings that the puppet was dehumanising and re-enforcing negative stereotypes that surround autism, one of them being that autistic people cant be independent, as obviously a puppet needs someone in order to have any function.
As a response to the backlash they were facing Southwark Playhouse released this statement:

Statement taken from Southwark Playhouse Twitter

A lot of people in the autistic community of twitter felt that statement released was a bit of a piss take and the reasons stated in the statement did not justify their ‘artistic choice’ of using a puppet to portray the character. I agree with this feeling, I mean how many times have we been asked to believe a 30 year old is 17 in a show? A lot of people, including myself felt that should have cast an adult, autistic or not, who was young looking to take on the roll.

As an autistic person myself the fact they used a puppet is honestly disgusting to me.
Because it does in itself reinforce harmful stereotypes of autism.
Specifically the fact that a puppet is useless unless it has someone to use it.

Once I went for a job interview. I was taken there by my Personalised 4 Autism case worker.
The woman at the interview didnt address me, she addressed my support worker and asked
‘Can she talk?’ ‘Can she walk?’ ‘Can she understand and hold conversations?’

And for me the use of a puppet only puts that out there. So many people who I come across think thats what autism is, a lack of being able to be independent, to speak etc. They shouldn’t have used a puppet, they should have listened to the autistic community.
Because they caused untold distress. Their reasoning for using a puppet was quite frankly laughable. And that’s where my issue lies. They ignored us. They ignored our concerns and just came up with a bullshit excuse.

Maybe the content of the show was good but that does not do anything to take away from how harmful and dehumanizing the puppet is.

Along with the use of the puppet, they only offered one relaxed performance of the show. So as well as putting out harmful images, they also failed to make the show accessible which only angered people more.

It is so important for people who have a disability to feel represented in a way that doesn’t feel harmful or play only on stereotypes of the disability.

Along with casting actors in roles that depict that disability, we should also be cast disabled actors in what ‘traditionally’ are non-disabled roles. Two shows that I have seen do this in the past year are Spring Awakening Manchester and Hadestown at the National Theatre in which the wonderful and immensely talented Beth Hinton-Lever who was born with Congenital Limb Deficiency and as a result was born without her lower right forearm was cast. This needs to be happening more, actors who have a disability of some sort are just as talented and just as worthy to be seen as those who don’t have a disability. In fact I feel its more important that they are seen because there is such a lack of representation out there and as a result so many people don’t get the opportunity to see someone who looks like themselves in any kind of media, be it film, tv or theatre. Being able to see themselves represented in a positive way can make all the difference to a young person, or anybody for that matter.

Its 2019, why aren’t we seeing more representation of disability? and for that matter, more representation across the board. Its about time we caught up and put those voices and that untapped talent out there.

And to those who are writing a piece that features a disability that they do not suffer from themselves; ask for feed back from people who have the disability you are trying to write, listen to their feedback, especially the feedback that is telling you that what your doing with the writing and depiction is, in their eye harmful. Don’t disregard those voices, they are the ones who live with it everyday, they are the ones who have to deal with the stereotypes that will just be added to if you don’t listen to their voices. If you get us on side then you will have a loyal following, if you piss us off you can guarantee that we will fight the production and speak out against it as loudly as we can.
For you its a way of making money, for us? We live with disability everyday, we deserve to be listened to and not feel harmed as a community by the shows being put out there.

2 thoughts on “Representation of Disability in Theatre

  1. mphtheatregirl says:

    I like to view “disability” as “difference”- literally “disability” sounds like not able. The word in itself sounds stereotypical. There is nothing wrong with disability- it is only a piece of who people who disabilities are, not all of them. In so many ways, they are not very different from those without. I see like seeing the word “disability” as “difference”. It just sounds like we are not able to do much- that we don’t have much potential, that we don’t have much talent. People just need to understand them better- they have the same wants and needs as everyone else.

    I do love theatre, musical theatre in particular.

    Like

  2. Anne says:

    I think it would be absolutely amazing if there would be a show that casts autistic kids to play a autistic child (multiples because 8 shows a week is a lot for any child and I don’t think you can ask that of them, let allone an autistic child, also letting a kid do 8 shows a week is illegal in a lot of countries). They would probably write the show in a way that allows for the differences between them and find kids that don’t have issues with the stage lights, but it would send such a nice message and could be an amazing experience for those kids. To learn that it can be possible to work if people are understanding.

    Like

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