The aims of Disability History Month are to celebrate the lives of disabled people, challenge ableism, and strive for equality.
With its power to motivate social change, theatre seems the perfect vehicle through which to do this. Yet, in conversations about diversity, disabled people are rarely included. The problem must be acknowledged and the work that is currently being done by disabled artists to counteract the issue should be celebrated during Disability History Month and every day.
In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the title character is a tyrant responding to his disability as if seeking revenge for it. In this characterisation, Shakespeare’s text reflects the early modern understanding of disability as a moral impairment. Contemporary staging of the play, however, has the power of reinterpretation.
Earlier this year, Matt Fraser became the first actor with similar disabilities to the character to play Richard III in a production at Hull Track Theatre. Fraser has drawn parallels between Richard III’s political manipulation and the challenges that many people face in an inaccessible society. He explained: “I’m letting my knowledge of disabled people’s often [observed] skill at manipulating things to get what they want, because the normal avenues of opportunity are not afforded to us, so often we have to think around and outside those boxes … Richard is doing that, albeit with murderous and evil intent.”
Able-bodied actors frequently receive disproportionate praise for portraying disability, but it seems obvious that having a disabled actor play a disabled character would give the role more resonance. Experiences shared between actor and character can be brought to the fore and used to explore social inequalities.
Disabled characters are far too frequently seen as a challenge for able bodied actors, something to cross off a checklist, or a step towards critical acclaim. While it remains a struggle for disabled characters to be cast in roles which are instead given to able-bodied actors, we should not ignore the work being done by disabled directors and producers to create their own space for representation.
In 2014, Graeae, a disability led theatre company, staged a performance of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. The play, premiered in 1928, was written as a satire on the contemporary inequalities of society. In casting disabled people, this production asked audiences to think about how these inequalities look today. Brechtian theatre, which asks audiences to engage politically with the action on stage, lends itself to this innovation; theatre cannot motivate real change unless all voices are included in the questions it is asking.
Mind The Gap is a theatre company which works in partnership with learning-disabled artists, working towards their vision of a world in which these artists have equal opportunities.
The company brought Mia to the Fringe this year, a play which explored the untouched subject of becoming a parent with a learning disability. It was truly original, opening eyes to what the future of theatre could look like.
Stories are being told and performed that shatter misconceptions and give platforms to the voices of disabled people. They have always existed, and it is time for them to be heard.
Illustration credit: Laura Spence