This piece is one in a series on disability and theatre.
Many years ago, a writer emailed me to ask if I’d consult with the originating cast of their new production with an autistic central character. I don’t remember much of the conversations that ensued, except that I met with the cast at one point in a building that strongly resembled an abandoned warehouse. I talked to them about ableism, the system of structural oppression that places value on people’s bodyminds based on our actual or perceived capacities, intelligence, strength, and health. I also talked to them about representation of autism on screen, onstage, and on the page, and about the many harmful tropes often present in portrayals of autism in fictional characters.
This month, the same writer reached out again, informing me that another production of the same show had been ordered by a different company. I spoke to both the writer and the actor cast as the autistic character. Like the performer who originated the role, the performer in this case is not autistic—and surprisingly, this one told me that they felt uncomfortable with this casting choice and had asked the casting director if they had made any attempts to find an autistic performer for the role. As with many other productions both onstage and on screen, the casting director demurred with vague deflections, implying that it had been too difficult to find a suitable autistic performer.
Though disabled people may be artists, musicians, singers, or actors, our experiences and stories rarely find their way to the stage. When we do appear in scripts or on stages, almost invariably those stories focus on the non-disabled people around us and cast us as villains, punchlines, or charity projects for the protagonists. Ableism runs deep in theatre and other performing arts communities. It shows up not only in the stories we tell but also in the ways in which we tell those stories—and it shows up in the spaces where we learn, rehearse, and perform.
Inaccessible Spaces and Structural Ableism
At the most basic level, performing arts spaces often presume that performers, technical staff and crew, and audiences are composed entirely of non-disabled people. Where accessibility enters the conversation, venues tend to presume that access only matters for potential audience members.
“There is an awful lot of talk about inclusion for audiences, but not for performers or tech folks,” said Terri Lynne Hudson (she/her), an actor and performance artist who was born with spina bifida. “I see theatres with areas set aside in the audience for people who are on scooters or in chairs, where you’ve got audio description for visually impaired people, captioning for hearing impaired people. But none of that is happening for performers, because people have it in their heads that disabled people are going to be people in the audience, period.”
Yet even these access measures still assume ability to travel to in-person venues, pay attention for prolonged periods, and fit comfortably into the seating provided. They do not contemplate audiences of people with photosensitive epilepsy, chemical sensitivities, or involuntary movements and sounds that can come with disabilities like Tourette’s or cerebral palsy. And even setting aside physically accessible seating areas for people with mobility equipment does little to change the structure of or assumptions embedded in the space if there is room only for a handful of people with wheelchairs or scooters, or if the actual stage is inaccessible to disabled performing artists.
“Ableism, like racism and sexism, is insidious because of how naturalized and pervasive it is within the industry,” Samuel Yates (he/they), faculty in the School of Theatre and Dance at Millikin University, wrote in an email. “Shows are usually built and cast on the expectation of a non-disabled performer.” The presumption that performers must be abled—both physically able-bodied and neurotypical—is readily apparent in the intense physical, emotional, and psychological expectations that are nearly ubiquitous in auditions, rehearsal processes, and performance schedules.
This inaccessibility pervades all kinds of performing arts, forcing disabled performers to either attempt to create their own access or to forgo participation in particular spaces altogether.
“Many times I had requested a high table so that I could use my gear while standing so as to not crouch on a low table with my disabled back, and I didn’t get it,” Sarmistha Talukdar (they/them), a disabled South Asian multimedia performer and audiovisual experimental artist, wrote in an email. “I started carrying table raisers to venues because my accessibility needs were rarely met.”
Inaccessibility in performance spaces is just as pervasive for non-apparent disabilities like multiple chemical sensitivities. “Something that is often overlooked is the need for fragrance-free spaces for actors and audience members to perform and enjoy shows,” said Adrian Ballou (they/them), a white, non-binary, disabled actor who debuted professionally last year. As a frequent facilitator, educator, and public speaker myself, I include a standard clause in my contract requesting venues and events to be advertised as fragrance-free (or at a minimum as low-fragrance). I have almost never had hosting organizations adhere to this policy.
Indeed, while my work as a facilitator, educator, and public speaker wouldn’t be considered performance by most people, I’ve noticed that many of my contracts describe me as an “Artist/Performer.” And I can attest to the intense work that goes into crafting my stage presence and delivering what I hope are compelling and emotionally stirring presentations. Like my counterparts in theatre, I’ve also frequently worked in inaccessible spaces and, shall we say, less than optimal conditions. I’ve given presentations while sick, concussed, and severely jetlagged. I’ve given presentations after missing flights, skipping meals, and getting lost in unfamiliar cities (sometimes even in foreign countries). I’ve given presentations on trauma anniversaries, and while in the midst of deep grief over significant personal losses. Yet despite my own work on access and ableism, I rarely ask my hosts to attend to my access needs beyond politely reminding them that I can’t drink water and will need juice instead.
“Once you enter a venue, you face a barrage of sensory information, from flashing lights, to loud ongoing music, while people are trying to talk over the music, and a variety of smells and perfumes, to name some,” Talukdar wrote. “We are expected to not only communicate but also perform our best under such circumstances. There are no quiet spaces to decompress or regain some spoons for functioning.”
With inaccessibility and unsustainable expectations for constant labor as the norm, it’s little wonder that openly disabled people are severely underrepresented in the arts, and hard to find onstage. “If we don’t see theatre by, for, and about disabled people, the issue partly begins in education,” Yates wrote. “Disabled students are either absent or under-valued in theatre training programs across this country. The dearth of disabled artists in theatre education programs exacerbates the lack of disabled talent present in commercial theatre and film.”
Adding to the circular problem of lack of representation, disabled performers carry the weight of our entire community on their shoulders. “When I go on auditions, I’m very aware that I’m not just representing myself but my community,” said Allison Cameron Gray (she/her), an actor with cerebral palsy and a speech disorder who can use a walker and a wheelchair. “I don’t want to do a bad job and then the casting person or whoever thinks all people with disabilities can’t act.” This is a common experience across multiple axes of marginalization: the constant pressure of knowing that any mistake or failure (however small) by one person in a marginalized group will be held against everyone else in the same group who comes next.
I also spoke recently to Grant Miller (they/them), an access artist, rooted in practice as an actor, performer, dancer, facilitator, and organizer, who told me their hands “drape like willow trees and have many triangles.” They were clear about the underlying, structural problems in theatre: “Inequitable funding structures perpetuate scarcity mentality. Theatre is not built to adapt to the multiple access needs that an audience can bring, and therefore become sites that shape a eugenically designed audience and performer.”
Authentic Representation, Not Mimicry
Eugenics is the science of determining which types of people ought to reproduce and to be reproduced. It is also profoundly racist, classist, misogynistic, and ableist. Eugenics is ever-present in the stories we tell about disability, as well as in the grim realities of medical discrimination, unemployment and precarious employment, and high rates of abuse that disabled people contend with—particularly multiply marginalized disabled people.
“Growing up in children’s theatre, I was cast in three mainstage plays,” Miller said. “In each production I was cast as a character who was killed and dead onstage. It is a well-worn trope that most disabled actors are cast as villains or characters who die by the end.” In contrast to those experiences, Miller acknowledged deep love for the directors and teachers who cast them in roles that instead gave them space to grow as an artist.
More often than not, casting directors still cast non-disabled actors into disabled roles, resulting in non-disabled performers engaging in what disabled filmmaker and activist Dominick Ławniczak Evans calls disabled mimicry; others call the practice “cripping up,” “disability drag,” or “cripface” (the latter being a term that I and other disabled people of color reject as unnecessarily appropriative of the language of Black people’s experiences and struggles). Often these non-disabled performers exaggerate stereotyped movements and speech associated with particular disabilities, and, as one of my students recently pointed out, make a point of showing that they aren’t really disabled during curtain call. But when theatre companies do cast disabled actors in these roles, their performances are not just more authentic but more powerful, moving, and communicative.
Hudson once played Laura, a character in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie who is physically disabled, for a staged reading hosted by the Chicago Inclusion Project. “One of the people who works for Chicago Inclusion Project told me afterwards, ‘That’s the best Laura I’ve ever seen,’” Hudson said. “‘You are a good actor, but it’s not just that you’re a good actor. It’s the first time that I saw someone playing Laura not playing a disability the whole time. You were just a person having these experiences.’”
Immediately before the pandemic, Gray was excited to be cast as the first actor with cerebral palsy in the United States to play Joe, a girl with cerebral palsy, in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. Since the British play debuted in 1967, every prior actor cast in American productions as Joe was non-disabled.
Disabled actors also deserve to be considered for roles that aren’t explicitly or intentionally written as disabled. “A barrier is the ableism in casting,” Gray said. “If a character is not written with a disability they don’t even think about us.”
Widespread lack of opportunity compounds the disproportionate poverty and unemployment rates affecting people with disabilities as a whole, and multiply marginalized disabled people in particular. “Disabled actors already have such limited opportunities because of ableism,” said non-binary Autistic actor and musician Nicole D’Angelo (she/her). “And to pay a non-disabled actor to take one of the very few roles written for us means a disabled person does not get that income, creating an unsustainable system for us.”
“If I am playing a character, that character is now Autistic. That’s just what it is.”
D’Angelo also talked about the significance of casting disabled actors into roles other than those written to be explicitly disabled. “I took a class with Christine Bruno, who’s an actor with cerebral palsy,” D’Angelo said, remembering a conversation Bruno had with another student, who was low-vision. “Christine said, ‘If you are playing a character, that character is now blind.’ If I am playing a character, that character is now Autistic. That’s just what it is. There’s no point, there’s no benefit, there’s not any reason for that not to be the case. And that’s just been really motivational for me as an actor working through these pieces that aren’t necessarily written for autistic characters. Well now, they are [autistic].”
Existing as disabled people while portraying characters that may or may not have been intended to be written as disabled opens whole new ways of thinking about disability. “Our ‘inclusion’ is generally an attempt to sterilize and appropriate our experience,” Miller said. “Directors should break models about the character whose body matches the director’s idea of the right or ‘fit’ part. Intentionally cast folks who have the skill outside of the role they are deemed ‘fit’ for. Allow the messy making part of theatre [to be] an opportunity for audience engagement.”
Before the pandemic, D’Angelo saw Oklahoma! with Ali Stroker, an actress in a wheelchair, in the role of Ado Annie, an explicitly and openly sexual character.
“I think theatre is a fantastic opportunity to challenge ableism, because you can place disabled people in these roles,” D’Angelo said. “That gives people in the audience the opportunity to see something onstage that they might not have seen [elsewhere].” As many people assume that disabled people automatically lack sexual agency, showcasing the ways that disability and sexuality are not necessarily in conflict can be powerful. Those portrayals also enable non-disabled people to imagine disabled people in social roles they might have assumed we couldn’t possibly occupy, while showing other disabled people what can be possible for us.
“It’s very important that we don’t have to play characters with disabilities, because disability is natural,” Gray said, “and I think it would help destigmatize the disability community if we could just be people.”
Representing disability can also mean bringing disability explicitly into scripts that hadn’t originally contemplated or reckoned with the presence of disabled performers, and reworking a production accordingly. “Another piece of the puzzle is getting casting directors, writers, and creative teams to value and be open to new interpretations of work that includes multiple forms of disability–whether or not a disability is explicitly present in a script,” Yates wrote.
What would it mean to produce and contextualize Rent, for instance, as a show that directly addresses disability and chronic illness through its treatment of the AIDS epidemic, with a cast featuring multiple queer and trans disabled actors of color? What about explicitly addressing disability in Zayd Dohrn’s Sick, a play that invokes the specter of obsessive-compulsive disorder; in Sharyn Rothstein’s Right To Be Forgotten, addressing social communication struggles and the trauma of sexual harassment; or in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water, addressing trauma and madness in a Yoruba context? What would it look like to cast whole productions with disabled performers?
“I’m working with a coach now who is amazing, and he’s willing to learn from me even though he hasn’t worked with an autistic actor before,” D’Angelo said, referring to Matthew Corozine. “But in the beginning of our work together, he’d be like, ‘Stand still,’ and I’m like, ‘No, I will not; it’s not gonna happen.’ And I taught him about just not stifling stimming, because then you’re just completely discounting this other form of expression that I have that other people don’t have.”
Creating Our Own Spaces, Honoring Disabled Brilliance
One bittersweet upside of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic has been that it has opened opportunities for many disabled actors by creating more accessible virtual performance spaces.
“I’ve gotten more work in the pandemic,” said Hudson. “Everything is online now. I’ve worked with companies whose spaces are not normally accessible to me.” Hudson was cast a warrior-general in a live reading of a script that includes a lot of fight choreography. “I could have played that role onstage [with modifications],” she said, “but they would have never cast me in it, because they assume I couldn’t do it or they have in their heads there’s a specific way it has to be done.”
On the other hand, many disabled people have faced deepened or worsened inaccessibility during the pandemic because of the move to virtual spaces that use inaccessible platforms or features. Many of us also fear that some of the more widespread access measures could disappear in a post-pandemic future. Whether online or back in physical performance spaces, though, disabled people will continue demanding access and creating new spaces that value what we have to offer in all our crip, mad, neurodivergent, disabled glory.
“I would like the artists to educate themselves on how to be better in making spaces accessible,” Talukdar wrote. “I wish for the members of the performing arts community to think outside of their able-bodied privileges and include queer, BIPOC, and immigrant disabled artists without tokenizing us.”
Inclusion and access changes must also take place at the cultural and systemic levels, upending the presumption of abledness in both audiences and performers, and disrupting ableist norms of productivity.
“We need basic accessibility that assumes that both audience members and people on the stage have all the disabilities, and that would require most theatres to completely change their theatre setup,” said Ballou. “There also needs to be a regard and respect for actors’ time and energy. Because acting is often such a low- to no-pay kind of work, actors often feel they just have to take what they get and put up with whatever they can. And that hurts everyone, especially disabled actors.”
“Disabled people lead the change in our own spaces,” Miller said, citing the disability justice performance project Sins Invalid as an example. Miller is also working with fellow disabled colleagues Jonathan Paradox, Claudia Alick, Rebel Sidney Black, and Deanna Yadollahi to facilitate a five-month long reading group titled #AccessIsLove in Action.
“I consider the facilitation work to be part of my performance process,” Miller said. “We are creating a performance space where disability is centered, and where accessibility is at least 20 percent of our budget. We are doing this at least partially to model that a large part of our budget should go to accessibility. We also pace our production meetings and craft our script to center our own access needs to begin with. This allows us to model access in real time, so in this sense 100 percent of our budget goes to access.”
In a similar approach, Gray decided to fundraise on IndieGoGo so she could create her own production, an adaptation of Terry Trueman’s novel Stuck in Neutral. The story centers on a non-speaking boy with cerebral palsy whose father becomes increasingly obsessed with the thought of murdering him—a similar theme to the storyline in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, in which Joe’s father likewise becomes obsessed with killing Joe (perhaps in a murder-suicide), and even attempts to do so. These narratives are uniquely fit to be rendered by disabled producers and actors, resonating with a community’s collective pain and trauma from thousands of such real-world murders of disabled people by parents and caregivers. Gray co-wrote the adaptation of the novel and served as producer.
This January, Miller began writing a full-length play titled Grant Us An Audience, which addresses “the frictions that emerge between theatre, how it is funded, and disability.”
“In my stage directions, I write, ‘You have to hire disabled people to organize access,’” said Miller. They described access for the audience in much more expansive terms than most people tend to think about what access is or could be—their stage directions mention couches, beds, and livestreaming. “The aesthetic of the piece,” Miller said, “is imagining a disabled audience.”
Perhaps what we do as disabled cultural workers, both in our art and our advocacy, can help ourselves and others imagine and build a new world free of ableism—one that will move us all closer to the liberatory future we deserve.
Lydia X.Z. Brown (they/them) is an advocate, organizer, educator, attorney, strategist, and writer. They twice convinced other actors to perform staged readings of scripts they wrote. https://www.lydiaxzbrown.com and https://autistichoya.net
Creative credits for production photos: Little Shop of Horrors, produced by EPIC Players, directed by Aubrie Therrien, Max Baudisch, and Zachary Lichterman; set by Tim Catlett; costumes by Cat Fisher; props by Wells Thorne; lights: Zachary Weeks.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!