Recently a third year student at the University of Winchester studying Theatre Production (Arts & Stage Management) contacted me. Her focal topic is looking at “able bodied performers portraying disabled people and how we, as participants in the arts industry, feel about it.”
She sent me some questions and here’s how I responded:
EQUALITY IN SOCIETY HAS DRASTICALLY CHANGED OVER THE LAST DECADE, DO YOU THINK THIS BEEN REFLECTED IN THE DEMAND FOR DISABLED ACTORS?
I think that society’s willingness to embrace disability in the media, film and TV is far less than other minority characters. Personally, I think this is because disability is a reminder of our own vulnerability to losing function – it’s something that can happen to anyone, anytime, with no choice. Therefore the demand for disabled actors has been slow to increase due to the slow increase of disabled characters.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT NON-DISABLED ACTORS PORTRAYING DISABLED CHARACTERS?
I would much prefer to see disabled actors portraying disabled characters. It is far more authentic. As a disabled person I notice aspects of disability being “played” wrongly by non-disabled actors. Having said that, there are logistics to be considered, such as in “Me Before You”, where the plot calls for Will Traynor to become disabled. I would hope that, in the future, writers will have the courage and commitment to change storylines so the disabled character can be played by a disabled actor, or perhaps CGI will be employed to emulate a disabled actor being non-disabled. It’s interesting in the case of Bette and Dot Tattler in “American Horror Story: Freak Show”, where a lot of effort was put into creating the conjoined twins. This proves the technology and techniques exist. But, of course, the question begs, were there conjoined actors who could have played the twins?
WHY DO YOU THINK NON-DISABLED PEOPLE ARE CHOSEN TO PORTRAY DISABLED PEOPLE? (THIS CAN BE IN THEATRE, FILM AND ADVERTS)
I think there are several reasons: laziness on the part of casters and directors; the perception disabled people are harder to work with; fear of the unknown; tight budgets that don’t cater to extra time and assistance; the perception there are not disabled talent available; a reluctance to change the character to suit the uniqueness of the actor.
DO YOU THINK IN FILMS, SUCH AS ‘ME BEFORE YOU’ AND ‘THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING’, THAT THE DECISION TO USE A NON-DISABLED ACTOR WAS THE RIGHT ONE?
As said above, I think that because the plotline in “MBY” required Will to be portrayed before his accident, the crew failed to consider a disabled actor. I haven’t seen “TTOE” but I assume the plotline showed Stephen Hawking before his condition deteriorated. So I can’t really say whether it was right or wrong. I think it’s a paradox that is exacerbated by the lack of genuinely disabled characters/actors in the media space.
TO WHAT EXTENT DO YOU THINK THE CELEBRITY STATUS OF THE ACTORS PLAYED A PART IN THE DECISIONS MADE BY THE CASTING DIRECTORS?
I’m sure celebrity status plays a huge part but, again, it’s a paradox. Disabled actors could attain celebrity status but only if they are seen enough. I probably landed the part in “Shortland Street” because I had a profile as a comedian. Michael J Fox is a unique example of an actor with celebrity status having acquired a condition which hasn’t precluded him from the casting gaze. Lauren Potter (Glee) is probably a good example of a disabled actor gaining status through exposure. Mat Fraser(AHS) and Liz Carr (Silent Witness) are others. It will be interesting to see if the same happens with Micah Fowler (JJ in “Speechless”).
WOULD YOU AGREE THAT DISABLED INDIVIDUALS ARE BEING ROBBED OF ROLES THAT SHOULD BE THEIRS? & WHY?
I’m not sure if “robbed” is the right frame. As we pointed out in the More Diversity on Screen campaign research, it becomes problematic when creatives are made to feel they have an obligation to use certain actors. I’ve played a straight character as a gay man – did I “rob” the part from a straight actor? I think we need to make hiring disabled actors compelling rather than mandatory. A long time ago I met a Canadian disabled actor who auditions for non-disabled parts and works with writers and directors to “disable” the character. It’s this kind of innovation and courage I’d like to see from disabled actors. And, in my case, with tv comedy shows and my part in “Shortland Street”, it was the courage of the production companies that gave me those opportunities.
‘BLACKING UP’ CAN BE QUITE SEVERELY FROWNED UPON IN THE ARTS, DO YOU THINK ‘CRIPPING UP’ SHOULD BE TREATED THE SAME? OR IS IT A MATTER OF CONTEXT?
I’m not sure. I think it’s different in that people can’t change their race, but people can change their function. Again I think it’s more a matter of encouragement than coercion.
THE LOGISTICS AND ACCESSIBILITY FOR DISABLED INDIVIDUALS IS NOT ALWAYS EASY, SHOULD THIS MEAN THEY ARE NOT OFFERED OR CONSIDERED FOR A PERFORMANCE ROLE?
When I played Josh in “Shortland Street”, the production company hired a PA to assist me with costume changes etc. I think that was incredibly generous and showed a huge commitment to my success, which probably wouldn’t happen today, nearly 20 years on, because of budget reductions.
WHAT CHANGES COULD BE MADE TO ENSURE EASIER ACCESS? (COMMUNICATION, COMFORT AND PHYSICAL ACCESS)
There are lots of really creative ways to support disabled actors. On “SS” my character had to wheel into the medical centre with a briefcase on his lap. I couldn’t push myself and balance the briefcase on my lap. So we ended up using duct tape to stick the briefcase to my lap and somebody pushed me onto set from off-camera! It was fun and the crew really enjoyed making the scene work. I think stories like this need to be told to remove the fear and unknowing around working with disabled actors.
Philip Patston began his career 25 years ago as a counsellor and social worker, and he is the founder of DiversityNZ. Philip lives in New Zealand and is recognised locally and overseas as a social and creative entrepreneur with fifteen years’ experience as a professional, award-winning comedian. His passion is working with people when they want to explore and extend how they think about leadership, diversity, complexity and change.