Feature: Disabled Access All Areas: An Open Letter to Theatre

During the summer, I decided that I’d attend Edinburgh Fringe to get my fill of stage performances all in one go. In the midst of one-person performances and plays that I attended, one stood out; as an amalgam of stand-up comedy and protest, the Accessibility Gala existed to highlight the lack of wheelchair access at Edinburgh’s festival venues, and brought a line-up of disabled comedians to showcase their talent.

This event really showcased a serious issue that exists across the theatre world – disabled people are an afterthought. This is evident in the casting of non-disabled actors faking disability, with actors performing disabilities on-stage such as Daniel Radcliffe’s ‘interpretation’ of Cerebral Palsy in the poorly named The Cripple of Inishmaan back in 2014. In 2015, National Theatre director Rufus Norris noted that he had a “shit record when it comes to disabled casting”, and I’m very glad to hear that on-stage, our inclusion is becoming a far more prominent conversation, and that individuals, theatre companies and theatres are recognising the necessity of including disabled talent on-stage.

The thing is, this goes far further than on-stage roles. Whilst diversity is spreading slowly in the theatre industry, disability is being left behind as a marginalised group. We’re seeing a huge rise in performances focusing on gender, sexuality and race, being led by LGBT+ groups, people of colour and women. It’s an amazing change to see, even if the industry is years behind on this, but when it comes to disability, our role in creation of performance is practically non-existent, and unfortunately, disabled people are still just ticking boxes for the roles they do get. When we as disabled people are on-stage, we act as puppets for non-disabled directors and producers to fill quotas and to talk about themselves, never to provide discussion about disabled people.

With any other marginalised group, it’s an unspoken given that the best representation is given when that group isn’t just onstage, but part of each and every process – all-female directing and producing teams are praised when confronting gender, marginalised crewmembers, musicians and media teams are a necessity when confronting any other topic than disability. With us, we can still just be an on-stage token and people will still laud these performances. Currently in the USA, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, the performance adaptation of possibly one of my favourite books to this day, may have had Mickey Rowe as lead autistic character Christopher – an achievement recognised by much of the media – but there’s no discussion about playwright Simon Stephens, director Marianne Elliott or any member of the creative team. We can still be tokenised on stage without any true representation and it’s still considered acceptable.

Theatre is still seen as a literally and metaphorically inaccessible platform for performance and discussion, and in truth there’s no reason for this being the case. Issues about casting disabled actors on-stage can be rectified by hiring disabled people in set design. Individuals who have life experience on accessibility are able to recognise on-stage issues that can be rectified. The minutiae of disabled life isn’t recognised by non-disabled producers and actors, and the disabled experience is still just left to research and focus groups rather than allowing disabled people to lead the stories about their own lives.

It’s no secret that the theatre industry is cliquey. Theatre directors stick to their same producers, crews and casts, working with who they’ve worked with before, without creating an opening for any new talent on-stage or offstage. We have never got the chance to really take part in the creative process. With so many important discussions happening globally, many of which focus on issues affecting disability, it’s clear that the opportunity for disabled people to talk about disability on-stage should be there – but it’s not. The door to performance creation is still closed to disabled people, and it’s not just locked – it’s being barred shut by those unwilling to bring disabled people into their ranks.

Disabled people aren’t given connections, aren’t given guidance to pursue these roles. It’s easy enough to indicate that connecting disabled people with prominent individuals is the key, but when people refuse to present that opportunity to prospective disabled producers, directors, playwrights and backstage members, it becomes evident that there’s a deeper problem with the willingness to represent that needs recognising and tackling by the theatre industry.