Disabled artist Claire Cunningham (photo credit: Colin Mearns/Sunday Herald)

Outgoing The Wee Review editor, Callum Madge, takes a look at the prospects for disabled performers in Scotland, and asks why they are being given so few opportunities to shine…

Equality has been an issue since before Egyptian slaves were forced to build the pyramids. The simple division of ‘servant’ and ‘master’ is now long behind us, as society has invented many more ways of defining the structure of the population into increasingly diverse classifications.

One minority that has been making headlines recently are the disabled. Lord Freud’s misplaced statement got crowds of angry demonstrators baying for his departure from office. But his comments reflect a general attitude of reluctance to include disabled people in the rest of society. Indeed, they have been one of the groups hardest hit by the government’s sweeping range of cuts. However much input a disabled person may or may not be able to contribute to a traditional job, in an office or such like, will depend hugely on that person’s disability, highlighting the vast range of differing capabilities the term ‘disabled’ groups together (physical or intellectual). One industry in which you might expect disabled people to be on more equal footing with their non-disabled counterparts is the theatre. A man in a wheelchair can recite lines with as much ease as anyone else, a deaf woman will remember her blocking the same as a non-deaf person. Why then are there so few disabled actors in mainstream Scottish theatre? Yes, there are many fantastic theatre companies who are proactive in getting disabled people on the stage but performances by these companies rarely garner the same kind of media attention, or attract the same kind of audience figures as those that don’t have a mandate to work with disabled actors.

Super Discount by Back To Back Theatre (photo credit: Jeff Busby)

The Guardian theatre critic Lyn Gardner wrote recently about learning disabled company Back to Back Theatre, wondering why there isn’t a British company that rivals their success. She makes some interesting points, the most notable of which is the vicious circle disabled theatre companies face in trying to get their work seen. Her line of argument is that shows won’t get programmed unless they can demonstrate a consistent level of quality, but they cannot achieve a consistent level of quality without being programmed enough to get practice playing to audiences. I think there’s some truth in this statement, the question is how to rectify the situation. Venues and promoters have every right to programme work they feel confident will bring in audiences. But what more do disabled performers, either as a company or individual performer, have to do to satisfy the question of them being creators of quality entertainment? The critical success of shows such as Wendy Hoose, If These Spasms Could Speak and The Hold all attest to the quality of theatre featuring disabled performers. Maybe, rather than disabled performers having to prove their quality, programmers, venues and, most importantly, audiences, should be more willing to accept it.

Another major reason I believe contributes to disabled performers being kept on the fringe is cost. I work for Lung Ha’s Theatre Company and in a recent production of ours at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, we had a performer in a wheelchair. Our venue had been recently refurbished, and there were many spaces for audience members in wheelchairs. No such thought however had been extended to performers. The Company has experienced similar troubles in the past. As it was, we had to hire a lift (at great expense) to get the actor on stage. As a theatre company for disabled performers, we are prepared to make this kind of cost, but for other companies it could be a reason against the casting of a disabled actor. Similar difficulties could be found during touring and in finding accessible rehearsal spaces. Of course, added costs might be incurred for all kinds of disabilities. For example, deaf performers might need a sign-language interpreter. Even if the performer’s needs aren’t particularly big, the slightest things can slow down the rehearsal process, and as we all know, time is money.

13 Sunken Years by Lung Ha (photo credit: Douglas Jones)

The theatre is a very visual industry. Because of this it is not unusual for people to be discriminated because of their looks; a director might choose not to cast someone because of their height, build, hair colour or any other feature they don’t want in their show. How many other industries could get away with not hiring someone because they didn’t look right? I believe this is another key reason why many disabled actors don’t get cast. Everything that is put on stage is analysed for some kind of meaning by audiences. The specifics of the set, lighting, costumes and sound all create a particular ambience and denote key themes of the production. This of course extends to the cast too. If a director casts a disabled actor, there is a danger audiences will read thematic connotations of disability into the production. A similar argument could be made for race and gender. An easy way for directors to remain in control of any artistic interpretations is to avoid casting the disabled actor at all. Disabled performers even have difficulty being cast as disabled characters, with roles often given to non-disabled performers. Gardner uses the example of Daniel Radcliffe being cast as the cripple in The Cripple of Innishmaan. ‘Blacking up’ is no longer socially acceptable, so why is ‘cripping up’?

Is the theatre not supposed to reflect the society in which the audience live? Some might argue that the number of disabled performers is reflective of the number of disabled audience. Accessibility will undoubtedly be a contributing factor here but more importantly, if disabled audiences aren’t being offered things they can relate to, how will their numbers grow? Another vicious circle. Steps are being made to assist the growing number of aspiring disabled artists. Solar Bear (a theatre company for deaf performers) are working with the Royal Scottish Conservatoire to provide an acting training course for deaf people – the first of its kind in Scotland. Also flip (an organisation championing the inclusion of disabled performers in the arts) have just announced a programme “to support the next generation of disabled artists in Scotland”. But what is the point of all this training if they never get cast?

Sarah Gordy in Crocodiles at the Royal Exchange Manchester (photo credit: Lee Mattinson)

If disabled performers are ever going to be fully accepted into the theatre I believe there needs to be a fundamental change in the way theatres, and all those who work in the industry, think about working with disabled actors. Although it’s encouraging when disabled performers are cast in mainstream productions, there’s a danger of this appearing tokenistic. Disabled performers need to be viewed not as a special addition but as valid and equal members of the cast, of the industry. A man originally played Romeo’s lover but now there are all female Shakespeare companies completely reversing the once accepted state of play. Why can’t Prospero have Down’s syndrome? Why can’t Blanche DuBois walk with a crutch? Why can’t Lady Bracknell be in a wheelchair? Sarah Gordy recently played a non-disabled character in Crocodiles at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester but examples like this are rare. Women are no longer seen as the Other, disabled people still are. It is time things changed.

Follow Callum on Twitter @CWMadge