Theatre and disability is a subject focusing on the inclusion of disability within a theatrical experience. Disability may be included as the subject of a theatrical work, or represented in a character. There have been great debates concerning the portrayal of the sensitive subject matter, and whether or not enough research and compassion has been taken into consideration.
Disability in the theatre has been a prevalent and sensitive topic for centuries. More often than not, a theatrical production will choose to either exclude the use of disabled actors in a role of a character without any limitations. There are also cases where characters are written without any disabilities. Millions of patrons attend the theater each year, allowing them to gain insight and become educated on various social and political topics. Without the inclusion of disability in the arts, millions of people feel distanced or neglected from the remainder of society. There have been different forms of expressive therapy, more specifically drama therapy, as a form of therapy where people use dramatic tools to comfort and improve physical and mental health. Although found beneficial, it does not take the place of artistic achievement that people with disabilities strive for.
"There was a time when people with unique disabilities could make a living because of their disability. But the idea of looking at people with disabilities became socially unacceptable."
People with disabilities represent the largest minority group in America. They make up 20% of the population, yet are not perceived as such by people living without disabilities, and because of this the debate continues as to whether or not it is appropriate, and respectful, to personify people with disabilities in theatrical works.
In The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams explains to the readers that the character Laura has grown up with a disability. "A childhood illness has left her crippled, one leg slightly shorter than the other, and held in a brace. This defect need not be more than suggested on the stage." This character description is vague enough to allow the director of this production to make their own decision as to how they want to portray Laura. There is enough ambiguity for the director to take the responsibility of showcasing disability as they see fit.
Blanche DuBois, a character in A Streetcar Named Desire, is unable to find inner happiness and fails to see the true beauty that she embodies. Because of this, she relies on the male figure for temporary fulfillment. This could be due to the extreme loss she has experienced in her lifetime.
The late John Belluso is an American playwright known for his work focusing on what its like living in society with a disability. Similar to many of his characters, Belluso was diagnosed with a rare bone disorder, causing him to live in a wheelchair for the remainder of his life.
Gretty Good Time is a play that centers around a woman suffering from post-polio paralysis. The audience rides the journey with Gretty as she is transported to a state institution where she will soon be unable to function on her own, therefore making her contemplate assisted suicide.
The 2005 play The Rules of Charity is a story about Monty, a man living with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair. His daughter Loretta acts as his caretaker, and much of the play focuses on her relationship with her father and what it is like trying to balance her life as well as her fathers.
"Disabled people understand the world in a different way, you understand what it's like to be stared at... I feel... this impulse to write for the theater [is]... about shifting from people staring at me to, in a way, staring back at them."
Asian-American playwright Mike Lew recreates the famous tale of William Shakespeare's Richard III, the most famous disabled and deformed character written in history, in his play Teenage Dick. The play centers around sixteen year old Richard, whose goal is to become senior class president. Richard suffers from cerebral palsy, and the audience learns the tribulations of trying to overcome heavy obstacles in a cut throat environment. Teenage Dick was performed at the Public Theatre in New York City in early 2016.
The Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts supports and promotes the inclusion of disabled people in all realms of performing and fine arts. Through various programming, Inclusion in the Arts aims to increase diversity throughout the United States.
"Our principal aim is to achieve full inclusion in American arts and entertainment, such that what we see on our screens and stages truly reflects the society in which we live." The Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts is supported by several national associations including The Shubert Foundation, Actors' Equity Association, and the Screen Actors Guild.
In 2012, Broadway musicals The Lion King and Newsies partnered with the Broadway Accessibility/Audience Expansion Initiative and Inclusion of the Arts to allow people with disabilities to receive the same theatrical experience as those without. The services now being provided are I-Caption for those who are deaf and hard of hearing, and D-Scriptive for blind audience members. The Lion King became the first autistic friendly performance in 2011.
Deaf West Theatre put on a production of Spring Awakening that premiered in Los Angeles, California and later transferred to Broadway in 2015.
"To me, the play speaks to those who are denied a voice, to those who don't fit into the norm, to those who are questioning and experiencing the pains of growing up."
Nearly half of the actors were deaf in this production. This new adaptation shed light on the power of disabled actors in the theater.
The aims of Disability Art and Culture Project is to support and advance artistic interest of those with apparent and non-apparent disabilities. In support of their mission statement, the DACP advocates for the artistic and creative interests of those who are disabled.
Starting in 1967, the National Theater of the Deaf began producing shows with both Spoken Word and American Sign Language. This allowed the shows to bring in a larger audience, giving them the capability to challenge the way the audience members use their senses. This new type of theatre broke barriers as it incorporated a new form of language into the theatre.
There have been several debates as to who should portray characters with disabilities. Should actors with similar disabilities play the character, or should unlimited actors portray the character after having done substantial research? Is it morally and ethically correct for a non-disabled actor to personify a physical impaired character? Directors have two options to consider when deciding which actor should play a disabled character. To expose the world what they are already experiencing, or to a show a world with deeper dynamics and diversity.
Within the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, disabled actors are often asked to submit their headshot and resume, and it is ultimately up to the creative time on how the wish to portray disabled characters. Without an advocate for people with disabilities, oftentimes they go unnoticed when casting a production. According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in 2013, out of the 796 regular characters on broadcast primetime, only one percent was depicted as people with disabilities.