I was recently in a one-act entitled, John, Who's Here From Cambridge by Martyna Majok as part of Ensemble Studio Theatre's 35th Marathon of One-Act Plays. John is a man with cerebral palsy, which I was born with, but mine is less severe than the character I was playing. I am grateful that the playwright and the producers gave me the opportunity to act this part. Could a competent, skilled, non-disabled actor play this role? Yes.
However, I feel that my lived-in experience of cerebral palsy makes me uniquely suited for the role. I know what the tension in the body feels like, I know the social and emotional impact of someone who has lived with a life-long disability (specifically CP) and I have friends and people close to me who I am modeling the character of John after.
Does all this mean I can just sit down and do the role? Not necessarily. I may know more about how to approach the role from day one than an able-bodied actor would, I know how to articulate my experience in relation to the characters to my ensemble members and director during the rehearsal process, but in order to do the role well, to do my job well, I still have to adopt an intense physical and vocal posture very different from my own. I have to be transformative as an actor. I have act my ass off.
At the risk of sounding reductive, this is what acting is- playing someone who is different from yourself. I must have done a good job, because after the show most people thought I wasn't actually disabled.
From the start of previews and throughout the course of the run of the show, here's a selection of comments I either heard or read expressed to me or about me:
"I'm so glad you can actually walk."
"I was actually worried about you."
"I haven't seen you in a while and I wasn't sure if you had regressed."
"Didn't I see you in...*name of another show featuring actors with various physical disabilities* recently?"
And my new-current-all-time-personal-favorite:
One on-line review stated- "Mozgala is excellent, but I have to wonder what would happen if they actually cast a disabled actor in this role."
The reviewer changed the text immediately upon notification from the producers, but offered no apology for the insult or the shoddy research.
This variety of responses is fascinating to me as a disabled person and performer. Granted, the character of John is a wheelchair user, I am not, and my disability isn't necessarily apparent until I am mobile. This doesn't change the fact that the overall presumption from the general audience was that I was a non-disabled actor playing disabled. The various responses, to me, point to an overwhelming sense of relief felt by an audience which inferred I was "not disabled." Phew.
This past Oscar season there was a lot of talk and social media anxiety over the casting of non-disabled actors playing disabled roles. The chatter focused primarily on Eddie Redmayne's nomination and win for his portrayal of Professor Steven Hawking in, The Theory of Everything.
Redmayne's Oscar win continues a long-standing precedent of actors receiving or being nominated* for Hollywood's most coveted prize for the portrayal of disabled individuals; Jane Wyman (Johnny Belinda 1949), John Voight (Coming Home 1978), Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man 1988), Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot 1989), Al Pacino (Scent Of A Woman 1992), Mary McDonnell (Passion Fish 1992*), Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump 1994), Leonardo DiCaprio (What's Eating Gilbert Grape 1994*) Sean Penn (I Am Sam 2002*), Selma Hayek (Frida 2002*) Jamie Fox (Ray 2004), Hillary Swank (Million Dollar Baby 2005), John Hawks (The Sessions 2012*), etc, just to name a few but it's not just Hollywood.
The last two Broadway seasons have been chock-a-block with shows featuring disabled characters. Richard III (Mark Rylance/TONY nomination), The Glass Menagerie (Celia Keenan-Bolger/TONY nomination), The Cripple of Inishmaan (Daniel Radcliffe/TONY nomination), The Elephant Man (Bradley Cooper/TONY nomination), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, (Alexander Sharp/TONY winner--TONY winner Best Play) and nominally, An American In Paris; which features a disabled veteran with a "bad leg." But boy can he dance!
Should disabled actors be cast in disabled roles? Yes. The reasons the practice of "cripface" or "disability drag," as I have heard it referred to, persists are numerous and myriad. It's a serious issue that needs serious attention and serious action. I feel responsibility for this action lies both within and without the Disability community. I also feel that if WE (The Disabled community and its allies) want this to change and be seen in Hollywood and on Broadway stages, WE'VE got a lot of work to do before we get there.
In all the hoi-polloi around this issue, I rarely hear mention of the need for action that relates to the creation of new work that supports the casting of disabled actors and the development of disabled talent through professional training programs and companies that have an exploration of Disability core to their mission statements.
Casting is only one small piece of a much larger issue. To say that decision makers in the industry should cast disabled actors in disabled roles is all well and good, but it doesn't address the simple fact that today, in 2015, the twenty-fifth anniversary year of the Americans With Disabilities Act, American audiences are not ready to deal with Disability in a real way. Disability is not being presented consistently in a real, satisfying way. As a result, disabled people and disabled bodies are not a visible, viable part of our cultural landscape.
In my own small way, I am dedicated to changing this. As I write this the words of poet and activist, Eli Clare come to mind- if my job as an artist is to hold the mirror up to nature, I have to first remember that I come from a long line of people who hate being looked at, who have habitually and chronically hated mirrors and cameras, who hate looking at our own bodies. I also come from people who are learning to relish our bodies, who are stretching into a comfortable pride and spending long, joyful moments in front of mirrors. We are people learning how to make are bodies home.
Rest easy, America. In my experience, it seems nobody really knows anything about Disability. But don't worry, together, I'm hoping we can figure some things out.
-Gregg Mozgala, Disabled Actor, Artistic Director