Archive for April, 2010

Casting: Ready For The Outcasts?

April 4, 2010

I was asked to answer a few questions about inclusivity in mainstream musical theatre for a friend of a friends dissertation. The questions I was asked made me sit up and think  so I decided to write a blog about the topic in hand!

I understand that musical theatre is starting to become more inclusive (at least the critics say it is!) however there is a definite lack of it at the moment! I can’t think of a single mainstream show I have been to see where an actor on stage has a physical disability. I know that dyslexia can come under this category and that this is more accepted in theatre but I think it’s wrong that the musical theatre industry feel that they can claim that they are inclusive when in fact they are putting hidden disabilities on stage, not visible ones. I know that some characters are simply wrong for actors with certain disabilities, for instance I don’t think I will ever be cast as Baby in ‘Dirty Dancing’! Maybe if some West End theatres were more wheelchair friendly backstage then the casting would follow. It is very sad that the big wigs behind the industry feel that audiences are too fickle to accept a wheelchair bound performer.

Theatre companies such as GRAEAE are fantastic as they incorporate people with AND without disabilities into their productions and do not make a big showcase out of disabled performers. It is wrong for a theatre company to make a big fuss about having a performer with a disability in a cast; what mainstream musical theatre needs is an actor with a disability to take on a role which is not actually written to have a disability, to me that is real inclusivity.

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last few months you will have heard of Glee and their character Artie, who is a wheelchair user, but that’s not the issue, the issue is that the actor, Kevin McHale, who plays Artie, is not a wheelchair user. I think that what Glee are trying to do with the character of Artie is very positive. The whole show is so tongue in cheek when handling minorities that they can get away with making a big deal out of Artie being in a wheelchair BUT and that’s a big but, the fact that the director has blatantly turned around and said that  actors in wheelchairs are not good enough at the moment is just plain ridiculous. I’m pretty sure that they could get an actor to play that part who is actually a wheelchair user. Kevin McHale is really good in the role and I like the fact that he plays him as Artie, not ‘Artie, the boy in the chair’ and it’s not his fault that he was cast in that role but it annoys me that they had to get a double in for some of the close ups on his wheelchair moves…I’m guessing the wheelchair double wasn’t disabled either! Also: why is it that every time there is a storyline involving him it has to be linked back to him being in a wheelchair, even his love interest story line was based around his wheels! Another point: has anyone noticed that many of the songs which he performs in, all concentrate on his wheelchair “Dancing with myself”, “Proud Mary” and “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” are all prime examples. It seems that when the director or choreographer don’t know what to do with him, they stick him on guitar! I reckon if they had an actor in a wheelchair playing that role they could play about with the physicality of the character more. The one episode which did really click; and I think other actors in wheelchairs will agree with me on this, was the one in which the group had to fundraise to take Artie on a ‘special’ bus. The writers managed to hit the nail on the head and tackle problems with empathy and humour. Many people ask me if I watch Glee because of Artie, the truth is no, I watch it because I think it’s a positive show, yes it would be nice is the actor playing Artie was actually in a wheelchair but fingers crossed the character will open up the minds of young people and maybe next time when there is a part like Artie up for grabs an amazing guy will come along in his wheelchair and the casting directors will actually take notice.

I feel strongly that any characters with disabilities (and there is such a shortage of them!) should be played by people with disabilities. The bottom line is, the general public and theatre big wigs would not let me get up and play an able bodied role, so why should able bodied people be able to play characters with disabilities? Sometimes there will not be any actors with disabilities right for the part, like in ‘Inside I’m Dancing’ I think James McAvoy was perfect for the role of Rory O’Shea however we are now in 2010, we’re meant to be changing. The Paralympics are being supported right now so why shouldn’t the arts get the same attention? ‘Don’t Play Me, Pay Me’ is doing a brilliant job at broadcasting this message across Britain at the moment and other programmes like ‘Britains Missing Top Model’ have been similar ambassadors but the concentration needs to be on getting more people with disabilities involved in the arts, professional arts.

At first when I heard that the reason for the director of Avatar not casting a wheelchair user in the lead role was that due to the character having to walk in the CGI sections it was essential that the actor could walk. In another interview he admitted that disabled actors weren’t up to the standard for Hollywood films. It makes you wander that if CGI can turn actors into blue aliens then I’m pretty sure that they could pull a few tricks to enable the use of a disabled actor. It seems to be that blockbusters are not ready to put a wheelchair user into a serious role just yet, obviously they feel there has to be some humour behind it, goodness knows why! It would be brilliant to see a wheelchair user in that kind of role, it’s an opportunity missed and I can only hope that soon there will be another opportunity for an actor in a wheelchair…although I’m pretty convinced that producers will still find reasons not to cast them.

One of the only mainstream musicals I can think of which has a disabled character written into the storyline is ‘A Little Night Music’ yet even in the recent west end revival the part was played by an able bodied actor. It is also interesting that this character is an older character; I don’t think writers understand how to write a young character with a disability because it gives them boundaries. Another part is Nessa from ‘Wicked’ however this has never been played by an actor actually in a wheelchair. It is debatable whether Nessa is actually disabled as she ‘walks’ a little in Act two however I’m sure there must be some actresses with disabilities able to play the role. One part which is definitely for a young disabled actor is a character in Jason Robert Browns ‘13’, however I am under the impression that the actor who played this part in the original Broadway production was able bodied, it is shocking at how few characters there are in mainstream musical theatre with disabilities.

I would love it if there were more plays and musicals written with disabled performers in mind. It would be even more impressive if in revivals of plays and musicals, characters previously seen to be played by able bodied actors  are instead played by disabled performers. It would certainly make it less daunting to go into the industry as a performer with a disability. At the moment I see little possibility of me ‘making it’ in the West End or Broadway because the audiences are not used to seeing disabilities flaunted on stage. Ali Stroker will hopefully change audience’s views in America and I hope that England will follow their lead. Playwrights should be encouraged to write disabled characters into plays and make it accessible for disabled performers to take on these roles however I have little hope of this happening over night. Hopefully once there are more roles written for disabled performers; directors, agents and training establishments will be more appealing for young disabled actors.

Ali x

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