Our workshop provided an opportunity for directors, and individual performers, to think with us about disability, inclusion, and aesthetics. The time allotted to the workshop passed much too quickly as we engaged in a deep conversation about these difficult topics.
One of the most challenging aspects of any conversation about theater and disability is making the distinction between theater for, theater by, theater to, and theater with. Still other categories have been suggested, perhaps in an effort to thicken our understanding of this thorny topic.
These distinctions have evolved to address the difference between theater practices that nominally include persons with disabilities, those provide programing to persons labeled as disabled, and those that seek to be truly inclusive. The latter may originate in group or individual work by disabled persons, or by ensembles of “mixed abilities,” in which the presence of disability is acknowledged, but normalized, resulting in an aesthetic that explores the differently abled body-mind as a vehicle for storytelling in myriad ways.
Inclusive practices that privilege “different abilities” are not without their complications. For instance, disabled artists who embody strong skills may be lionized by audiences as exceptional, as having surmounted their disabilities. Other actors may find themselves faulted, their many skills and talents erased by the audience’s definitions of ableness or beauty. Yet, in practice, theater companies may challenge the audience’s normative values by employing a range of methodologies and tactics, may encourage visions of exceptionalism, or may simply insist that each actor stand, and be accepted, as she is.
I am not arguing against theater initiatives that bring opportunities to persons with disability. Nor am I challenging the use of the term “artist” to describe persons who are both disabled and make art. I am questioning the exclusion of artists with disabilities from the production of high quality theater, and the rejection of the disabled body-mind on the grounds of aesthetics.
These issues have been intensely contested since at least the mid-eighties, when the work of artists such as Bill T Jones were attacked by critics and others on the grounds that including otherly abled artists in the production and presentation of serious works was, in effect, using the disabled body as spectacle, even when the artists in question felt liberated by their involvement. Here we are, some thirty years later, and the number of truly inclusive companies, while much larger, remains small enough that such groups remain exceptions to the performative normal.
Truly inclusive work may also be dismissed as “crip art,” an insider phrase that has been co-opted by persons without disabilities, and used to dismiss much work done by, and with, people who live with disability. Playback Theatre companies are hardly immune to questions of aesthetics and the normative gaze, yet discussing issues of inclusion remains, especially in North America, challenging. This is much less true for companies from Asia, where inclusion has become much more the norm.
It was a profound pleasure to sit with other artists, some with evident disabilities and some without, and speak about artistry, aesthetics, and inclusive practice. In the end, we lamented we were so few, celebrated the depth of our conversation, and agreed to keep working and talking. It was a good day.