Rosaleen McDonagh discusses her new play Mainstream and the challenges of casting and performance: Should a disabled writer hold their work back in the belief that there may be some emerging disabled performers who someday will bring their work to the stage?
‘In Peeling I wanted to create women who were witty, sexy, complex human beings who made difficult decisions about their fertility and potential offspring; women whose lives didn’t necessarily differ so much from non-disabled, hearing women’s lives.’ Kaite O’Reilly, playwright.
Peeling was written by a woman who identifies as disabled. Directed by Jenny Sealey, a deaf woman, and performed by three female actors, two disabled and one deaf. Being exposed to Kaite’s work, the politics of identity and representation became much more vivid and important. Such exposure brings with it an emotional resonance that says this is theatre at its best. Not just for someone like me who can identify with all the parts of the three actors but, as O’Reilly says, it was the universality of the women’s lives that made it work. When using ‘cripping up’, it’s part of a cultural and political mode of language that encompasses self determination. Again O’Reilly said, ‘Cripping up is the twenty first century’s way of blacking up’.
The term ‘cripping up’ in Ireland is not used because it’s understood as being insulting to ‘trained’ actors. The way in which white men once painted themselves black to get a gig is now understood as being racist, exploitative, voyeuristic and dangerous. For me ‘cripping up’ carries similar dangers. In the disability artistic community, the joke says, if an able-bodied actor wants an award and a director wants lots of accolades, be it in theatre or film, cripping up is the easiest, most unethical way of doing it. Others say ethics in any art form blocks creativity. Either way, whether it’s local, national or indeed even international, the infrastructure for artists with disabilities in any discipline is always an afterthought, an appendix, sometimes we’re told appendix take up too much time and room—they’re not needed. The explanation of the plot is evident in the performance regardless of who or what body that performance comes from, they tell us.
Mainstream, my new piece explores a love affair disintegrating while people are grappling with identity, age, sexuality, institutionalisation memory, friendship and fear. All the characters from Mainstream have significant impairments. Their impairments are part of how the piece is presented. Their journey as characters is very much tied up with their disability identity. When writing the play Mainstream, my politics were compromised due to the standard theatre praxis here in Ireland. What’s ideal is unfortunately limited by what’s possible at the present moment.
Opportunities for training and development in theatre for disabled performers and actors are not de rigueur. This creates a difficulty in getting disabled Irish actors that can play these parts. More affirmative action policies please. The Arts Council and the Arts Disability Forum do have a specific bursary for disabled artists which is €5,000. Arts & Disability Ireland do provide supports to organisations to make their venue and services more accessible to people with disabilities. Access in the form of audio description and touch is also part of ADI’s remit. There are venues, such as the Project Arts Centre who deliver and provide good practice at all levels of their organisation. The Dublin Theatre Festival 2011, when supporting site-specific work, ensured that access to most of the venues was possible, in particular Mark O’Halloran’s Trade in a Dublin bedsit. The Festival ensured that this work was open to all audiences regardless of the venue type. For me, the ultimate sanction and marker of good access would be that companies are not funded by the Arts Council if their work is not accessible to all the public. That public includes people with disabilities. We’re an audience too.
An example of a positive affirmative action was Turning Point in 2010, an opportunity for artists with disabilities to develop a short play. This project, which was supported by ADI and VSA, meant that I and the three other writers travelled to Washington with Fishamble. Our work was performed in a rehearsed reading. At the reading of my play Rings the sign interpreter for the main actor didn’t turn up. Vulnerability, fear and embarrassment were shared by me and the actor. Jim Culleton, director of Fishamble Theatre Company, managed the situation in an empowering and professional manner. Our work as disabled artists is underrepresented and therefore affirmative action initiatives should have a two-pronged approach. This approach would be a specific targeted approach for disabled artists by way of funding and other resources. While at the same time, mainstream theatre, whether it be companies or venues, need to be resourced and supported to be inclusive of disabled artists, practitioners and disabled audiences. This work can’t be done if theatre companies and venues aren’t supported and resourced to do this.
For me the question of cripping up is an exercise purely for the non-disabled ego: the illusion that you can control, modify and contain, if not your own body, then somebody else’s. The dilemma is: what do you do in a country that prides itself on a legacy of being part of the universal canon of theatre but pays no real dividends to disabled artists or performers? ‘Dividends’ in this context is used as a metaphor for cultural inclusion. In short, the authentic disabled aesthetic is erased out of Irish theatre and performances. Brian Friel’s plays Molly Sweeney and Translations were both restaged in Dublin in 2011. The character of Molly Sweeney and Sarah, the non-verbal woman in Translations, had potential to be innovative performances; instead they objectify and infantilise our bodies, to be received by an unquestioning audience.
They say an actor should be able to perform any part, borrow an aesthetic. There are some parts that actors can’t play. Characters are built, shaped, pulled and stretched to envelop an outside reality and bring it inside themselves. Yet, Irish theatre audiences, or at least the majority of them, seem to enjoy the cosiness of knowing these are not real people—they’re acting out. How we know and where we think people with disabilities belong in our society. Our narrative as disabled people must be funnelled through a non-disabled form. From the director to the actor and then it’s bounced back to the audience, people get so caught up in the physicality of our bodies. The emotive manipulation is what’s damaging. That’s the bit that hurts. They can only do the outside but they can’t bring the emotional, historical resonance to a performance.
These representations are reductive and damaging. Another example of this type of false representation is that of Carmel Winters’ B for Baby. There’s been much chatter about breaking the ‘taboo’ because this piece attempts to explore sexuality in the context of people with learning or intellectual disability. For me, this piece had nothing new to offer other than the usual stereotypes. The most disappointing element of the piece was whatever groundbreaking crescendo that we were all hoping to reach, the end of the piece reverted and resisted going to the edge where the premise of the play was attempting to go by not allowing the two characters to kiss. They share a bag of sweets instead of a kiss. If that’s not infantalisation, well then what is? However, I bought a ticket which means I colluded with something that I’d hoped would be radical; instead, it was pretty mundane. Although these pieces were written by a non-disabled man and woman the very fact that they create disabled characters could be a really positive opportunity to reinvigorate the disabled aesthetic in Irish theatre. The reinvigoration would only come with the call for actors who are disabled for these particular parts. The presumption that non-disabled actors can play our parts so much better is outdated. We Irish can be very unsophisticated and not confident when it comes to taking risks in theatre making. The politics of representation is often outweighed by the so called importance of the narrative – but the narrative comes from a place of representation even if it is almost invisible.
Should a disabled writer hold their work back in the belief that there may be some emerging disabled performers who someday will bring their work to the stage? Or has a writer to compromise and collude with ‘cripping up’ as a way of establishing their work? My Traveller ethnicity, like my disability, cerebral palsy, is an integral part of who I am. It’s how I understand my place in the world. My history, it means I have a shared knowledge and experience with other Travellers and disabled people. This said, the Traveller community or the disability community, are not a homogenous group. We share a common narrative but at the same time, our individual experiences lend themselves to diverse views on art and other matters. ‘Cripping up’, for some disabled people, is fine. For others, like me, ‘cripping up’ or ‘putting it on’ for Travellers, there’s an innate sour taste of a collective, pejorative projection that is not a representation of who and what we are. As a writer, I can illustrate shame but I refuse to carry it, regardless of how and where it’s projected onto me.
Having been exposed to disability arts in the context of mainstream theatre, the spark was lit. Kaite O’Reilly has been a role model and a mentor in many ways for me. I deliberately use the capital D when describing myself as a Disabled artist. This cultural phenomenon gives me reference points to work from, rules, not just for writing but rules for life. Our lives, our experiences and the veins of knowledge that we have as performers, writers and visual artists, need to be nurtured. My ambition for my work goes beyond any special category. While my work is grounded in a particular experience, the writing carries with it a calling for other disabled writers and performers to be part of the Irish theatre community. Being known as the only crip in the community is isolating. This also means often my voice isn’t loud enough to keep making demands on all areas of access for other disabled artists.
Rosaleen McDonagh is a Traveller woman with a significant disability, a playwright and human rights activist. Her short play Beat Him Like a Badger is part of Fishamble’s Tiny Plays for Ireland at Project Arts Centre 15th-21st March, 2012.