The Guardian Comment is Free asked me to respond to Lisa Hammond’s Open Letter to Writers: Put Crips in your scripts (reproduced on this blog at: https://kaiteoreilly.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/lisa-hammonds-open-letter-to-writers-put-crips-in-your-scripts/)
What follows is their edit of my article.
I think it is edifying to read the forty plus comments on the Guardian website in response to the article. You will find the article and the comments at:
Theatre has to get over itself and put crips in its scripts.
Guardian Comment is Free.
I was delighted to read Lisa Hammond’s open letter to writers as part of this year’s TV Drama Writers’ Festival – Put crips in your scripts. It’s a sentiment I support, and have for some time. As a playwright, I’ve been trying to put complex, seductive, intelligent characters who just so happen to have an impairment into my scripts for decades. It is only in rare cases I am commissioned to write such a play; usually I have to smuggle it in like a Trojan horse, with disability politics and what I call “crip humour” in its belly.
Disability is often viewed as worthy, depressing, or a plethora of other negative associations I (and many others) have been trying to challenge and subvert in our work for years. I find this representation astonishing, for the vast majority of my disabled friends and colleagues are the wittiest, most outrageous and life-affirming human beings I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with.
I identify proudly as a disabled person, but am often struck how to those without this cultural identification the impaired body is “other”. Disabled people are “them” – over there – not a deaf uncle, a parent with Alzheimer’s or an acquaintance who has survived brain injury following a car accident. Although the vast majority of us will acquire impairment through the natural process of ageing, through accident, warfare or illness, disabled people are still feared, ostracised and set apart.
The western theatrical canon is filled with disabled characters. We are metaphors for tragedy, loss, the human condition – the victim or villain, the scapegoat, the inferior, scary “special” one, the freak, the problem requiring treatment, medicalisation and normalisation. Although disabled characters occur in thousands of plays, seldom have the writers been disabled themselves, or written from that perspective. It is also rare for actors with impairments to be cast in productions, even when the character is disabled. As I scornfully stated in my 2002 play Peeling, in which Hammond performed: “Cripping up is the 21st century’s answer to blacking up”.
As Hammond suggests in her essay, the theatre profession just needs to get over it – their fear, concerns about expense, about difference. There are fantastic deaf and disabled performers in the UK, just as there are talented and experienced choreographers, directors, visual artists, sit-down comedians, and writers. I hope that the Paralympics, and Unlimited at Southbank Centre, part of the Cultural Olympiad, will change preconceptions just as the Olympics did regarding sportswomen and abilities.
For “putting crips in our scripts” means we have different protagonists with different stories, which don’t always have to revolve around yet another medical drama. The active, sexy, wilful protagonists of In Water I’m Weightless are an anomaly simply by being protagonists, and in control of their lives. The work is a montage of movement, visuals, excerpts from fictional monologues and not, as most of the reviewers assumed, the actors’ autobiographies (as director John McGrath said, “that’s called acting”).
We need characters who are not victims, whose diagnosis or difference is not the central drama of their lives, but multi-faceted individuals with careers and relationships, dreams and challenges. I want characters who are full of themselves, their hands and mouths filled with a swanky eloquence. Whether in signed or spoken languages, words can dazzle and dip, shape form, shape meaning and shape a perspective that counters the previously held.
We need to have crips in our scripts not just to reflect the society we live in, but, as one of my characters says, to “threaten the narrow definition of human variety … [to] broaden the scope of human possibilities”. And we need crip actors to perform these parts, not yet another non-disabled actor doing an impersonation, with an eye on an award.
(c) copyright Kaite O’Reilly 30th August 2012.