Non-dis­abled ac­tors should never ‘crip up’

The Guardian - G2 - - News - Penny Pep­per

Bryan Cranston’s de­fence of play­ing a wheel­chair user in the new com­edy-drama The Up­side has un­der­lined a par­tic­u­lar point in the com­pli­cated is­sue of equal­ity and di­ver­sity in act­ing: should nondis­abled ac­tors play dis­abled roles?

We are fa­mil­iar with the re­pel­lent days of “black­ing up” – the dis­abled ac­tors’ equiv­a­lent is “crip­ping up”, a term used by act­ing ac­tivists to high­light that it is not ac­cept­able for a non-dis­abled ac­tor to mimic im­pair­ments, then win an Os­car.

The act­ing union Eq­uity has said that in cast­ing “dis­abled” roles, “ev­ery av­enue” should be con­sid­ered to cast a dis­abled ac­tor. Yet the chal­lenges for dis­abled ac­tors and the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a dis­abil­ity ex­pe­ri­ence in film are not iso­lated to cast­ing. Fun­da­men­tal bar­ri­ers to au­di­tion­ing limit spa­ces for dis­abled ac­tors; for those who do get work, it is still mostly for dis­abled roles writ­ten by non-dis­abled writ­ers, which may present stereo­typ­i­cal or un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive char­ac­ters.

There is a need to think crit­i­cally about how dis­abil­ity is be­ing de­fined, writes aca­demic Dr Ali­son Wilde in her book Film, Com­edy and Dis­abil­ity, “with representational and em­ploy­ment con­cerns deeply in­ter­wo­ven into the film in­dus­try’s ide­olo­gies, prac­tices and pro­cesses … There are dan­gers we may thwart our own goals.”

The re­sult of this self-per­pet­u­at­ing cy­cle is lim­ited op­por­tu­ni­ties to tell the dis­abled story in all its di­men­sions. Dis­abled ac­tor-writer Mat Fraser, who played “crip­pled” Richard III last year, summed it up: “Ide­ally, any­body should be able to play any body, but only when there is a truly level play­ing field of op­por­tu­nity.” Ev­ery theatre should com­mis­sion at least one dis­abled play­wright and cast at least one dis­abled ac­tor each year, he wrote, as a con­di­tion of arts fund­ing.

Don’t tell me there are no dis­abled ac­tors with ta­lent. This week, I watched Si­lent Wit­ness with Liz Carr, a dis­abled ac­tor who, for seven years, has played dis­abled lab tech­ni­cian Clarissa Mullery. Carr was ex­cel­lent, yet here’s the rub – she only got a hand­ful of lines on Mon­day.

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