Last night I finally got round to seeing the multi award winning show, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. I had been meaning to see it when it was on at the National but as usual just didn’t get round to it. Let me just start by saying how brilliant the show was, some really very good performances but the set and lighting stood out as being truly brilliant. It well deserves all the awards it has won and you can see why it has been such a hit show with the audiences, especially now it’s on tour.
I was thinking all of this as the curtain came down and we all began to applaud the actors as they came forward to take their bow. That was until the lead came forward and took his bow to huge whooping and cheers from the audience. They felt, as did I, that his performance of the lead character of Christopher, an autistic boy who is investigating the murder of his neighbour’s dog Wellington, was worthy of congratulating. That’s when I started to feel a little uneasy. Yes it was a great performance, the physical interpretive sequences were flawless and his portrayal of the character’s autism was sensitive and not overly dramatized. But, and this is a big but, why are we once again celebrating an actor portraying something as ‘other’ and why aren’t we seeing a fantastic actor with autism on our stage so we can congratulate him? Surely this is a perfect opportunity to think outside of the box? Admittedly the pool of autistic actors who could fit the bill for the highly physical piece would be smaller than usual but I really don’t think it’s impossible.
The debate around whether able-bodied actors should be allowed and congratulated for portraying disabled characters has been going on for decades now. Looking back, the use of disabled actors and the portrayal of disabled characters is something I looked into for my dissertation at University back in 2008, but has the debate moved on at all? Eddie Redmayne just won the Oscar for his portrayal of Steven Hawking following the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man among many others. It’s almost an unsaid thing that if you give a good performance of a disabled character you will win big in awards season. For some roles such as Steven Hawking where his disability is acquired casting an able bodied actor is more understandable as they decided to show him as the disability took hold but for the vast majority this is preventing disabled actors from getting the very roles that are actually written for them!
We know that the number of disabled roles written for the Theatre, TV and Film are limited at best but when even these roles are given to the actors looking for their next claim to award winning fame where does that leave the disabled actors? With even less roles that they could be considered for in the first place and less opportunity to progress and develop their craft to become the big recognizable household names the industry says they need in order to be cast for the big roles. Often the exec’s excuses for casting an Eddie Redmayne or Dustin Hoffman is because they are well known and will attract funders and audiences, how is this ever going to be possible for the disabled actors to get anywhere near this level of notoriety if they never even get a look in?
It’s a never-ending cycle and one that will not be solved quickly or easily. We need more disabled writers writing about disability in an authentic way without making it the primary focus of the story and we need disabled actors given the chance to play the roles that are intrinsically written for them to play. Eventually we’ll get to a point like we have for black actors. Now, if a character is written as being black then there would be no chance at all that a white actor would be cast. This has moved on even further and black actors are also being cast to play characters that have no ethnicity placed on them. We have become colour blind when it comes to who plays what** and that’s where we need to get to for disabled actors and characters. This can only happen if we see “cripping up” (an able bodied actor playing a disabled character) as unacceptable as “blacking up”.
As I said, I really did enjoy The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and would recommend it to anyone but I think someone should see the next round of casting for the show as an opportunity to make a difference because quite frankly it isn’t too much to ask is it?
** I know we still have some way to go and many will argue that we haven’t quite become colour blind but when you compare the issue between casting black actors and casting disabled actors we have come a lot further on the race issue.