How Actors With Disabilities Are Educating Casting Directors

How Actors With Disabilities Are Educating Casting Directors Opportunity, understanding and visibility are at the core of the conversation that is changing the dynamic between casting directors and actors with disabilities.
Treshelle Edmond, Ali Stroker, Amelia Hensley, Lauren Luiz, Kathryn Gallagher, Krysta Rodriguez and Alexandra Winter in <i>Spring Awakening </i>
Treshelle Edmond, Ali Stroker, Amelia Hensley, Lauren Luiz, Kathryn Gallagher, Krysta Rodriguez and Alexandra Winter in Spring Awakening Joan Marcus

Imagine this: You’re an actor with a disability who is going in for an audition with casting directors who have never met you. You’re afraid to let anyone know that you need special accommodations for fear of hurting relationships. At the same time, without those accommodations you might not be able to audition at all. What do you do?

“You absolutely [say something],” says Rosalie Joseph, casting director, founder of Rosalie Joseph Casting and member of the Casting Society of America’s (CSA) committee for diversity. “Actors have to advocate for themselves just as we should be advocating for them. Many times we don’t know these actors and we just call them in based on their résumé or a picture.”

Joseph, along with many other casting directors and associates affiliated with CSA, has partnered with the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, a group that advocates for performers with disabilities, in order to present a series of conversations on accessibility and inclusion in the entertainment industry.

The conversation began in September 2015 with a town hall meeting, during which members of the casting community invited performers with disabilities to share in a discussion on how the entertainment industry can better serve them. CSA and the Alliance later presented a seminar on the “Business of the Business,” which taught the basic business skills necessary to be a performer. The initiative continued with a day of audition workshops on March 19th.

The sessions, which focused on auditioning techniques for both camera and stage work, aimed to educate members of the casting community and actors with disabilities on how they can work together to make the audition process flow as smoothly as possible.

John McGinty in Tribes
John McGinty in Tribes

For some performers, such as John McGinty, who happens to be Deaf, the day provided key feedback on the importance of facial expressions when auditioning on camera and how to dress for a callback. McGinty feels that the workshop he took part in also allowed for the teachers to become students. “At the very end it wasn’t just the actors…I felt that the casting directors – we were all students together,” he says. “I learned something and they also learned something from us. It created a great conversational exchange.”

Stephanie Klapper and Karyn Casl, both casting directors of Stephanie Klapper Casting and Telsey + Company, respectively, explained that knowing how to accommodate actors ahead of time is the first step in making sure that auditions are successful. Klapper remembers an actress with a vision disability who needed her audition side in a format that would allow text enlargement. But, the actress did not mention this and Klapper sent a PDF. “We’ve had a lot of conversations about how important communication is in this endeavor in terms of an actor being very front-footed about what they need from us, and not being afraid to do that,” says Casl. “Developing that open line of communication is going to help us move things forward and bring potentially successful performers into the room.”

Open communication can also help to break down fears, according to Mary Theresa Archbold, an actress who tours with her one-woman show Jazz Hand: Tales of a One-Armed Woman. “A workshop like this stops the fear on both sides – our fear and their fear that we won’t be able to communicate. It gives us a chance to show them how easy it is to bring us in for auditions.”

Alexandria Wailes, an actress who was recently seen on Broadway as Marlee Matlin’s replacement in Deaf West’s Spring Awakening (she was also the associate choreographer), believes that the workshops were helpful in teaching her how to be “authentic and honest.” She explained that there is an expectation from directors for actors who are Deaf to fit the mold of actors who are hearing in terms of using minimal facial expression. However, sign language is four-dimensional. “Facial expression is a part of the language. There’s a lot of information that is shared on the face,” she says. Wailes was happy to discover that she did not need to imitate hearing actors and that “as long as the information is present [the casting directors] will read it.”

Wailes found the workshops helpful in teaching her how to audition with scene partners who are signers and scene partners who are not. Still, she wants to take the next step and find resources to practice and hone her skills.

Next steps, like these, are part of CSA and the Alliance’s partnership. CSA does not consider performers the “flavor of the month.” They will continue to host workshops and conversations that will further the initiative.

David Harrell, Inclusion’s programming associate and disability advocate, is also a performer with a disability. He argues the next step towards true inclusion is casting what is written. If a character is a written with a disability, then the actor playing that role should share that experience—though also not limiting performers to only those roles. While this idea may seem simple, many workshop attendees feel they are brought in to audition rooms as second thoughts.

“If we’re not allowed to play ourselves, then what else are we going to play?” asks Harrell. “If we start playing ourselves, as well as beginning to see ourselves in nondescript roles, that’s going to help. That’s going to remind you, ‘If I’m going to write this character, I bet there are actors who have this experience who could play this role.’ That brings authenticity to stories, and it works to help bring actors in to play nondescript roles as well.”

Ali Stroker, who recently made history as the first actress who uses a wheelchair to perform in a Broadway production, exemplifies this. Stroker appeared in Spring Awakening as Anna, a character who is not specified as using a wheelchair. At the same time, Anna’s character arc did not become about her physicality.

Brennan Srisirikul
Brennan Srisirikul

Brennan Srisirikul, an actor who also uses a wheelchair, feels conflicted when he sees actors without disabilities playing characters with disabilities, such as Kevin McHale’s portrayal of Artie in Glee. “Yes, we’re grateful that it makes people think about [disabilities],” he says. “But, at the same time, our community is craving authentic representation.”

Actress Melissa Jennifer Gonzalez agrees. “What better way to tell stories than from the people who have lived through those struggles? [Actors] may do the research, but they’ve never felt our pain and the hard work we put into our every day lives.”

Participants on both sides of the conversation say that, while there are further steps to be taken, they are excited for conversations and learning experiences to come.

Sommer Carbuccia, a performer who is an amputee, is proud of the work that CSA and Inclusion are doing to “bridge the gap” between casting directors and performers with disabilities. “Casting directors are on our side – they’ve told us many times, but if they don’t know we’re out there, they won’t know to call us in,” he says. “This kind of workshop is a step in the right direction.”

Visit InclusionInTheArts.org for more information on Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, or CastingSociety.com for more information on the Casting Society of America.

Joe Gambino is a writer, illustrator, and performer who still has not won the Hamilton lottery. Follow him on Twitter @_joegambino_.