The 2015-2016 Broadway season was a banner year for diversity—and not just when looking at skin color and cultures. Broadway and theatre at large have begun to show progress when it comes to inclusion of differently-abled performers, thanks to innovative thinking on behalf of casting directors, writers, directors, and the actors themselves.
“The most exciting thing I’ve seen is directors not only being open to actors coming in the room with different abilities, but actively looking at ways that the story can be enlarged with disabled actors,” says Michael Arden, director of Deaf West’s Tony-nominated production of Spring Awakening.
When the creative team behind a show shares these goals, it presents singular opportunities—and questions. When Jack Doulin, the casting director for New York Theatre Workshop, followed Sam Gold’s direction to find a differently-abled actor for a role in their recent production of Othello, he says it was a tricky feat. “Finding actors who have the ability to do Shakespeare, [they] don’t just grow on trees,” he says, recalling the casting process for the piece, which was set at a military base. “We were looking for actors who actually had the skill set to speak [Shakespeare’s words], who had some experience, and then wanted actors who looked like they had been in the military in our current world.”
Enter Anthony Michael Lopez (Broad City), an actor who also happens to be an amputee. “When Anthony auditioned he said, ‘I would love the opportunity to not be wearing my prosthetic leg; I want to be myself for a change,’” remembers Doulin. To cast Lopez, no accommodations or changes to the script and set were necessary; Lopez even performed with and without his prosthetic leg throughout Othello. “It was almost every day that I would cross in front of an audience member and hear a swift inhale through their teeth, like they’re feeling the physical pain of what it must be like to lose a leg,” Lopez says. “I think it’s ultimately really good, even if it’s a little uncomfortable.
Like Lopez, actor Evan Ruggiero felt his real-life amputation enriched the onstage storytelling during his recent run in the Pittsburgh CLO’s The Toxic Avenger. Ruggiero’s prosthetist helped design a leg out of an exhaust pipe and car parts, making it a believable find in the musical’s junkyard setting. “There’s a scene where two bullies beat me up and dip me into toxic goo,” Ruggiero recalls. “They’d rip my leg off and then I’d fall into this vat, coming back out as the Toxic Avenger. One of the bullies would try to hit me with that exhaust pipe, and I would deflect, only to decide to attach it to my leg.” Though the original sees Ruggerio’s character bullied and dropped in the vat, the incorporation of Rugerrio’s amputation creates a compelling new narrative of turning a perceived weakness into strength.
Likewise, these productions prove the inclusion of performers with differing abilities can enhance, rather than limit, meaning in a show. Arden says that he didn’t seek someone in a wheelchair for Spring Awakening, but when Ali Stroker auditioned, he realized the potential for a nuanced reading of the script. “It was a line about how she wants her children to be strong and tall, and I thought how poignant it was, and how it takes on a new meaning when it’s coming from her,” he says. Inclusion isn’t about making changes to the source material, it’s about interpretation.
Still, changes offstage are welcome and necessary. As the first actor in a wheelchair on Broadway, Stroker sparked a conversation about accessible stages. The producers updated the Brooks Atkinson Theatre to meet the cast needs. In the current Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie, Madison Ferris, an actor with muscular dystrophy who uses a wheelchair, plays Laura Wingfield. “All of the theatres say, ‘We’ll rework it,’” says Ruggiero of his experiences. “They have never put me in a compromising position.”
“It’s just about asking what people need,” says Arden. “The lines of communication need to be open so people can say, ‘Hey, I need a cue light here,’ or ‘I need a video monitor in my dressing room that people can type on so I can know if it’s half hour—you can’t just use an announcement.’ We learn the most from listening, and I don’t just mean with our ears.”
People with disabilities are working. Lindsey Ferrentino’s Amy and the Orphans will feature Jamie Brewer as a young woman with Down syndrome (Brewer also has DS). A recent production of The Threepenny Opera at London’s National Theatre featured actor Jamie Beddard, whose cerebral palsy causes a speech impairment and the need for a wheelchair. But Ruggiero, who hints that New York will be seeing a lot of him on its stages soon, points out that for all of Broadway’s steps forward, he still sees room for improvement. “I’m waiting for the day when Nessarose in Wicked is actually played by a girl in a wheelchair!” he says.
“The entertainment industry is becoming cooler with exploring disability and people with atypical bodies,” says Lopez, “but you see all of these films and plays with able-bodied performers playing disabled roles, and they’re constantly applauded for their willingness to play these parts. They say they spend so much time and money on consultants in the medical field to get things right, and I’m like, ‘You could save so much time and money by just hiring a disabled person, and possibly making small accommodations.’ Inclusiveness should be in all areas of this industry, and that would help with adapting to the needs of the actors. A disabled director would make a really strong statement about comfort with our leadership being disabled.”