The Wheelchair Isn’t Part of My Costume Design

This month, a new play, Amy and the Orphans, premiered off-Broadway at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre. The play is not, as the title might suggest, about children losing their parents – it’s about (spoiler alert) adults who lose their parents. It also has nothing to do with the play Orphans, so don’t expect Alec Baldwin yelling homophobic slurs and getting people fired.

The premise of Amy and the Orphans might sound sort of whitebread: after the death of their 85 year-old father, a group of newly-orphaned adult siblings go on a road trip down the LIE, annoying one another with their own proximity. Oh, and the titular character Amy has Down syndrome. Alright, so it doesn’t sound quite as bad as a vacation movie, but it’s definitely not the most original concept.

However, Amy and the Orphans is at least groundbreaking in one aspect: the actor who plays Amy, Jamie Brewer, actually has Down syndrome.

Jamie Brewer, full-time actor, part-time fashion model and witch-in-training

If you’re not familiar with Brewer’s name, you might know some of her characters: she’s been a regular cast member on the anthology TV series American Horror Story for the past seven years, playing numerous roles over the show’s different seasons, including one very persuasive witch. Brewer has been an outspoken advocate for people with disabilities, and is also the first woman with Down syndrome to walk the runway at New York Fashion Week.

Brewer’s appearance in Amy and the Orphans makes her the only (known) actor with Down syndrome to appear as a lead in an off-Broadway or Broadway play. Neuroatypical actors – those who have mental/behavioral disorders – are rarely cast in a theatre production, not necessarily because of stigma, but largely because of the amount of work it can take to memorize a script. The TV/film world has been somewhat better to actors who are visibly disabled (e.g. wheelchair-bound), but not by much. 95% of acting roles that call for a “disabled” actor are given an actor who is not disabled at all. The theatre world, where an actor may often be onstage for lengthy periods of time, presents an entirely different challenge.

However, recent theatre pieces have helped in bringing “disabled” or “differently-abled” actors onstage, as well as representing the experiences of those with disabilities. Last year, Manhattan Theatre Club’s acclaimed production of Cost of Living featured lead actors Katy Sullivan and Gregg Mozgala; Sullivan is an amputee who uses prosthetic limbs to walk in real life, while Mozgala has cerebral palsy. Mozgala is also a founder of the theatre collective The Apothetae, which produces theatre work dedicated to creating opportunities for disabled actors – The Apothetae recently workshopped their recent production Spirits of Another Sort at Queens Theatre last year, featuring a mix of disabled and able-bodied actors. Besides Cost of Living, another popular off-Broadway play was Uncommon Sense, which was written, directed, and performed by artists on the autism spectrum.

Off-Broadway hasn’t been alone in making strides; last year’s controversial revival of The Glass Menagerie featured Madison Ferris, an actor with muscular dystrophy, who became the first wheelchair-bound actor to appear in a lead role in a Broadway play. That’s progress – only two years earlier, Ali Stroker became the first wheelchair-bound actor to ever appear on Broadway, in the acclaimed Deaf West Theatre revival of the musical Spring Awakening. And there’s reason to believe that the trend of seeing deaf actors onstage will continue to rise – next month will mark the first Broadway revival of the play Children of a Lesser God, in which a deaf character is a romantic lead. And in August, Playwrights Horizons will stage the off-Broadway debut of I Was Most Alive with You, a play that will be performed simultaneously in English and American Sign Language.

However, you are allowed to pretend someone is sitting in the chair.

However, the rise of disabilities represented onstage hasn’t always generated positive feedback. In particular, The Glass Menagerie received backlash from audiences, who felt that casting a wheelchair-bound actor was a violation of the text of the play (Ferris’ role, Laura, is supposed to have a limp – not a wheelchair), and alleged that the production was being exploitative. Casting an actor with a visible disability can radically affect the direction of a production, whether intentional or not, because theatre is inherently a highly-visual art form. If a script doesn’t call for a disabled actor, it’s near-impossible to cast one. You can’t just have a wheelchair onstage and pretend it’s not there.

And the representation of disabilities hasn’t always been honest: as in the movies, able-bodied actors often beat out disabled actors for the right to play disabled roles. Famous film actors such as Bradley Cooper and Daniel Radcliffe have appeared on Broadway, portraying individuals with physical disabilities, and have won great acclaim for their acting. In 2015, neurotypical actor Alex Sharp won a Tony Award for his performance as an autistic teenager in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. In the same year, Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for playing the ALS-afflicted physicist Stephen Hawking in the film The Theory of Everything.

It’s a known fact in both Broadway and Hollywood that “crippling up” – playing a character who is disabled – is respected as a true test of acting prowess for able-bodied actors. The now-famous saying “Never go full retard” from the film Tropic Thunder satirizes the stereotype that playing a mentally-challenged character is an almost-certain guarantee that an actor will win Oscar gold – you might note the irony that, in Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey, Jr. plays a white actor performing in blackface (and, even more ironically, received an Oscar nomination for his performance).

There are also practical reasons for casting able-bodied/neurotypical actors in disabled roles. They don’t need accommodations once they’re offstage, and they may be easier to work with if the cast/production team has no experience working with disabled actors. Certain disabilities/physical traits may also be difficult or impossible to portray onstage – even in Cost of Living, Gregg Mozgala’s own cerebral palsy was less severe than his character’s. While his character used a motorized scooter, Mozgala can walk in real life. So even when a disabled actor is cast, there may still be some degree of “crippling up” going on.

Plot twist: his sniper rifle has a corrective lens.
Also, how did I reference Clint Eastwood twice in this post?

That being said, there are ethical reasons not to cast non-disabled actors in roles written for differently-abled people. Besides the simple fact that it takes jobs away from actors who may have the real-life experience associated with a particular disability, “crippling up” has been compared to blackface for how it allows neurotypical actors to appear to “transcend” disability. This is not to say that actors are not treating disabled roles with the proper respect, but that nondisabled audiences will consequently see disability as more of a metaphorical struggle – something that can be “overcome” – as opposed to a condition that is lived with, and that offers a unique perspective on the world. Bradley Cooper played a physically-deformed man on Broadway at the same time American Sniper was in theatres – it’s hard to believe in the reality of disability when The Elephant Man is gunning down terrorists in his next movie.

So how can we accurately represent people across all physical/mental spectrums? Previous public campaigns against blackface and white-washing have proven to curtail “creative” decisions by casting directors. But there’s still a lack of roles being written for disabled actors. Furthermore, the debate over The Glass Menagerie complicates whether disabled actors can be cast in roles that were originally written for non-disabled actors.

However, Katy Sullivan, from Cost of Living, isn’t bothered: she says that acting is “putting on someone else’s life experiences and trying to be truthful about them, whether you’re disabled or not.” This goes both ways – if able-bodied actors can play disabled characters, why can’t we expect to see disabled actors playing able-bodied characters?

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