Athena Stevens: Disability in Theatre

On 29 April 2018, Athena Stevens will appear as a jury spokesperson in Trial of Richard III at the West End’s Novello Theatre. The event will raise funds to enable SSF continue its vital work with young people from a wide range of backgrounds. Here, Athena discusses the issue of disability in theatre.

It is a well-known secret in the theatre world that we are doing disability badly. In an era where theatre practitioners like to hang their hats on words such as “authentic” or “truth”, we are still  casting abled-bodied actors to play people with disabilities. Characters, unless otherwise stated, are assumed to have no physical conditions and we prefer our actors to be as fit as possible.

Some of the discrimination in theatre is structural. My own play is about to be produced in a theatre where the dressing rooms are down a flight of stairs from the stage. Since I use a wheelchair, intervals will be spent huddling in a corner trying to change costumes and hoping the public stays where they belong.

It is impossible to find a fully-accessible new writing theatre in London, and even harder to get professionals to take you seriously if there are no venues where you can showcase your skills.

Some of the discrimination in theatre is a direct result of the larger societal barriers that those of us with disabilities face on a daily basis. How can I think about honing my craft when I have no idea who is feeding me lunch a week from now? If playwrights with disabilities have to fight for access to higher education, are we really that shocked when the current canon of scripts include few voices from that population?  

But there is an even greater resistance towards incorporating people with disabilities into theatre; a genuine lack of imagination of behalf of practitioners who can’t be bothered to practise the “openness” they preach.

There is no doubt in my mind that Shakespeare is key in creating fair and equitable opportunities for artists with disabilities to be incorporated in mainstream theatre. This statement may seem shocking, but it is in the classics that we see how someone can be royalty or a savage with little more than a title and a twist of fate. When we list the dramatis personae at the beginning of a script, we are left with little more than a name and their relationships to other characters.

In short, Shakespeare gives us characters, not specific people to be cast according to physical detail. Anyone can play any rank or role, as long as they struggle with the human condition.

While top down structural change is key to progress, I believe that another force is hindering the advancement of artists with disabilities in mainstream theatre. If children with disabilities are not exposed to high quality theatre education and asked to rise to the same level of excellence as their abled-bodied peers, institutions such as the Globe will struggle to find world-class actors with disabilities.

For most of my childhood, I was shuttled out of arts and music programs in order to receive physiotherapy. When, through my sheer stubbornness, I was later admitted to drama school, I was able to find mentors to help me hone my craft. But I had to drop out after a single term due to the massive level of discrimination I faced from the school’s faculty.

If we do not fully include students with disabilities into arts at a young age, we will never achieve a theatre industry which accurately holds a mirror up to society.  

SSF is rooted firmly in the belief that the stories of Shakespeare can shape the lives of everybody who encounters his work. The charity uses the power of Shakespeare to transform the lives of young people from across the UK. At its core, SSF holds an unwavering commitment to Shakespeare’s language, his complex themes, and the belief that anyone can achieve a level of excellence previously thought beyond their reach.

The barriers preventing those of us with disabilities from shining in the theatre industry are massive, and as long as we are excluding an entire segment of our population from participating on the mainstream stage, the theatre industry is failing in its mission to accurately represent life.

I have devoted most of my professional career to breaking down the structural barriers preventing those of us with disabilities from taking our turn in the professional spotlight. Watching SSF embark on its undertaking, assures me that the path I’m plowing will stay open for generations to come.

Athena Stevens is an actor, playwright, and spokesperson for The Women’s Equality Party. Her play Schism opens at the Park Theatre 16 May for a four week run. She was born with athetoid cerebral palsy.

Coram SSF is a cultural education charity that exists to instil curiosity and empathy, aspiration and self-esteem, literacy and teamwork - giving young people the confidence to see that all the world is their stage.

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