I have been reflecting recently on the courage of actors with disabilities. Not only must they deal with the performance anxieties common to all actors, but they also must overturn one of the most deeply embedded cultural myths that oppress us. That is the myth that we are defined by our bodies.
Our true natures are obscured by the projections that others place on us, and those projections are all based on that central assumption. They trap us within three possible narratives. We can be pathetic, depressed victims of our afflictions. We can be evil schemers out to seek revenge on the able-bodied world for having what we lack. Or, we can be sainted heroes who through pluck and the altruistic support of others overcome our misfortunes. The expectations of others tend to imprison us in these few roles. And these expectations are extremely difficult to change.
What happens then when a person with a disability appears on stage as a performer? The essence of performing is the actor's conscious manipulation of the audience's perception of who he is. The actor exercises choice. He pretends to be someone he's not. In order for an actor with a disability to accomplish that, he must subvert the myth that says his character has been written for him by his body.
The point of view that denies him that ability was most notoriously expressed by Arlene Croce in her refusal to review Still/Here, Bill T. Jones' dance piece about facing mortality. "In theater, one chooses what one will be," she wrote many years ago in The New Yorker. "The cast members of Still/Here -- the sick people whom Jones has signed up -- have no choice other than to be sick." She went on to coin the term "victim art," which she really did not consider art at all, but only a cheap, unfair attempt to manipulate the audience's sympathies.
This is the prejudice that our courageous mythbusters are defying all over the world. And when they win the freedom to be whoever they choose, we all win the freedom to be ourselves.