So last week I walked out of my first acting audition in a year and told the panel to remove my application.
In theory I quit acting when I started getting enough writing work to prove a full-time job, removing myself from Spotlight and Equity. But I l love acting, even though I hate being an actor and all the shit that comes with it, and occasionally something sounds so incredible you can’t say no.
I don’t actively seek out acting work but I was told about a project that exactly hit my interests, that was looking for disabled actors. I emailed and was asked to audition. Unfortunately the audition venue was not disabled accessible. Now, my mobility problems are relatively mild or at least fluctuate enough that I can pass as able-bodied, or cope with lack of access. Yeah I can crawl up stairs, but should I have to? If I’m in pain how can I do good work? I withdrew my application because I am sick of having to constantly compromise over basic legal rights, and I wouldn’t even mind so much but it’s flabbergasting that a company looking for disabled actors would not consider the possibility disabled actors might have access requirements. It’s a wonder to me that any disabled person ever becomes an actor at all. And honestly I got so used to it as an actor I took it for granted, but becoming a professional writer (and writing for the wonderful Graeae) has taught me I don’t have to compromise.
As an actor I always felt shy of speaking about disability issues, mostly because disabled actors do suffer such discrimination, but also because I uncomfortable with being able bodied-passing/having an invisible disability. I’d look at the few prominent actors with visible disabilities and rejoice in their success but feel alienated. For a long time I wasn’t sure if I could call myself a disabled actor or even what that term meant. I’ve since met other actors in the same boat, but too often disabled actors are treated as a homogenised mass. When you think about the range of people with disabilities that’s not only unhelpful, it’s downright ludicrous.
People with disabilities run the gamut from individuals at the peak of physical strength and fitness; athletes and dancers who put most able-bodied people to shame, to those whose bodies are not capable of the most basic tasks, to everyone in between. “Disabled actor” can mean someone who cannot walk, someone who can walk with help, someone who can sometimes walk, someone with no issue walking. It can mean someone with a serious chronic physical illness or someone in good health with a permanent injury that they may have been born with or may have suffered recently after a long life as an able-bodied person. It can mean someone who is physically able-bodied but has mental problems, or someone with vision or hearing difficulties. All of which require very different forms of accommodation.
Equity are working on a database of accessible casting venues and it’s shocking how many are not. Even Spotlight is not! Typecasting is a problem but if we can’t physically get into the room, we are literally and metaphorically being blocked out of our industry. What can we do? I give thanks every day that I’m lucky/talented/have sacrificed enough goats to Satan to make a living as a writer. It’s nice — no, it’s not nice, it’s sanity-saving — to be in a position to be able to walk away and refuse to compromise but I don’t know if that helps anyone else.
My own personal pet peeve is people claiming they’re accessible when they’re not. In my experience no one ever says “no” to that question, perhaps because they think they’re not allowed to, or they’re frightened they’re going to be sued. But it’s okay, really; not everything is right for everyone. Not every single job is going to be suitable for the entire range of ability status. If you’re casting for a ballet dancer and the role requires pointe work, that is going to rule out some people with mobility issues. But there are disabled ballet dancers (who may or may not have access needs) who can do the job. Being disability-friendly doesn’t mean “open to anyone.” It means working your hardest not to exclude anyone who can do the job.
But it is extraordinary. A few years ago I had a screen test as part of a major TV network “disabled actor talent search.” The auditions were held in a basement in central London with a very small lift. I witnessed one person leaving as his wheelchair didn’t fit inside. And these are auditions specifically to discover disabled talent! It would be ironic if it wasn’t so painful. On another similar scheme I had a TV producer walk in and say, “What’s wrong with YOU?!”
I attended a [Major Theatre Company] workshop for amateur actors last year (as a novice director) and the workshop leader had a go at the attendees for sitting down during a break. “When professional actors work, we never ever sit down during the entire rehearsal session!” This upset me greatly, because it just seems so rooted in an inherent belief that acting and physical ability are inseparable. The ignorance in just assuming that everyone is able-bodied is extraordinary. Especially as this was a session aimed explicitly at regular people who are members of amateur dramatics societies, and the attendees were certainly far more diverse (in all ways, including age, body shape and background) than you’d find in a professional MTC rehearsal room. It might seem like a small thing, but allowing actors a short break to sit down might be the difference between a disabled person being able to participate or not. If you come into the rehearsal room with the attitude, “If you’re not able to stand and run around for hours without a break, you’re simply not capable of being an actor” is fundamentally ignorant of the hegemony of able-bodied privileged.
At the height or perhaps depth of my disability, when I was struggling with serious mobility problems, I was asked to attend a group workshop audition for a theatre company known for making physical theatre. Knowing their work I really wasn’t sure if this was right for me and talked with them extensively over email about my doubts. They assured me that were 100% disability friendly and insisted that I attend and that they could accommodate me. What this translated to was a wheelchair ramp and an audition room on the ground floor. But the auditionees all waited in a non-accessible second floor green room, and the audition itself required a level of physicality I wasn’t capable of (much, much running furiously around the room) so I was forced to spend half the session sitting by the side watching. The workshop leader making the utterly inexplicable decision to inform the entire room that I had “a sprained ankle” really didn’t help matters. I have no idea what was going through his head. Did he think he was helping me? Did he assume that my youth and appearance meant I couldn’t be the disabled actor he’d been told was attending? Had he been told at all? I don’t know.
But really, if being able to run around and jump over things is a requirement, that’s fine, but say so! Don’t pretend you’re able to accommodate mobility-disabled actors when what you really mean is “we have a wheelchair ramp but you’ll have to sit in a corner and watch.” Because I’m obviously not going to be able to actually audition, and I’m obviously not going to get the job. All it does is waste both of our time. Don’t do that. Please. Say no to me.