They say a director makes up their mind about you within 30 seconds of walking in the door. This is the fun of the actor’s game: you need to be quick, clever and ready for anything.
When you are disabled, this game gets a lot harder and also a lot more nuanced.
The biggest challenge, as for anyone who is different, is getting around “type” casting. In my case, my “type” is fairy tale dwarves, elves, Munchkins, etc. This is because I am a 4’6ft actor with dwarfism. This is great, as it means there is specific work out there for me to make a living from; but, of course, like all creative artists, I look for variety in my work, wider challenges, characters with an arc of development - what all actors want, in fact.
For roles written with disabled actors in mind, actors typically need to fit into a very particular preconceived idea: something clearly and easily identified as disabled, i.e. actor in a wheelchair. As a proportional dwarf who is taller than most of my peers, I don’t always fall into this particular category. Too tall for a dwarf; too short for a “normal” role, I can fall right between two “types”.
When the pandemic reached the UK in March of 2020, like most actors I was immediately out of work with theatre and service industries alike shut. However, as necessity is the mother of invention, I was delighted to discover several theatre companies creating online productions, including TSMGO, Lockdown Theatre and (of course) Shake-Scene Shakespeare. I did many shows with these companies, and they provided phenomenal practical performance opportunities to hone my craft, some financial support (which was vastly welcome in such times), as well as the chance to create shows that could be watched and cast internationally because of their online format.
One side effect I did not see coming was my change in casting. I was offered roles that pre-pandemic I would never have been considered for. Roles including Romeo, Duke Fredrick, Prospero, Tubal, Bardolph, the dramatic lead in a modern piece about a gay man dealing with cancer and his estranged father.
There is no reason why I could never be considered for these roles before. I have a broad age range; I am well practiced with Shakespearean English; I am classically trained in theatre and experienced with stage combat. The only X factor (my height) was no longer visible in productions unless I wanted it to be. And because people could see me believably in these roles, directors were more willing to give me shots at more and more varied roles. This of course built once begun, as it tends to in the industry: Once I did one role, they realised I could do others.
The greatest of these was playing Richard III. The character of Richard is written as disabled, with a hunch and a withered arm, and often depicted as shorter, with issues walking as well. The dwarf character of Tyrion in Game of Thrones in modelled on Shakespeare’s idea of Richard. This is a role I have been up for many times but somehow never managed to get it. What I tend to see is non-disabled actors in the role, playing disabled. Whether this is lack of imagination or fear of not knowing how to direct a disabled actor is hard to say, but it is a situation many actors come up against. Here, director Lizzie Conrad Hughes took a risk on me, and the show was incredible, with the entire cast giving their heart and soul to the text. This was a role I had my sights on for years, and online theatre said YES!
Lockdown and the equalising nature of online shows have offered a huge opportunity to “non-type” and disabled actors. Because of the accessibility of online, our disabilities do not obstruct our talents and the open-mindedness of casting teams in such circumstances (companies like Shake-Scene) have given opportunities for actors like me to showflex our acting muscles, show our metal and really extend our craft. I have built a new showreel from these shows and strengthened my CV with a more diverse body of work.
My hope is now, that there is some evidence of what we can do and an industry culture to support gender-, ethnicity- and age-bind casting, that directors in a post pandemic world will open up to the potential of casting us in the live performance world: ability-blind, perhaps? Throw out the type box and reset!