Disability in Theater: What’s Taking So Long?

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[dropcap]In[/dropcap] recent weeks, a 28-year-old actor named Ali Stroker has been making headlines across theater-news outlets. The reason: She’s the first performer who uses a wheelchair to be cast in a Broadway production.

Stroker, who plays Anna in North Hollywood-based Deaf West Theatre‘s production of Spring Awakening (which is now Ovation Nominated), has been building momentum for years. After playing the lead role of Olive in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, she dipped her toes in the television pool, landing the role of Betty Pillsbury on an episode of Glee, and was later featured on the MTV high-school comedy Faking It. By 2015, she was performing in Spring Awakening in Los Angeles, which would catapult her to Broadway.

Such a repertory isn’t easy to develop for any actor, and for one who can’t walk, the hurdles are tenfold. The appearance of Stroker’s name in headlines reflects this; even today, it’s considered groundbreaking when an actor with a disability is cast in a Broadway show.

But why, given Stroker’s talent, ambition, and capability — and that of so many other actors with disabilities — has it taken this long for a disabled performer to realize the culmination of theatrical recognition?

One of the first answers is a lack of physical accessibility. The advent of Broadway theater dates back to the mid-19th century; the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — which introduced anti-discrimination legislation and accessibility standards for buildings open to the public — was passed nearly a century-and-a-half later. For a variety of reasons — including apprehension about the perceived extent and cost of renovation of their aging infrastructure — venues on Broadway remained virtually unchanged.

“Disability has not traditionally been seen — as far as our industry is concerned — as a lived experience…. People look at disability as something you can put on, like an accent or a costume.”

Since the passage of the act, however, plenty of theaters have adopted various means through which to enhance accessibility. Many venues offer audio description, sound-amplifying headphones, sign-language interpretation, and removable seats for patrons in wheelchairs. Within the last 15 years, over 20 out of Broadway’s 40 theaters have removed accessibility barriers in restrooms, box offices, and other spaces (in response to lawsuits arguing that these changes should have been underway upon the 1990 passage of the ADA).

But a glaring inequity remains: these considerations cater only to audiences, leaving people with disabilities grossly neglected when they’re the ones going onstage. The accommodations for Stroker have been merely reactionary; the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, which is staging Spring Awakening, renovated a first-floor dressing room and provided an accessible entrance and restroom only upon her casting. Other Broadway theaters, however, aren’t nearly so equipped.

“It reflects very clearly the idea of, What are [people with disabilities] going to get up on stage for?” says writer and disability activist Mike Ervin, whose plays focus on the shame associated with disabilities. “What do we have to say? We haven’t come close to accepting the other part of it because we’re just seen as people who don’t have really anything important to contribute.”

It’s a conundrum that reveals an oft-discussed vicious cycle: Performers with disabilities remain a minority in theater — and, for that matter, television and film — and when they don’t see themselves represented, they don’t feel there’s a place for them.

One reason for this, according to actor and activist Teal Sherer, is fear of the unfamiliar.

“I think when a lot of casting directors and producers see a disability, they think, Oh, this is going to be a lot of work. Or, Can you [the performer] do anything?” she says.

Ryan Keiffner and Teal Sherer in "Proof." Photo by Christopher Brown.
Ryan Keiffner and Teal Sherer in “Proof.” Photo by Christopher Brown.

Sherer, who uses a wheelchair, has a trove of stories to share about the discrimination she’s faced in her professional life. An example: Several years ago, she tried to audition for a soap commercial but couldn’t get into the room (the only entrance was a staircase). The casting directors asked her to meet them in the alley adjacent to the building; she complied. As part of the audition, she waved her hand in the air, only to discover that her palm and fingers had been grayed from maneuvering her chair along a surface covered in grime.

This event is depicted in Sherer’s web series, My Gimpy Life, a loosely autobiographical chronicle of the personal and professional experiences of an actor who uses a wheelchair. The series has proven one of the biggest boons of Sherer’s career; she’s received significant press for it, and it’s given her a platform through which to articulate the challenges unique to disabled performers — opportunities due in large part to taking an independent, auteur-like approach.

“I’ve produced a lot of my own stuff. I wanted to play the lead role of Catherine in the play Proof. And I knew that would never happen unless I did it on my own, so I produced the show myself. And I have my web series, where I’m the lead, and I produced it myself. I’ve kind of done this thing where I’m not going to wait for somebody to cast me in something. I’m going to do it myself,” she says.

Stroker agrees. “I think as performers with disabilities, it’s our job to make ourselves known, create our own work, get ourselves out there, be great directors and writers, and create opportunities for ourselves as well.”

Even when performers reach the point of the audition, according to Christine Bruno, an actor with cerebral palsy and disability advocate for the nonprofit Inclusion in the Arts, they continue to face a multitude of complications when they get through the door.



Julianne Tveten

Julianne Tveten

Julianne is a journalist in Los Angeles.