This is part two of my recent conversation with actor and disability activist Beth Hinton-Lever. In part one, we covered Beth’s career to date, as well as box ticking and virtue signalling in the theatre industry. Our discussion often gravitated towards related ideas about disability and casting, particularly two key issues: 1) the lack of disability representation on stage and screen, and 2) the lack of authentic representation in narratives about disability.

Despite having grown up performing, Beth didn’t often see herself represented on the stage.

“I never even saw someone like me, in fact, I never saw any disabled person on stage that I was aware of. If I had been working with professionals who looked like me, I think it would have changed my career path. I would have felt the confidence to audition [for drama school] at eighteen and it would have shown me that there was a place for me in this industry.”

Beth has gone on to develop a successful career in both disability-led and so-called ‘mainstream’ theatre. She tells me about a defining experience in 2019, when she played Anybodys (Susan Oakes) in a production of West Side Story directed by Nikolai Foster for CURVE Leicester. In the musical, Anybodys is a tomboy who desperately longs for acceptance as a member of the Jets, but she is shunned by the group. She is othered not only by her gender non-conforming appearance but because she doesn’t perform socially in the way girls are often expected to. This is something Beth identifies with – she describes ‘being disabled and a girl and not acting the way people want me to, not crying all the time. People expect me to be sad that I have one arm’. Although she originally auditioned for a different role, Beth insisted on her suitability for the role to both Foster and the production’s casting director, saying ‘she’s written for people like me – people from the fringes of society!’

Poster for CURVE Leceister's production of West Side Story, with the title in red graffiti agains a black and white image of a bridge support, next to which a group of young people are gathered.
Poster for CURVE Leceister’s production of West Side Story, with the title in red graffiti agains a black and white image of a bridge support, next to which a group of young people are gathered.

In the show’s script, the Jet boys call Anybodys a freak. They say ‘what’s the freak know?’ As the only disabled actor in the production, coming across this line in the first read-through with her castmates was a critical moment:

“It really knocked me. That word is horrible and it carries weight for many in the disability community. It’s been yelled at me and has been used against me. Nicolai gave me the option to remove it, and that’s not the done thing, it’s Sondheim, you can’t change the script! But I said ‘no-no, we have to keep it in.’ Everyone in the room stopped and was like ‘oh god’. But that reaction – the fact that a group of able-bodied people sat there and said ‘that’s not OK’ – that’s why we do what we do! That’s why authentic casting is so good. We don’t have to shy away from this disgusting word and this ableism. We can use it to show people how horrible it is.”

Beth explains that this line is usually interpreted comedically in productions of the musical, but it was important to her that this was a weighty moment. Her presence on stage as a visibly disabled performer brought new significance to the moment and solicited gasps, tears, and nervous laughs from the audience. All in all, Beth’s lived experience enabled her to interpret the character of Anybodys in a unique way and lend fresh perspective to the role, which is often the case when productions cast diversely and inclusively.

“I don’t play disabled roles. I play characters and they happen to be disabled because I’m disabled. Every character I’ve ever played has been disabled. Sometimes they’re written that way (such as Long John Silver or Janine from Reasons to be Cheerful), but not always.”

Onstage in West Side Story, Hinton-Lever is dressed in jeans and yellow trainers and laughs as she is carried across the stage by a similarly-dressed member of the Jets.
Hinton-Lever as Anybodys in West Side Story at CURVE Leicester. She is dressed in jeans and yellow trainers and laughs as she is carried across the stage by a similarly-dressed member of the Jets. Photo: Camilla Greenwell.

Yet, while casting talented performers in a range of roles creates richer dramatic moments across the board, the opportunities of disabled performers are often hindered by the prevalence of disability mimicry (often known as ‘cripping up’) in film, TV and theatre.

“I just wish we were at a point where able-bodied actors would turn down disabled roles. Like, if I got offered Nala in The Lion King, I would not take that role. We’re not at a point yet where people don’t see disability as a costume. They see it as a challenge. Upsettingly, Hollywood is making this worse. The people who play disabled are getting rewarded.”

Conversations disability mimicry and authentic casting have reemerged in the popular press recently. The Telegraph published an article entitled ‘Cripping up’ is just as unacceptable as blackface, says Sally Phillips. The article in question has become the most recent addition to the echo chamber of protests against this problematic practice, citing the lack of disability representation in film and TV and barriers to participation in the industry with reference to the 2019 annual Diamond Report published by the Creative Diversity Network. The article didn’t make any profound additions to the conversation on this topic: few people are likely to disagree with the idea that ‘You shouldn’t be stopped from working in TV because you literally can’t get in the building.’ However, some of the responses it generated on Twitter were striking. The often maligned and frequently misguided Piers Morgan weighed in by stating that ‘All acting is bloody acting. This woke nonsense has to stop before it destroys everything.’ Along similar lines, others weighed in with the suggestion that pregnant characters should only be played by pregnant actors. These counterarguments overlook the crux of the issue: that disabled performers exist, they are trained and they are talented, but they are frequently overlooked in favour of able-bodied performers.

In a week where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced new representation and inclusion standards for Oscars eligibility (deemed ‘sweeping but safe’ by the New York Times), there are signs that this conversation is beginning to gain momentum. In order to “reflect our diverse global population in both the creation of motion pictures and in the audiences who connect with them”, films need to meet two of the four standards:

  • On-screen representation, themes and narratives

  • Creative leadership and project team

  • Industry access and opportunities

  • Audience development

The standards can be satisfied by including people with cognitive or physical disabilities, deaf or hard of hearing individuals, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community and people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

While these new standards are welcome in their ability to generate new conversation surrounding diversity and inclusion in film and TV, there’s still a long way to go. Firstly, disability mimicry isn’t exclusive to portrayals of disability on film and in TV, the lack of CGI and other special effects in live, staged performances mean that the issues surrounding disability mimicry are complicated, as I’ve discussed in my previous post on disability mimicry.

Disabled performers often face barriers to the stage as well as the screen, and it’s important that conversations around problematic casting practices don’t overlook what Carrie Sandahl refers to as the ‘double bind’ for disabled performers: that they must fight ‘to be cast in roles that resemble their own identities and to be cast in roles that do not’. In the real world, disabled people are villains, victims and everything in between, yet disabled characters rarely move beyond these representational poles. There’s a very real need for the development of new narratives about disability, and more importantly, it’s crucial that theatre-makers include the communities that they are writing about in the creative process.

To wrap up, I asked Beth what she thought about the progress that’s been made to date, and where we are in terms of addressing disability representation in the theatre…

“We’ve come a long way in the last ten years, but we’ve got so far to go! If I’m realistic, I don’t think we’ll get to a point in my career span where we’re doing enough or thinking enough or being kind enough, but I like to think that there will be more of these conversations happening and that no person will not see themselves in an honest true light on stage. I want disabled people to see themselves in roles they didn’t think they’d get to, ever.”

Share this article:

Similar Posts