Simon Startin is a freelance theatre-maker and activist of some twenty years standing. He talks about his moves to stir the National Theatre and the RSC to take action in supporting the work of disabled creatives.
Sometimes you just need to get out of bed. You’ve been dealt this hand called disability and the rest of the world seems to wince and tssk at it. Indeed, the rest of the world are frightened of you; what you represent.
So, its probably a bad idea to be an actor, right? Put yourself about a bit, display your assets? Actors are purveyors of surface; blonde, black, tall, short, man, woman, old, young...disabled? Actors are a tick box for hire surely, and disability is not a box that has quite made it to the brochure.
However, something went wrong with me. I just didn’t listen; not to worried parents, not to po-faced casting directors, not to the drama schools that offered me a place provided I was cured before September. And for 20 years I have scratched out a living as a grey tick box on the margins of culture.
Then one day I just exploded. Stuff this for a game of soldiers, I said, I am going to email Nicholas Hytner, (the Artistic Director of the National Theatre). Wasn’t it about time that we crips were centre stage? You had all seen us at the Paralympics; we were a fairly fascinating bunch. The model of not employing disabled actors had been very successful, with lots of lovely acclaim and applause, but perhaps it was time to do the exact opposite. I was ignored.
So I cc’d the Arts Council, and I was still ignored. However, 20 years in the game had given me a few phone numbers and eventually I ended up face to face with Wendy Spon, Head of Casting. I explained she was looking in the wrong places to find disabled actors. The routine places where you discover us are simply inaccessible in every sense. Either physically in the case of Fringe venues where young actors might make their mark, or institutionally as in Drama schools where they are happy to take the lottery money for their buildings on the back of accessibility, but balk at actually opening their doors, or in the deep down aesthetics and ideas of what currently theatre is believed to be.
She suggested that the National Theatre join forces with the RSC to hold a General Audition for Disabled Actors. It felt like a sticking plaster on a gaping wound, but it might end up as the start of something. So the great and the good of Disability theatre filed before their eyes, many old hands, some new faces, and had their moment to shine in a small room in SE1. And that was that. Those actors have now been seen by the Nash. Which leaves me with the question of how change actually happens?
The Unlimited model commissions specific projects with disabled artists in the driving seat, creating little pieces of time that will linger in the memory of the audience, hopefully for the rest of their lives, possibly only as far as the bar. Or this General Audition, that lies now in the seethingly populous and mysteriously capricious mind of a casting director, both an advocate and a gate keeper. What legacy to that? Well, the National have now started to call disabled actors in. They now know where they live. Indeed Kiruna Stamell has been cast in a forthcoming production. All gratifying, but not yet a sea change.
We are, frankly, engaged in a war of attrition on many fronts, and I suspect, like all struggles for equality, it will be unending. The problem with entering the mainstream for actors is that we may have to dance with the Devil a little, surrounding ourselves with their aesthetics in the hope that we can somehow subvert them.
However, my hope is the Unlimited model and my tunnelling model coalesce. That the leaders of Disability theatre supported by Unlimited will take the reins within the mainstream venues and bring our work, our voice, our aesthetics centre stage, uncompromised and vibrant.
Moreover, that they go on to become the gatekeepers that allow future disabled theatre makers into these flagship theatres, unencumbered by the institutional prejudice we currently have to deal with.
For disabled actors now, it is important to continue engagement with Wendy Spon at the National Theatre (wspon[at]nationaltheatre.org.uk) and Hannah Miller at the RSC (hannah.miller[at]rsc.org.uk), inviting them to see your work and suggesting yourself for suitable roles. Furthermore there are opportunities for activism in the Television industry through the new Act for Change project.
My experience is that if we articulate ideas well, and advocate the artistic opportunities, then there is an appetite to engage. And the deeper and more sustained this engagement the greater dividends it pays. Not an overnight sea change, but slow, often laborious attrition.
However, it does mean feeling the fear and doing it anyway, it means down playing ‘them and us’ arguments, however valid. It means leading rather than following. And sometimes it means getting out of bed. Though not today; this article being written from the ample comfort of the aforesaid bed, ably assisted by a cup of tea and two chocolate digestives.