There was a lot in the media last week, centred on Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Dr Stephen Hawking in 'The Theory of Everything'. Newsnight covered it with an interview with the US disabled actor RJ Mitte - star of 'Breaking Bad'.
Frances Ryan's critical response to news of a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination for Redmayne on the Guardian’s comment is free pages was to say: “while ‘blacking up’ is rightly now greeted with outrage, ‘cripping up’ is still greeted with awards.”
A debate followed on Dao’s FB group. Lloyd Coleman argued that he saw that it is important for high profile roles to be given to disabled actors. He qualified the opinion saying: “Frances Ryan makes some valid points, but also makes a fundamental error in comparing the portrayal of disabled characters by non-disabled actors to the (rightly) outdated and unacceptable act of 'blacking up'. The latter is offensive because the colour of one's skin is a matter of race, which doesn't alter over the course of a life time. Men playing female roles (or vice versa) would also be considered absurd in a conventional 21st century drama."
"But 'disability' is a much more fluid area, in terms of what it means for the identity of the individual concerned. If it is unacceptable for Eddie Redmayne to play Stephen Hawking, does that mean it is always unacceptable for an able-bodied actor to play a visually impaired person for example? No, just as we would like it to be commonplace for visually impaired actors (or any other disabled actor for that matter) to play so-called 'able-bodied' characters, if they were suitable for the role. By the same principles, would we want all straight actors to only play straight parts, and all gay actors to play only homosexuals? Again, I don't think so."
"Acting is the art of portraying a character, who may well have very different attributes to you. I have seen 'The Theory of Everything', and it tells the story of Stephen Hawking's life from his student days, before the onset of motor neurone disease. So practically speaking, the film also required an actor who would be able to show this, which I think Eddie Redmayne does remarkably well.”
Bob Findlay-Williams argued in response: “Frances Ryan collapses two very important issues into one badly articulated argument. Casting actors needs to be done in relation to a given character. In terms of this film it makes perfect sense for an actor who can portray a person with and without a specific impairment, therefore, casting Redmayne makes sense. This is a different issue to the historical tendency of overlooking disabled actors in favour of non-disabled ones. It isn't about disabled or gays only playing disabled or gay parts. It is about negative attitudes which reinforce institutional discrimination and leads to the underemployment of disabled actors.
"Of course quotas and 'politically correct' solutions aren't the answer: writing decent scripts, casting disabled actors in non-stereotyped roles would be a good starting point, but the best solution of all would be to create an inclusive society where disabled actors would be reflecting a wider reality of opportunity.”
I would follow what Findlay implies is the real problem in terms of reinforcing discrimination with what I thought was the most coherent argument in Ryan’s column. Christopher Shinn is quoted as saying: “the act of watching a disabled character being played by an actor who we know is really fit and well, allows society’s ‘fear and loathing around disability’ to be ‘magically transcended’… pop culture is more interested in disability as a metaphor than in ‘disability’ as something that happens to real people”.
I think there is a truism here. It’s the sentimentality that surrounds the depiction of disabled people; even when the depictions are not just utterly erroneous bad acting. (My no 1. hated portrayal is Russell Crowe as John Nash in 'A Beautiful Mind'). Anyone with a daily lived experience of impairment would know that 'The Theory of Everything' is a fairy tale, and that the truth of Hawking’s fight to life and to acclaim would be far more harrowing than Hollywood’s interpretation of the story.
But, then, is that how we would want our own story to be protrayed? Whether or not it is valid to criticise in terms of identity poitics or in terms of discrimination, I don’t believe anyone can gainsay Hawking’s own validation of 'The Theory of Everything', allowing copyright to use his synthesised voice, as reported on biography.com.
Many would have watched and enjoyed the film, as an entertaining piece of escapism. Whether or not it’s ‘Art’ is a very different conversation.
Firstly I’d like to wish a Happy New Year to all Dao’s readers and contributors. Last year we got out and about a fair bit, spreading the word about the disabled artists who engage with the disability arts sector through being a part of events, over and above the usual work we do of reporting on events and supporting artists through networking.
Firstly last June there was DaisyFest in Guildford, which featured two of Dao’s writers Penny Pepper and Allan Sutherland. Both Penny’s intimate Lost in Spaces - a poetic, musical journey through a personal history of the Disability Arts Movement and Allan’s extract from Neglected Voices: Proud were examples of the importance of persisting to assert the human rights element of our art form.
Later that month I gave a presentation of Dao's work at the Senseability conference organised by Tanvir Bush at Bath Spa University. It was a great pleasure to talk about some of the work we’ve featured over the last 10 years and explain something of Dao’s role to assist in facilitating networks and to support emerging disabled writers and artists through our blogs and our programme of commissioning writing on the arts and disability.
Last August Dao was invited to host another poetry event at Together! in Newham, where Wendy Tongue and Bonk Bipolar took to the stage with elements of the craft they’ve been developing through their respective blogs on Dao. There was further endorsement of their talent with invitations for further performances and workshops with the grassroots disability arts organisation.
On 3 September we ran Perceptions of Difference - a poetry event at the Saison Poetry Library in programmed to coincide with the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre. Having had a longstanding connection with Survivors’ Poetry, it was a fantastic achievement for me personally to introduce four poets who’ve been cornerstones of the movement: Hilary Porter, John O’Donoghue, Debjani Chatterjee and Frank Bangay.
Head Librarian Chris McCabe said of the event: “It's very unusual to have an event of so few poets which can suggest so much about the possibilities of poetry.”
It has been an ongoing pleasure to be a named media partner for Unlimited. Dao was the seventh top referral to the Southbank Centre’s website during the festival from 2-7 September, not accounting for the drive we did through our social media and weekly bulletin.
As the Unlimited programme develops through 2015/ 16 we will see new and further embedded partnerships beginning to ensure the programmes’ influence grow beyond London showcasing disabled artists creating extraordinary work.
It was great to see many of the artists given a platform at DaDaFest who are also an Unlimited partner. Last December the festival featured one of the main commissions Owen Lowery with Otherwise Unchanged, plus several of the research and development projects: notably Jess Thoms aka Touretteshero with Backstage in Biscuit Land, Ailís Ní Ríain with her extraordinary cross art form Hieronymous Bosch-influenced The Drawing Rooms, and Kazzum Theatre’s promenade performance piece Where’s My Nana
DaDaFest was particularly memorable for the International Congress that was a major part of the programme, bringing disabled artists from across the globe, to coincide with the International Day of Disabled People.
A quote from mainstream freelance writer Bella Todd who we engaged last year to help us spread the word about Unlimited to the wider press sums up something of our aspiration to keep going in 2015:
“Many national, international and mainstream publications would envy the scale, quality and consistency of community engagement Disability Arts Online fosters on both its main website and through its social media channels.
Its writers, bloggers and readers (among whom there's an important degree of crossover) engage in an ongoing discourse that's at once supportive, argumentative, personal, politicised and teeming with individuality. That's no mean editorial feat. The quality and breadth of the debate will always make Dao pertinent and provocative reading for the wider world.
As a platform for giving a community a powerful, purposeful yet individuated voice, it's also a site to which more media outlets and organisations could do with paying attention.
We know we’ve got a fight to survive in the year ahead. We are under threat from measures designed by people in power who really basically don’t have a clue. Let’s come together and use Dao as platform to get our voices heard and to challenge top-down ignorance
We know we’ve got a fight to survive in the year ahead. Many of our artists, dependent on the Independent Living Fund are under attack. We need to come together creatively and positively to challenge the threat we are under from measures designed by people in power who basically don’t seem to have little clue about the real world.
The letter I received personally from my own MP to complain about the closure of the ILF said:
“...Ministers have considered the implications of the fund and have undertaken a new equality analysis and gathered further evidence. Following this, the Government has decided to close the ILF on 30th June 2015. This will provide disabled people with choice and control over their care within the mainstream system, with local authorities responsible for meeting the care of support needs of ILF users in England. Local authorities will be funded so that they will be abler to meet their new responsibilities towards ILF users. Awards will be maintained for current users until the ILF closes.”
We’ve got six months to raise a fuss and ensure that our voices are heard above those who may possibly in all sincerity believe that the closure of the ILF will provide disabled people with choice and control!
Join DPAC for a Mass Action to save the ILF, Tuesday, January 6th 1.30pm for 2pm start. House of Commons, SWIA 0AA OR Join Online. DPAC have prepared a webpage with tweets on that you can use. For more information please click here to go to the DPAC website