Disability in Performance: Questions and Conundrums

In a recent special edition of the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, Carrie Sandahl and Ann M. Fox ask an important question: 

Who gets to play disabled and to what end?
Sofia Fomina as Gilda and Dimitro Platanias as Rigoletto in Donizetti's Rigoletto at The Royal Opera House (2017). Photograph by Mark Douet.

Sofia Fomina as Gilda and Dimitro Platanias as Rigoletto in Donizetti's Rigoletto at The Royal Opera House (2017). Photograph by Mark Douet.

Many disability studies and performance scholars oppose the appropriation of the lived experience of disability and the often-derogatory mimicry of physical impairment by non-disabled performers. Others cite the associated overlooking of disabled performers in casting procedures for theatre and film. However, each solution to these various ‘problems’ of disability in live performance seems to present a unique set of challenges. Sandahl uses the term ‘representational conundrum’ to describe ‘challenging, puzzling, or paradoxical issues that are unique to or complicated by disability’s presence’.

The author also points to Socratic questioning as an important tool for working through issues surrounding disability and performance. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how my research raises many questions concerning the relationship between disability and performance.

Are opera companies aware of the issues surrounding disability representation in their productions?

Why do opera companies so often resort to disability mimicry (or ‘cripping up’) in their productions?

Should these companies cast disabled characters authentically?

Does it matter if the disability of a performer matches that of a character?

What further challenges arise from the process of authentic casting?

Should operas with negative disability representation be performed at all?

If so, do production teams have a responsibility to challenge negative stereotypes and other forms of narrative representation?

Treshelle Edmond, Ali Stroker, Amelia Hensley and Lauren Luiz in  Deaf West Theatre 's  Spring Awakening (2015) . Photo by Joan Marcus.

Treshelle Edmond, Ali Stroker, Amelia Hensley and Lauren Luiz in Deaf West Theatre's Spring Awakening (2015). Photo by Joan Marcus.


I’m becoming more and more aware that proffering answers to such questions lies beyond the scope of this work. This is due to the fact that this area of research is highly subjective, and that answers to the question of representation will never satisfy universally. Disability is contextually defined and constantly in flux, and as such, shifting ideas about what disability is further complicates the question posed by Sandahl and Fox.

The field of disability studies offers a theoretical framework that can enable us to have discussions about disability’s presence in opera narratives.  The field performance studies opens up further avenues of exploration regarding the nature of disability in performance on the operatic stage. But these perspectives can only take us so far. More importantly, there is a need to acknowledge the voices and engage in dialogues with those with real-world lived experience of both disability and operatic performance. Only the insights and experiences of such stakeholders can offer plausible solutions to these problems. Considering the experiences of those, like Weston Hurt, who have direct experience of the often-gruelling casting procedures for opera, we might be able to begin forming more nuanced arguments about disabled mimicry and authentic casting, as well as the representational conundrums that they pose.