“Have you ever been hit?” a man named John asks his caregiver in “Cost of Living,” a new play by Martyna Majok. “That’s what it’s like,” he continues. “Like people hitting me from beneath my skin.”
John, a Ph.D. candidate in political science, has cerebral palsy. So does Gregg Mozgala, who portrays him in this Williamstown Theater Festival production running through July 10. Ani, another character, is played by Katy Sullivan, a professional actress who is a Paralympic medalist. Their casting — in a high-profile production that will end up at the Manhattan Theater Club — is a visible sign of change when it comes to performers with disabilities, who rarely appear onstage, even as stories of disability offer rich and, yes, prize-generating material for actors.
Ms. Sullivan, who was born without lower legs, doesn’t believe that able-bodied performers should be prevented from playing the disabled. She sees acting as “putting on someone else’s soul, putting on someone else’s life experiences and trying to be truthful about them, whether you’re disabled or not.” Still, she noted, “Using performers with disabilities brings a layer of authenticity that you don’t have to go searching for.”
The Deaf West Theater production of “Spring Awakening,” which earned enthusiastic reviews when it played on Broadway last season, may have excited new interest in casting actors with disabilities. The recently announced Broadway revival of “The Glass Menagerie” will co-star Madison Ferris, an actress who uses a wheelchair, as Laura Wingfield. “I Was Most Alive With You,” which just ran at the Huntington Theater Company in Boston, was written by Craig Lucas expressly for the deaf actor Russell Harvard.
This is not exactly business as usual. The past several Broadway seasons have included shows like “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” “Richard III,” “Of Mice and Men,” “The Elephant Man,” “Side Show” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” In these plays and musicals, able-bodied actors played characters with physical or cognitive disabilities. Other recent “Glass Menagerie” revivals have cast actresses who can leave Laura’s limp at the stage door. (Representatives for the coming production declined to comment on its casting.)
Recent conversations around this issue, in film and television as well as in theater, have become more contentious, with comparisons often drawn to traditions of blackface. As the journalist Frances Ryan wrote in an opinion piece for The Guardian last year, “Perhaps it is time to think before we next applaud ‘cripping up.’ Disabled people’s lives are more than something for non-disabled actors to play at.”
Or, as Howard Sherman, the interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, put it: “Playing someone with a disability should not be considered a talent or a skill for nondisabled actors. It should be considered taking a job away from someone with the unique life experiences to portray that role.”
The language around these issues is also fraught. If “disabled” remains the standard term, some artists and activists resist its connotation of impairment. (Many who are deaf would argue against deafness being construed as a disability, for example.) The term “differently abled” is a common alternative, though some prefer more individual vocabulary.