The Drama of Enabling the Disabled

Rodney Bell
Sins Invalid 2008


Disabled people are underrepresented in the world of theater. From stage invisibility to audience adaptation, San Francisco Bay Area theaters still have to go a long way to give disabled the enabling role they deserve and make them an active part of the community they claim to build. 

Theater often resort to the term community to talk about themselves and the people they address through their activities. Looking the websites of the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T), the San Francisco Playhouse and Sins Invalid, we see that mainstream theaters continue to ignore disability at all levels, from performers and shows to ticketing. In theater, the cause for enabling the disabled still remains in the hands of the disabled themselves.

Performance projects taking over Theater “for all”

Comparing theater and performance projects points to the fact that theater is “for all” when performances are for the underrepresented. Are theaters really “for all” then?  A.C.T and the San Francisco Playhouse, may not have the same size but they share a comparable activity in terms of theatrical production. Set in their own houses, their mission is to embody everyone in a given local area. The community depicted on both websites is linked to a geographical concern. Sins Invalid for its part, has no specific house and is actually a performance project whose mission is not to consider a geographical community but to insist on the representation of everyone. The project claims to promote non-normative artists such as invalids. Sins Invalid’s mission is to accept all marginal people. They thus consider disabled people, black people and queer on the same level.

Staging the Disabled

Maria Palacio
Sins Invalid 2009


Through the representation of the underrepresented, the original project of Sins Invalid enables the staging of disabled performers. The different performers are given a particular section on Sins Invalid’s website. It features their identity, their characteristics, their works. The discourse on community of Sin Invalid’s website reveals that “Community” refers to the underrepresented. The disabled are part of this broader group of the marginalized. Rather than being a shame, describing their difference is turned into a strength. It enables them to claim their ability and legitimacy on stage. Four performers out of 11 are presented as disabled artists in 2009: Leroy F. Moore Jr. and Mat Fraser are physically disabled and Antoine-Devinci Hunter is deaf. Maria Palacio’s disability is implicitly evoked with the title of her book The Goddess on Wheels. She can be recognized thanks to her wheelchair on one of the performance pictures. Disability is also staged as a theme, for people to deal with the taboo topic as emphasized on one of the pictures of the season: The performers are dressed as patients in a hospital, the place where disability is medically testified.

Closing the stage curtain down on disability

By not putting disable people on stage, mainstream theaters continue to make disability a taboo. Remaining silent on the subject, they still have a lot to improve so as to avoid building discriminations in theater. A.C.T and the San Francisco Playhouse have a lack of discourse on disability which is a witness for its lack of consideration. Though the theaters’ websites do not provide much information about their performers and one is merely provided the names of the actors and performers in the cast without any further description, disabled people are completely absent of these casts. Even when disability is the major topic of an upcoming play, the show’s description does not point to it. The San Francisco Playhouse thus manages to advertise the play “Colossal” written by Andrew Hinderaker without underlining the role of a quadriplegic character. Not to mention that the discourse on community being very poor in the cast section the disabled cannot be associated to such a community.

Facilitating Limited Access

wheelchair accessibleTheaters and Performance projects are both aiming at facilitating limited access but their objectives are not the same. ACT and the San Francisco Playhouse seem to simply abide by the law when Sins Invalid considers the particularities of its members. Even when no upcoming play is announced, and thus the box office is inactive, Sins Invalid is committed to the disabled accessibility to the organization’s activities. When registering for a workshop activity, people have to describe their ability in order for the organizer to make the place accessible to everyone. As a comparison, the box office section of the A.C.T and the San Francisco Playhouse provide very little information on disability. Only physical disability is concerned as the seating chart of the websites indicate special seats for disabled people in wheelchairs. The topic of disability is given no textual weight and remains relegated to the world of symbols with a little wheelchair on a chart. The number of seats with this symbol corresponds to what the law recommends.

In short

Tracking the notion of community some theaters have constructed through their mission statements, their shows, and their performers, points to the striking invisibility of the disabled. Disabled people’s participation to the theater is limited to dedicated artistic organizations like Sins Invalid. This organization does not consider disabled people as a community per se, but rather as members of the group of the marginal people that actually need to be integrated to a larger social community. Mainstream theaters, such as A.C.T and the San Francisco Playhouse, do not consider the disabled as a specific group requiring particular attention. Consequently they neither have productions nor special ticketing measures for them. Nor do they neither consider them as target audience members. Required by law, they merely implement the needed adaptations to make room for a few people of the group to be properly welcomed in their houses. As part of a group of the marginalized, disabled people are thus only taken into account when they are the main concern of theaters, who then aim at integrating the marginalized in a larger community.
Peña’s study on the struggle of women in work placement, has shown that marginals are considered as lacking some values and skills that prevent them to gather with others in a community. Marginal people are actually set apart from a community. Sins Invalid’s mission is thus of prime utility. The community they are aiming at building  is not that of the marginals but the group from which these are excluded from. If as Kavolis says, “artistic creativity will tend to be stimulated in the phase of social emotional integration,” then theater by offering a place where the disabled is fully expresses their creativity can help to reintegrate the disabled in the society.


Capture d’écran 2For a definition of disability look at:
Census Bureau_Americans with disabilities 2010_Report

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