Today, audiences can see disabled comedians on stage more regularly thanks to the efforts of small theater companies such as The Apothetae, which produces works focused on the experience of disability; and Theater Breaking Through Barriers, an off Broadway organization that regularly recruits actors with disabilities.
But on Broadway, which may elevate shows to mainstream commercial successes, authentic depictions of disability are still scarce, said Talleri A. McRae, founder of the National Disability Theater.
There have been some successes. Ali Stroker made history in 2019 as the first wheelchair actor to win a Tony Award for his role as the alluring fiancée, Teen Annie, in “Oklahoma!”; Madison Ferris, who suffers from muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, played Laura in a 2017 production of “The Glass Menagerie”. There was also the casting of a disabled actor as Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol” in 2019; a 2015 revival of “Spring Awakening” by Deaf West Theater, which featured deaf and hearing actors side by side; as well as Pulitzer-winner Martyna Majok’s 2017 Off Broadway play, “Cost of Living,” on people with disabilities.
Even with these advancements, many characters with disabilities are not written in a well-rounded fashion, and actors without disabilities are often chosen for these roles, McRae said.
To her knowledge, the character of Nessarose in “Wicked” – who uses a wheelchair – has never been played by a disabled actress on Broadway, and the same is true of the character of Crutchie, who uses a crutch in the show “Newsies.”
“Look how far we haven’t gone,” said Gregg Mozgala, actor with cerebral palsy and founder and artistic director of the Apothetae. “Or how far we still have to go.”
Part of the problem is the inaccessibility of acting training programs, said Mozgala, who is also the director of inclusion for the Theater for All program at the Queens Theater, which helps support and train playwrights and actors. disabled. In his own acting program at Boston University School for the Arts, he was the only person who identified as having a disability and said that many actors with disabilities were asked not to attend certain classes, such as movement class, because teachers felt uncomfortable teaching students. with disabilities.