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Rufus Norris: Casting from inner circle has been barrier to disabled actors

Rufus Norris. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Rufus Norris has revealed he likes nearly half of his casts to be made up of actors he knows personally or has worked with before.

The National Theatre director made the admission during a panel event on the cultural legacy of the Paralympics, and said the theatre industry needed to work to get deaf and disabled actors into directors’ inner circles.

Discussing the lack of disabled actors cast in mainstream theatre, Norris suggested they could be being excluded because they do not have the right connections.

“You know what, there’s a really simple thing, which is that as a director – I don’t know if I’m typical or not – if I’ve got 10 parts, I want four of them to be my mates,” he said.

He explained: “I want to be in a room where there’s, not a majority, but a strong number number of people in there who get me. So that when things get really crappy towards the end [of rehearsals], and everybody thinks: ‘He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,’ there’s enough people in there to say: ‘It always happens like this.’”

“Which means that if deaf and disabled actors aren’t your mates, you don’t know them, then that’s already 40% of the cast that is out of the window,” he added.

Norris, who has previously conceded to having “a shit record” on disabled casting [1], worked with a disabled performer for the first time in 2015 when he cast Kiruna Stamell in Everyman – his first production as director of the National Theatre.

He has also since worked with Jamie Beddard, currently starring in Norris’ production of The Threepenny Opera, and told the panel he now counted Beddard among the “mates” he would be more likely to cast in the future.

“Next time, I will think of Jamie, I won’t think: ‘I need some disabled performers,’” he explained, before adding: “It becomes personal – and that’s the way our industry works. I think we could do a lot of work on literally getting people on to directors’ lists of mates.”

The discussion, held by Graeae Theatre Company, also saw actor Nicola Miles-Wildin criticise the practise of “cripping up”, where non-disabled performers play disabled characters.

Miles-Wildin, known for her role in the Paralympic Opening Ceremony as Miranda, said the practice took roles away from disabled performers who are underrepresented on stage and screen.

She said: “A lot of actors say: ‘Yeah, but that’s what actors do, it’s about playing someone who’s not you.’ And I get that, but I will stop shouting about it when disabled actors have the same opportunities as non-disabled actors – when I can go up for a role that is a non-disabled character and be there among non-disabled actors.”

“My life is not reflected on stage or screen anywhere, I’m just begging for it to happen,” she added.

Graeae artistic director Jenny Sealey also took part in the discussion at the National Theatre, alongside performers Mat Fraser and John Kelly.