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Belgian MIF show rewrites character due to concerns about portrayal of disabled role

Tuesday by Studio Orka at Manchester International Festival 2019. Photo: Chris Payne
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A Belgian theatre company has been forced to change the portrayal of a disabled character after Manchester International Festival said the production could not go ahead with a non-disabled actor playing the role.

MIF has said it is the festival’s policy that disabled characters should be played by disabled actors, to ensure disabled actors are given first priority in casting for those roles and to “create authentic representation”.

The festival is a co-commissioner of the show, Tuesday, which was developed and rehearsed in Belgium by theatre company Studio Orka.

John McGrath, MIF’s artistic director and chief executive, said: “As co-commissioners, when we became aware in a run-through in Belgium that a disabled character in Tuesday would be played by a non-disabled actor, we asked for the part to be recast as it is against MIF’s policies for a non-disabled actor to play the role of a disabled person.

“Studio Orka, whose work is devised with its actors, felt this would not be possible and suggested the character be changed to someone who has a serious injury and makes a full recovery over time.

“While we felt this wasn’t ideal, we agreed to this change to ensure that the show, of which we are in general very proud and which has many wonderful elements – including the involvement of a large community cast – could go ahead.”

McGrath argued that until disabled actors are considered equally for all roles, they should be given first priority in casting where disabled people are represented.

He added: “It’s also important to have the voices of disabled artists, writers and performers in the room to create authentic representation. As an international festival working with organisations and artists around the world we hope we are in a position to help move the agenda forward.”

Artistic director of Studio Orka, Martine Decroos, said: “It is clear that there are huge cultural differences between the UK and Flanders [in Belgium], more specifically for the representation of the character Stella as a disabled person.

“After reading and hearing more about it we realised that the issue is very delicate and that people in the UK have very strong opinions on it. Studio Orka wants to express that we have respect for these points of view and we don’t want to minimise the problem at all.”

Decroos said that Studio Orka felt the compromise had been “made in the right way” with respect for both “[the company’s] artistic freedom and for the approach of the UK”.

She added: “The most interesting part of it is, that after all, it opened our eyes and that we’ve been talking about it in a very honest and artistic way.”

Tuesday runs as part of Manchester International Festival at Saint Augustine’s Church until July 21.

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