Brad Fraser: Did I get my play about disability ‘wrong’? No, but we need to talk about this

Jack McMullen, Greg Wise and Charlotte Harwood in Kill Me Now by Brad Fraser at London's Park Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Jack McMullen, Greg Wise and Charlotte Harwood in Kill Me Now by Brad Fraser at London's Park Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Editor’s note: This is a response to an article by Dea Birkett on the Guardian, itself a response to Brad Fraser’s play Kill Me Now. Usually a response article would be carried under the aegis of the original publisher. Finding that route closed, the playwright contacted The Stage and we are happy to give room to his views in the spirit of supporting an ongoing conversation – Paddy Smith, editor

I am a queer Metis person from a rough background. I grew up in roadside motels in northern British Columbia and attended a dizzying array of schools in my early years. The people I encountered during that time, and throughout my life, were young and old, good and bad, short and tall. They were able-bodied and disabled. They were male and female and trans, straight, gay, and queer, bi and asexual. Some were even straight, middle class and white, the group I least related to. They were my family, my friends, and the citizens of the many towns we passed through. And, like me, many of them were outsiders in some way.

Brad Fraser. Photo: David Hawe
Brad Fraser. Photo: David Hawe

I am a writer. I tell the stories of these people. Outsider stories. Our stories. Not once did it occur to me to ask if I had a ‘right’ to portray these people. Portraying people is what writers do. I chose to write for the theatre not only because of my love of the form but because it has always been the place where those who live on the margins of society are first able to share and find their voice.

In the context of my background and experience, I’m baffled by the judgmental tenor of the current controversy over physically-abled actors playing physically challenged characters. Not that we shouldn’t be having this discussion – of course we should – but let’s do it in a nuanced and pragmatic way.

Physical disability is a very broad spectrum. Each individual manifestation of disability has its own attributes. Theatre also has almost infinite variety. Each production has its own requirements. Each character has its own demands.

In the theatre, unlike the electronic media, an actor’s job is not just to act, but also to control the flow and pace of the play. What is seen onstage is only the tip of a much larger backstage iceberg of fast-paced manoeuvring that involves racing around in the dark, lightning-quick changes, and often a great deal of physical and mental dexterity. Actors, whether able-bodied or challenged, have to rise to these challenges, or the production will fail.

This is not to suggest that disabled actors can’t do theatre, but that the way in which it is done will vary greatly by individual and role, and – in the commercial theatre at least – this will always come down to a question of time and money.

Rejection, for actors, is an equal opportunity experience

Acting is one of the hardest professions in the world. Most of those in the business will know far more rejection than success. It doesn’t matter if you look the part, you’ve lived the part, or you are the part – the director and producers will go with whoever they think will lead to highest ticket sales, and 99% of the time the actor hired will not be you, regardless of race, gender, sex or physical capability. Rejection, for actors, is an equal opportunity experience.

Equating able-bodied actors playing physically challenged characters with historic blackface is a false equivalence. Disability, like queerness, is potentially found in everyone regardless of race or gender. Further complicating the issue, disability, like race and gender, is a mutable and evolving thing. Advanced prosthetics let people who were once considered disabled outperform the average able-bodied person. Intermarriage and the mixing of the races increasingly makes race and skin colour a more complicated issue. Gender is also fluid. Men can become women, women can become men and those who choose not to identify as either are fighting for their own recognition.

Can Othello only be played by someone who had two black parents? What if one parent was of another background? Just how black does Othello have to be? Conversely, it is equally valid to ask if Willy Loman has to have both of his hands, or if he has to be able to walk without an aid, if he has to be able to see or even if he has to be white.

Can the lead dancer in the chorus of the latest megamusical lead the troupe on advanced prosthetics rather than legs? How does a director communicate ideas to a deaf and mute actress who is playing Helen Keller? How versatile do the actors need to be in a single show; will they be playing multiple characters and how will that work? What if the character is only differently-abled for part of the narrative? Can a disabled actor play the able-bodied part as convincingly as an able-bodied actor can portray the disability? If Joey in Kill Me Now should only be played by an actor with a true physical challenge, then must the actor playing Jake also suffer from spinal stenosis?

The answers are not to be found in reductive comments on social media

The answers to these questions can only be found in the context of each individual production, process and performer, not in endless reductive comments in the corporate press and social media. They’ll only be found when the theatre truly opens itself up to the possibility of actors with physical disabilities playing parts where their physical ability is irrelevant or interpretational. Casting is all about context.

As for those who complain that plays like Kill Me Now don’t reflect the specific truth of their own experience with life or disability, and who denigrate the authenticity of challenging dramatic narratives that don’t tell the stories of their own less tragic lives, I would remind them that theatre is drama, drama needs conflict, and there aren’t a lot of successful plays about families who live conflict-free and carry on cheerfully despite difficulties. Criticizing my work for its dramatic failings is fair game, but criticizing it because it doesn’t tell the story of your particular personal experience speaks to a lack of understanding of how plays work and what they’re for, and, frankly, a rather telling narcissism. All dramatic characters are metaphorical constructs that serve the needs of a story. All artists work with their imaginations. To ask anyone to limit that imagination for political purposes seems to me the worst kind of oppression of all.

In the end, this is an important and necessary discussion, and one that I believe will eventually lead to positive change. But as we engage these issues let’s keep in mind that there is no blanket solution or easy answer. Solutions will only be found by considering specific performers in specific productions, not with the sweeping imposition of universal policies.

Context. It’s everything.