Disabled people are under-represented in theatre with the diversity agenda focusing far more on boosting black and female roles, argues Athena Stevens. This needs to change if true inclusivity is to be achieved
Becoming the first individual in a wheelchair to be nominated for an Olivier award prompted me to think long and hard about the industry.
Since graduating, I have spent 12 years working as a writer and an actor trying to ‘break in’ whenever I can. I was never going to settle for being a ‘disabled playwright’ or working as a diversity token. My goal was always mainstream work, to be seen as an artistic equal.
With an Olivier nomination recognising my work as both an actor and a writer, you would think I’d have done it. And yet I still don’t have an acting agent. I’m lucky if I get seen for one audition a year, which is usually for a Jack Thorne script.
I have never performed in a theatre with an accessible dressing room. The last networking event I went to, a fellow actor wondered out loud: “Who let the retard into the room?”
In 2007, I dropped out of the three-year BA acting course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland when teachers kept insisting that I sit to the side and “watch the other students juggle, because if you keep watching maybe you’ll learn something”. So much for the industry making strides towards inclusion.
A few years ago, Thorne said in an interview that “disability is being left out of every diversity conversation” in the arts. And on every level he is right – from a lack of affordable, accessible rehearsal spaces to new theatres having the gall to ask for funding while making no provisions for wheelchair access backstage.
Disability is defined under the 2010 Equality Act as a “physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities”. Citing this description, an ECHR report to the UN identified that almost 50% of people of pensionable age in the UK were disabled, as were 19% of working-age adults.
So, if we are seeking out truthful representation on our stages then it would follow that every cast larger than four people that does not include a person with a disability is simply not reflecting reality. We are here to hold a mirror up to the world, not simply the bits of it we want to see.
And yet brilliant West End shows, heralded for their diversity and lauded for being progressive such as Company, Tina, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, seemingly defy statistics by having large-scale ensembles without any disability in sight. Somehow the National’s Olivier stage can be filled to the brim with able-bodied actors and nobody thinks to call it what it is: a statistical miracle.
Company, for example, is meant to be a story that every woman can relate to with its new female lead, yet with all the creative casting there is still no one on that stage who looks like me. I think it’s important to note that while many people are doing their best with race or with women’s stories, disability isn’t being touched at all by the West End. If even the ‘progressive’ shows aren’t touching disability, what path is there for disability representation in more traditional West End shows?
“We’re getting there,” people tell me, wishing that I looked on the bright side a little more. And I agree, we are getting there indeed. My own work has grown and flourished so much in the past three years that I’m well aware of the changing tide.
But more often than not, theatremakers use the talents of those of us with disabilities as a one-time deal, a sort of tick-box exercise to show that they have ‘done disability’.
We are getting there. But, many of our Arts Council England-funded institutions are not setting any disability and diversity targets. If we are not measuring progress in concrete data and quotas – for example, one in 100 performers should have a disability – then progress is easy to claim.
If the aim is simply to improve and you don’t have quantifiable targets to aim for, it means any movement will be lauded. Improvement may be seen simply by programming a production like Jellyfish or a show written by Jack Thorne.
A target of casting one artist with a disability whatever the show would be an improvement. The National Theatre has published its 2021 diversity goals but, unlike with race and gender, they omit any specific numeric targets around disability.
“So make your own work,” I’m told as someone who has been blessed with the skills to write a good script and carry myself on stage. But while creating your own work seems to present a solution of meritocracy, it is ignorant of the level of systematic discrimination that our industry presents very talented artists.
There is no entry-level new-writing theatre that is accessible backstage. Most are, of course, pub theatres that are up a flight of stairs, and therefore a playwright who happens to use a wheelchair can’t see her own work. To say nothing about the fact that the Olivier Awards’ red carpet at the Royal Albert Hall is also… up a flight of stairs.
Yes, we are getting there. Yes, gatekeepers to the industry are (slowly) becoming aware of the need to see performers with genuine disabilities onstage. Yes, many people are trying. But without some very basic and specific policy changes initiated by West End producers, mainstream theatre boards and practitioners who hold a position of privilege in this industry, we are not moving towards inclusivity, we are moving towards tokenism.
Tokenism is always the opposite of creativity. Someone with cerebral palsy being nominated for an Olivier award should not be remarkable. We have the freedom and the obligation in this industry to accurately reflect both the majesty and the fragility of the human condition.
Disability is very much a part of both. Every time a large ensemble production lacks a disabled performer, every time a new theatre is built without a lift backstage, every time we define artists by their disabilities and not their talents, it represents a failure of imagination on our part.
In between nominations and the Olivier ceremony, I exchanged emails with Society of London Theatre chief executive Julian Bird and other employees of SOLT with the aim of making the ceremony, which was never intended for someone like me, as accessible as possible. Together, we thought through everything we would need in place for the night’s possible and probable outcome.
The next time someone with a disability is nominated, the groundwork is laid for whatever their access needs are. This is the level of excellence in inclusion that theatre is capable of on its most elite evening. If inclusion is possible at the Oliviers, there is no reason we cannot be inclusive at every level of this industry.
Someone with a disability being nominated for an Olivier award should not be remarkable. Or amazing. Or unheard of. Or even inspirational. It should be normal.
Athena Stevens was nominated for an Olivier award for Schism at London’s Park Theatre in the outstanding achievement in affiliate theatre category