Post image for Cross the Body Boundary

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Survive | Thrive} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.) 

“Crossing borders.” When theatre people hear or read this term, my hunch is that many may have the initial reaction of thinking about geography or culture.  “We’re crossing borders by collaborating with an exotic troupe halfway around the world.” Or, “We’re venturing out to mingle with the homeless population living right outside our stage door, with whom we have no relationship.”

Are these admirable and necessary border crossings? Yes. But for me, something more intrinsic comes to mind. Not a crossing of country demarcations or language barriers, but of BODIES: crossing over the boundary of what types of physical body we envision, expect, or assign to perform our theatrical art form.

Theatre has begun to chip away at the Body Boundary. Years ago, the expected theatrical body was male, and now we see female bodies represented. Or the expected body was white or beige, and now – thankfully – theatres are expanding into all shades and tones. And we have diversity of language and culture represented in theatre. Not adequately enough yet, but working on it.

But there’s one type of Body Boundary that theatres are still afraid to cross, and it’s the kind that I personally engage with most directly.

A quick tangent: “diversity” is sure a hot topic in theatre, isn’t it?! And when you think about what “diversity” means at its most basic and fundamental level, it is the representation of human variance, primarily in the visible body that performs for us.  E.g. if you had a lineup of human beings, “diversity” is what sets them apart from each other. Some humans in the lineup would be beige, some brown, some with smooth hair, some poofy. Some will have penises, some breasts.  And because all of this variance exists in humanity, it’s necessary that our theatrical art form also reflect these diversities.

But what about the bodies that have one breast? No hair, anywhere? Or no leg? Or ambulate with wheels as opposed to feet?

While “diverse” bodies such as these are prevalent in humanity, they are sorely lacking in theatre, and frequently not even included in conversations about “diversity in theatre.”

The common terminology to refer to the bodies I’m describing is “disabled”. If you saw one on the street, you’d probably identify it as “having a disability,” or representing a more specific condition: paralysis, palsy, injury, disease, etc. But to me, these bodies are no more lacking in ability than the bodies with beige skin and 2 moving legs…they are simply representative of a different kind of able-ness, and of the diverse physicalities that exist throughout humanity.

But don’t exist in theatre.

My version of “crossing borders” to keep theatre fresh and relevant?  We need to think – and hire – beyond the typical bodies we’re accustomed to seeing make theatre.

A bit about my P.O.V. on this: I have a “non-normative physicality” (a term I think is more accurate than “disability”) due to a spinal cord injury that resulted in chest-down paralysis.  Hence, I am a full-time wheelchair user, and being such, I *sit* out among the crowd of theatre practitioners. Very few MFA-trained professional actors are paralyzed in 2/3 of their body; as far as I know, I’m the only paraplegic, full-time wheelchair user (translation: I have no sensory or motor ability below my chest, so I can’t stand at all) who’s ever graduated from a top MFA acting program (UCSD), and one of very few individuals with non-normative physicalities (especially ones who require visible adaptive equipment) to ever achieve the same distinction.  And while people with physicalities like me rarely, if ever, pop up on a Broadway or regional theatre stage, it’s frequently excused in a way that exclusion of other underrepresented diverse bodies is not.

Why aren’t theatres crossing this Body Boundary and regularly utilizing actors with wheelchairs, or half-limbs, or blindness, or deafness, or you-name-it?  I believe it’s a few reasons:

We don’t think they can do the job;

They don’t “fit” the part – or the body – that we think a character has to have;

These bodies perplex us, and we’re terrified to ask about them or interact with them.

But if we never talk about it – candidly – we’re never going to change it.  So, I’m going to talk about it.

Consider, for a moment, an audition scenario.  When actors with “normative physicalities” (standing, all limbs present, no adaptive equipment) bound into an audition, the prevailing assumption is going to be that they are able to do things: move from one side of the stage to another. Hold a prop. Sit on a couch or bed. Change a costume. Hear a cue. Remember lines. And, their normative physicalities also indicate – in general – that they have some knowledge or experience with life activities that most “normal” people would experience, and that may be invoked in a play or musical: playing a sport. Going to a restaurant. Working a job. Living alone. Playing an instrument. Getting drunk. Being in a relationship. Having sex. Raising a family.

Now, are some actors with normative physicalities unable to do some of these things, or lacking direct experience with them? Perhaps. But there won’t be a reason to automatically assume or wonder about a lack of ability or experience in these areas, or think that they can’t be solved by acting craft.

Now…when I roll into a room, it’s different. For many humans – even “progressive” folks in theatre – wheelchairs are not everyday, familiar, or comfortable items. Perhaps they invoke one’s aging parent, or an experience of temporary physical injury or terminal physical decline. And, society slaps the label of “disability” on wheelers, which effectively plants a seed in people’s heads that the default for someone with that identity will be NOT able, rather than able.

Therefore, seeing a young woman like me roll into an audition, there are lots of questions that come up (consciously or not). First, in regard to physicality: can she get out of the chair? Walk? Fully or partially? Sit up without her chair? Get on a bed without assistance? Pick up a prop? Change a costume? Wheel a straight line and stop without running into people? Etcetera?

And beyond the physicality, can she relate to the “normal” human experience? Has she ever played a sport? Worked a job? Gotten drunk?  Fallen in love? Had sex? And oh my, is that even possible? How does it work?! (Oh wait, did she just finish her monologue? Shit, I didn’t hear it.)

These questions come up – maybe overtly, or maybe they just sneak into the back of the brain. But they’re there. And often remain unasked, and unanswered.  Partly, it’s because there’s not enough time in the room to give people an entire documentary of one’s abilities. Personally, I do my best to exhibit as much physical prowess as possible while in the room, but oh yeah, I also have to channel a character. And frankly, sometimes a badass wheelchair hip-hop routine just doesn’t fit into a monologue from HENRY IV PART I.

On top of the time restriction, there is additional apprehensiveness. “If we ask, maybe she’ll want to give her whole life story and never shut up, and we have 30 more auditions. Or maybe she’ll be offended. And, is it too intrusive to ask if she can do a sex scene? Will she need accommodation? Can we afford it? Can she sue us? Wait, did you just say the ‘s’ word?! Shit, you know what, it’s just easier to go with the standing girl. Maybe we’ll consider someone ‘different’ next time.”

And so we never progress to a point where the questions are addressed. And I roll out wondering, did I not get the part because I wasn’t right for it, or because they weren’t sure if I could independently transfer onto the bed in Act Three?

The questions don’t get asked or answered.  And then we also get hung up on what has historically seemed realistic in terms of casting, and how people might scoff at a new approach and therefore not write their donation check. So we rarely take the opportunity to stretch our understanding of what people with non-normative physicalities can do.  The result of this?  Actors like me only get a call when some sort of “disability role” pops up in a play.  Many people can’t conceive of someone like me being able to act or portray something that isn’t overtly marked by the disability experience.

But guess what?  People with non-normative physicalities don’t just sit on the couch all day, thinking about disability.  Aside from a few unique bodily features, they, too, have “normal” lives.

People with cerebral palsy get drunk and angry like Stanley Kowalski.  And even bowl.

Kids who use wheelchairs fall in love like Romeo, have suicidal thoughts like Moritz, and get stuck in orphanages like Annie.

Some young women with down syndrome have two other sisters with whom they have deep and tumultuous relationships as they dream of Moscow.

Those with paralysis, palsy, amputation, unique cognition, blindness, deafness, etc. have as much potential as the Vitruvian Man (sometimes more) to be overbearing spouses, drunks, doe-eyed lovers, obsessive thinkers, evil statesmen, grieving parents, stifled siblings and more.

But, until we see this reflected back to us onstage, we won’t know it.  Or believe it. (That is, unless we live it.)

So, how do we cross the Body Boundary?  First, artistic leadership and members of the theatre community must acknowledge their own limited assumptions about non-normative physicalities, and then take the time to dialogue respectfully with artists with such physicalities about some of their nuts-and-bolts questions, and THEN get rid of their pansy-ass fears and hire people. (And by the way, we can’t blame it all on playwrights for not writing the roles…yes, we need more playwrights to give honest, accurate, well-researched voice to underrepresented populations. But there are also countless roles that already exist in the classical and contemporary theatrical canons that can accommodate non-normative physicalities. It’s a matter of thinking creatively. As one of my theatre roll models – yes, r-o-l-l models – used to say, “If Broadway can put gigantic elephants and helicopters and crashing chandeliers onstage, can’t they get an actor with a wheelchair up there?!”)

Second, we – the non-normative artists – must realize that we’re helping to initiate a significant change, so it’ll probably be messy at first.  We have to be selfless enough to divulge answers to deeply-personal questions with the understanding that they will serve our kind in eradicating ignorance about what IS, and what is possible. We need to be “game” for trying things, and not rip out people’s throats when they mess up in their journey of enlightenment. This can be hard…it requires some sucking up, by the marginalized populations that have already been sucking it up for centuries. But it’s my belief that if we allow our pent-up anger to lead us, rather than intrigue, curiosity, and compassion, we’ll only dig the hole deeper.

We can’t think of non-normative physicalities as “Disabled.”  They are OPPORTUNITIES.  In Ancient Greece, or the Elizabethan age, or even 50 years ago, many people with these physicalities would not have survived.  I, for one, likely would have died.  But nowadays, science and medical technology make it possible for unique bodies like mine to survive, thrive, and do theatre.  So rather than excluding them, we should treat them like a creative gift that Sophocles and Shakespeare never imagined could exist, or had the opportunity to use.  CROSS THE BODY BOUNDARY, and help our theatres to accurately reflect the diverse and non-normative hodgepodge that exists in the reality of our contemporary human spectrum.  Because frankly, it’s just more interesting.


Regan Linton (MFA, MSW) is an actor from Denver, CO, now living in Los Angeles.  After sustaining a spinal cord injury in an automobile accident during college, she returned to performing via Phamaly, a Denver theatre company for actors with diverse abilities.  She attained her MFA in Acting at UC San Diego, and is also a writer, teacher, singer…and football fan (go Broncos and Trojans).  She is co-founder of a new theatre ensemble in L.A. called Sore Thumb Group, and is currently co-writer, director, performer, and producer of their first production, GIMPLECAPPED: A JOURNEY OF “INSPIRATION” at the Hollywood Fringe, through June 27. – www.reganlinton.com

  • Kate Langsdorf

    Thank you for this! I have a background in performance, but have performed exactly zero times since becoming a cane-walker (with the exception of co-hosting an audio comedy podcast on the regular. I have a great spine for radio.) I think the biggest barrier has been my assumptions about peoples’ assumptions about me. I assume they’ll only see the cane in an audition, so I don’t even show up. Maybe this is worth reconsidering.

  • http://claudiaalick.blogspot.com HADOUCANE

    Yassss. I love the frame of “non-normative physicalities”.