an exchange: acting, reality & (dis)ability

angus cerini, john bailey: correspondence

Peta Brady, Wilhelmina Stracke, Strands

Peta Brady, Wilhelmina Stracke, Strands

Peta Brady, Wilhelmina Stracke, Strands

In RealTime 107, John Bailey wrote in “Ethical ventriloquism,” his review of Strands, “Given the abundance of outstanding actors with perceived disabilities in Australia today, is it problematic to cast an abled actor in the role and risk denying employment to someone whose opportunities on the stage are already unfairly limited? I think so, with qualifications.”

He concluded: “…disability isn’t merely gestured to here; whatever the reality behind the production, its fictional world produces sincere insights into the complexities of living with a disability, while working this into a narrative that is never itself defined by that disability. It’s not patronising, and the excellence of the production itself goes some way to alleviating concern. But, for me, it’s not an entirely comfortable work.”

to john bailey, may 7


In your review of Strands you write of the number of performers with perceived disabilities in Melbourne and why it is problematic not to cast one in that role in Peta Brady’s play.

To me that is a tenuous argument, for in the same vein you would have to cast a lesbian to play a lesbian, wouldn’t you? Or a wife beater to play a wife beater? Or an amputee to play an amputee? Or a cancer sufferer by a cancer sufferer? Where do you want to stop?

The point is that an actor was chosen for that role because the production didn’t seem to me primarily to be about the level of (dis)ability or what have you, but more about the sisters and their relationship in the wake of their mother’s death. The disability of one sister is entwined within that character—yet the greater drama concerns the relationship between the two sisters.

I understand what you are saying in that it should be a done thing that opportunities are afforded artists across the spectrum, but for a small show by an emerging or developing writer—at a venue like La Mama—the main concern is trying to get the thing on in the first place, struggling to work against severely limited resources as opposed to funded companies such as Back To Back who are actually engaged with the sort of work that has a basis in the experiences and abilities of those it chooses to work with.

If Peta was going to attempt to make work with a disabled performer, could that performer pull off the role in the way it was performed? Potentially, but this would involve an entirely different set of circumstances—and most likely a different outcome. This is a contentious issue, and I welcome further discussion on it. Angus Cerini

to angus cerini, may 21

Hi Angus,

Thanks for responding to my comments on Strands. They were intended as provocation rather than criticism, precisely because I think there’s a conversation that can be had now that’s worth having, and in the past might not have been possible at all. Once upon a time the idea that a female character could be played by a woman wasn’t very popular; a hundred years ago in Melbourne there was nothing politically incorrect about white Australians playing Indigenous Australians. Things changed, and people began to explore the ways that power is bound up in these kinds of representation. I’m really interested in the lines of power and access that we deal with today.

That’s why the idea of finding the best person to play the role is never simple, because there are so many barriers that different people face well before they’re allowed a chance to audition, or make their way onto a director’s radar, or even go to see a performance themselves. Strands allowed me to think about this, because it’s very much (and very effectively) about the experience of living with a disability, for both characters. The production made me contemplate the invisible barriers these sisters face everyday, and being someone with a fair investment in theatre I inevitably situated these considerations in the broader environment of disability and the arts in Melbourne today.

Of course, my raising all of this in the context of an independent production at La Mama is deeply problematic because a show such as this faces its own barriers—it’s not the Melbourne Theatre Company or Malthouse Theatre or the like. That’s why, again, I didn’t intend to be seen to be criticising Strands itself. It’s a ridiculously difficult endeavour to mount an independent production, and I don’t think artists who are themselves trying to deal with all of these obstacles should necessarily feel responsible for changing the landscape of Australian theatre at the same time.

I guess my point was that there’s a lot of change occurring—as you note, there are companies working with artists with disabilities that are producing (what I think is) astonishing work. And that’s political. It was always political, but now we’re talking about it, which is a good thing. I want to see where that conversation leads us, and pay attention to who’s listening in.


John Bailey

RealTime issue #109 June-July 2012 pg. 26

© Angus Cerini & John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

12 June 2012