Disabled agency pans play for wheelchair re-write

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The freshly-tweaked production of Tuesday runs at Saint Augustine's Church in Pendlebury until 21 July.Image copyright
Chris Payne

Image caption

The freshly-tweaked production of Tuesday runs at Saint Augustine’s Church in Pendlebury until 21 July.

A disabled talent agency has criticised a theatre company for rewriting one of its characters, who was initially in a wheelchair, calling it “insensitive.”

The play, Tuesday, was tweaked after being told by Manchester International Festival it could not cast a non-disabled actor in a disabled role.

Studio Orka said the dispute showed “cultural differences” between the UK and their native Belgium.

VisAble boss Louise Dyson, however, declared they are “behind the times.”

Ms Dyson, who was awarded an MBE for founding the VisAble agency more than 20 years ago, told the BBC: “To not even attempt to meet disabled actors and to instead rewrite the role, shows a paucity of imagination and total insensitivity to the many highly experienced lead role artists we have working regularly at the National Theatre and every other leading UK theatre.

“Belgium is way behind the times! Our artists are cast members in major television series and these days we get calls from Hollywood too, for big roles in features.”

She added: “So there is no excuse for this and they are missing out on great people while annoying or disappointing many more.”

The production premiered at MIF this week after the festival were satisfied with the producers’ compromise to re-write the story of the disabled character Stella, who had been in a wheelchair.

‘Huge cultural differences’

Martine Decroos, Studio ORKA artistic director, told the BBC on Thursday evening they were happy to make the compromise with MIF to enable the play to premiere at the event this week.

He put the issue down to the “huge cultural differences between the UK and Flanders” regarding attitudes towards disabled roles and admitted the conversations had “opened our eyes”.

“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,” said Mr Decroos.

“Studio ORKA wants to express that we have respect for these points of view and we don’t want to minimize the problem at all. Essentially the play is about the power of friendship and the development of self-esteem in order to deal with setbacks in life.”

He added: “We have the feeling that the compromise has been made in the right way with lots of respect both for our artistic freedom and for the approach of the UK.

“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.”

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Shannon Murray, who is one of VisAble’s clients, playing Sarah-Jane in EastEnders

Ms Dyson, whose company specialise in creating mainstream professional opportunities for actors, presenters and models with disabilities, stressed the importance of theatre company’s being inclusive and making people with disabilities visible in such roles, in order to help change “the public mindset” towards disability.

MIF festival boss John McGrath said its policy was to ensure disabled actors were given priority for disabled roles and that producers should “create authentic representation”.

In January, US star Bryan Cranston defended playing a disabled character in his film, The Upside, saying his casting as a man with quadriplegia was “a business decision.”

“As actors we’re asked to play other people,” said the Breaking Bad star.

He added: “If I, as a straight, older person, and I’m wealthy, I’m very fortunate, does that mean I can’t play a person who is not wealthy, does that mean I can’t play a homosexual?”

Jake Gyllenhaal and Dwayne Johnson are among the Hollywood stars who have faced criticism for playing disabled characters.

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