chapter  33
16 Pages

Why Disability Identity Matters: From Dramaturgy to Casting in John Belluso’s Pyretown

In November 2005, I found myself in a situation that I had fantasized about but never believed would actually happen. I was at the Public Theater in New York City facilitating an open discussion between a panel of disabled theatre artists and an audience of nearly 150 entertainment

industry professionals. This audience included directors, designers, writers, producers, funders, actors, andcastingagents in not only theatre but film and television as well. The conversation centered on increasing the participation of disabled people in the performing arts, and, in the process,


reframing the structures and ways of thinking that excluded us in the first place. In other words, I had a rarified opportunity to argue precisely why disability identity matters to an audience that had thepower toput our arguments directly into action by changing the exclusionary practices of the entertainment industry’s business-as-usual. This meeting was spearheaded by the

Disability Theatre Initiative, an advocacy group formed by two New York women: Sharon Jensen of the Non-Traditional Casting Project and Simi Linton, a disability studies scholar and founder of the consulting business Disability/Arts.1 I had participated in such events before, speaking about disability and performance mostly to groups of academics, students, and fellow artists. Jensen and Linton alerted me that the event at the Public, though, was going to be different, that it was going to be well attended by professional luminaries-but I was not about to believe it until I saw it for myself. After all, attendance at the event was completely voluntary, and past events often included the ‘‘usual suspects.’’ Normally, such events included people we already knew in the disability arts community. But there we were. And there they were. And the conversation that took place was extraordinary. Participants openly shared their concerns, fears, desires, best practices, and worst failures in including disabled people at all levels of the profession. And, unlike at many consciousness-raising events I have attended, the non-disabled participants were enthusiastic about what disabled people had to offer. They were not primarily worried about compliance with civil rights laws. That evening, a group of participants committed to continuing the conversation. In April 2006, the Disability Theatre Initiative, Disability/Arts, the Non-Traditional Casting Project, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Dramatists Guild held another wellattended event for industry professionals

on issues of disability at HBO headquarters in New York City.2