In the past year, we’ve begun to see increased representation of actors with disabilities both in roles written specifically including a disability and in roles that do not make mention of abilities at all. These casting decisions were unfortunately met with their share of controversy. How we choose to navigate issues of casting and depictions of disability, especially in the arts, is an important reflection of us as a society.

Characters with disabilities have been part of our theatrical history since the beginning. It’s difficult not to look at the most famous characters from classical theater and not see disability of one kind or another, like Richard III (available on BroadwayHD). Before psychology’s emergence as a social science, theater was often a place for the exploration of mental illness and impairment. Everyone from Orestes to Oedipus seems to have had some sort of disabling condition. Greek and Roman Gods, steeped in self-interest and moral ambiguity, were often the purveyors of gifts as well as “curses.” It could easily be suggested that these curses were the Greco-Roman comprehension of disability. For example, Cassandra was “cursed” to speak truths that nobody believed. One could clearly construct a modern-day Cassandra as afflicted by mental illness.

Physical disability was often presented for comedic effect. Speech impediments often substituted for characterization in Classical and Shakespearean comedies. More sobering was the portrayal of Livinia in Titus Andronicus (available on BroadwayHD), a young lady who was raped, assaulted, and disfigured by her assailants. She was left without hands or tongue so she could never name her perpetrators.

Advances in mental and physical healthcare have made acting a viable career for people with disabilities. As awareness is on the rise, so too are depictions of characters with mental and physical differences. The first shows I remember clearly addressing these ideas of representation were productions by Deaf West Theatre. Their productions of Big River and later Spring Awakening were revelations: powerful productions in their own right and profoundly moving revivals of their antecedent shows.  

More recently, shows like Dear Evan Hansen and Next to Normal have taken on issues of mental illness to great critical acclaim. A new milestone was reached this year when an autistic actor, Mickey Rowe, played the lead in Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. That character, Christopher, is autistic. Though there’s a broad range to the autism spectrum, the producers of Curious Incident thought it important to demonstrate that Christopher could be played by someone with his differences.

Mr. Rowe is legally blind as well as autistic. The character Christopher in Curious Incident is not legally blind. That might not seem like a big distinction for some, but this kind of disability was a major problem for some critics of the latest revival of The Glass Menagerie. Madison Ferris portrayed Laura and is a wheelchair-bound actress. This proved challenging for some to come to terms with. One critic writes that Ms. Ferris’s literal disability means that she is unable to convey Laura’s emotional disability. Other such nonsense followed.  

What will be interesting to see is how we continue to grow in our acceptance of non-traditional portrayals on stage. Why is it, in the absence of any clear instructions from the author, that audiences assume that a traditionally abled actor should play the role? Theater is all about challenging our expectations, not confirming our comfortable world view. Opening up portrayals in theater to as many differently abled actors as possible expands what we can learn from these amazing works of dramatic literature and ultimately makes us better people.