This picture of Harry Potter was created by an amazing artist and human being, Rebecca Slack, and shows Harry reimagined with arm crutches. Because maybe he was injured when his house was destroyed as a baby. Because maybe that’s part of why he never really fit in. And because ultimately, why not?
A couple of years ago, when I was already quite ill, but still convinced that it was something I just had to push through, I was cast in a chorus of nuns in the opera ‘Dialogues of the Carmelites’.
The show was an absolutely incredible experience – the story and music, the production, the people I had the chance to work with – I felt so inspired, so swept away, that by the time the show arrived, even though I could barely walk, I was determined to perform. It was the kind of experience I had dreamed of for a lifetime, and my character only actually sung in choruses, so when I ended up mostly mouthing the words, unable to produce any sound, no one seemed to notice.
It was, however, hard to avoid noticing that I could barely walk. That the staging, going from kneeling to standing, was extremely challenging, bordering on impossible. Not only that, but I was struggling to see at that point, and the hot, blinding stage lights certainly didn’t help.
I was determined though. And the director for the production shared my determination. She took me aside as we were staging the show, and offered to stage me as an ‘older’ nun. A nun who needed a companion on stage, and maybe some help getting up.
It was such a special and unexpected thing, to get some kind of accommodation on stage. Traditionally speaking, performance, at least acting, can be an area that is very difficult to accommodate. When you are becoming another character, your body has to conform to that character’s needs, to that character’s story. That doesn’t leave much room for your own personal physicality or needs.
Unfortunately, even with the extra accommodation, I ended up falling and hitting my head, sustaining a severe concussion and putting an end to my hopes of ‘pushing through’. I moved back in with my parents and spent the next few months lying flat in a dark room – listening to music, but unable to even hum for over a year.
The experience had me thinking though, investigating. Maybe I could play certain characters, even if I didn’t get better. Maybe I could play an old lady with a cane. Maybe I could play Nessa from Wicked – she uses a wheelchair for most of the show.
That thought gave me a bit of hope, something to hold on to that wasn’t all or nothing, a cure or an end to performance.
Fast forward to this past year, and I finally started to be able to sing a bit again. I was absolutely thrilled. After the first burst of joy in creating the sounds I had been hearing in my head for so long, I quickly started to think of how I could get back into performance. I had been missing being part of a show, delving into a character, and becoming someone else.
But as I thought about it, my excitement began to dim. The only reason that I was able to sing again was due to the fact that I had been given a giant, plastic neck brace to wear at all times. And I didn’t know a single character that wore a neck brace, or a single director that would even cast me as a chorus member if I couldn’t blend in.
It makes sense. I never even wore glasses on stage because, not only were they not period, but they were distracting, sometimes reflecting the light and masking my expressions. A neck brace is a whole lot worse.
But as I lay in bed that night, overwhelmed with all kinds of emotions, I started to think – why not? Why can’t I play a character with a neck brace? Maybe they aren’t supposed to wear one, maybe it’s not in the script, but why couldn’t they happen to need one? It could be costumed or camouflaged to fit the production. Of course, it might not work for every character, but why couldn’t it be a possibility?
And if I need to use a wheelchair – why should I only consider playing Nessa from Wicked? Why can’t Glinda use a wheelchair too? I don’t think it would change her character all that much and it could be sparkly and magical, to fit her and the show.
Every time an actor portrays a character, they bring something of themselves to the role. That’s what makes live performance so interesting. That’s why we can go see the same show over and over, and it’s new each time. Because every person in the cast and crew bring something unique, something different, to the production.
That difference, that sparkle of individuality, of humanity, can come in many forms. One of those can be physical. It is not uncommon for an actor’s age, height, weight, hair colour, or skin tone to be different from how a character has traditionally been envisioned.
When we read books, we all tend to imagine the characters and the world slightly differently anyways, no matter how specific the descriptions are.
That’s part of the beauty of art. It’s not supposed to be clear cut and real, it’s supposed to suspend our reality and transport us somewhere else.
So why can’t that apply to a neck brace? To a wheelchair or a cane?
Why should someone who uses a wheelchair only be eligible for roles scripted as using a wheelchair? Why should senior characters be the only ones to use a cane?
Matters of physical ability and wellness are not all encompassing definitions of identity or narrative. Of course, they are part of a story, part of a person.
But they are just one part.
Fitting them in to existing stories or characters doesn’t necessarily change them.
They add to them.