Richard Stott’s stand-up show documents his experiences as an actor with a disability. Born with Poland syndrome, a condition that resulted in an underdevelopment of his hand and chest, he recounts his experience of existing in an awkward position between identifying as disabled and not due to his ‘non-conformist left hand’. Re-enacting the misguided attention of casting agents and directors, his jokes orbit the fallibility of arbitrary labels, and the grim irony of his position. Once told that he was too young to play Richard III, it was nevertheless acceptable for a marginally older actor to adopt a clawed hand in the role. One incongruity with the character’s body as written was acceptable, whilst the other was not.
Stott’s performance traces the shifting attitudes to disability through the prism of the experience of a performer, from the Ancient Greece through the Victorian era to his own today. Drawing on a memory from a holiday in Athens, Stott asks what his potential as an actor in the Theatre of Dionysus might have been. He asks if he would have been able to perform, or thrown from the rocks in the distance as an ‘imperfect’ specimen. Or would he have participated in the Victorian freak show, making money from his difference? Is it better to hide his disability or engage with it?
The question of disabled actors and disabled roles is one that periodically emerges in high-profile public debate. Eddie Redmayne, Daniel Day Lewis, Tom Hanks and Sam Clafin have all engaged in this ‘disability drag’, as Roger Ebert once put it, to extended protest and debate. The ‘shortcut to an Oscar’ route for playing disabled characters is a cliché, and is now at least questioned when it emerges. The other side of this coin, the stereotyping of the disabled actors, within the work they are able to secure, is equally problematic. The pressure to resist poorly written characters that correspond to a disability is a dilemma within an ultra-competitive casting climate, where any work is to be treasured. Those who manage to negotiate this, are few and far between. Even disabled actors at the peak of their fame still face this difficult negotiation, as Peter Dinklage has attested to. Diversity quotas are a blunt instrument, and as Stott observes, it is one that often leaves actors like him, with a disability but not particularly disabled, in the moral dilemma of grasping the opportunity or denying the work.
- Lewis Church
Links relevant to this diagnosis:
Actor Has Fingers Replaced With Toes – Huffington Post
Poland Syndrome - Genetics Home Reference
Disability Drag - Roger Ebert
Peter Dinklage on Choosing Roles Carefully - The Talks