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Bodies in Commotion

Disability and Performance

Edited by Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander

Publication Year: 2005

A testament to the synergy of two evolving fields. From the study of staged performances to examinations of the performing body in everyday life, this book demonstrates the enormous profitability of moving beyond disability as metaphor. . . . It's a lesson that many of our cultural institutions desperately need to learn. -Martin F. Norden, University of Massachusetts-Amherst This groundbreaking collection imagines disabled bodies as "bodies in commotion"-bodies that dance across artistic and discursive boundaries, challenging our understanding of both disability and performance. In the book's essays, leading critics and artists explore topics that range from theater and dance to multi-media performance art, agit-prop, American Sign Language theater, and wheelchair sports. Bodies in Commotion is the first collection to consider the mutually interpretive qualities of these two emerging fields, producing a dynamic new resource for artists, activists, and scholars.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Corporealities: Discourses of Disability


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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction: Disability Studies in Commotion with Performance Studies

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pp. 10-12

Bodies in Commotion is the first collection to explore disability as performance across a wide range of meanings—disability as a performance of everyday life, as a metaphor in dramatic literature, and as the work of disabled performing artists. It is important to address these myriad meanings in tandem because the depictions of disability embedded in dramatic literature always frame the performance of everyday life, and because the sense...

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Part I: Taxonomies: Disability & Deaf Performances in the Process of Self-Definition

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pp. 13-16

This first part provides a wide sampling of performance strategies that artists with disabilities have deployed to construct disability and Deaf cultures. Historian and activist Paul Longmore explains that the disability culture movements reflect and feed the disability civil rights movement.1 Longmore argues ...

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Delivering Disability, Willing Speech

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pp. 17-29

We might start with Demosthenes, who, despite a stutter and “short breath,” was the most celebrated of the ancient Greek orators. He was said to have worked to overcome his speech idiosyncrasies (they would now almost certainly be called “speech defects”) and to have practiced, pebble-mouthed, projecting his voice over the roaring ocean. From Demosthenes,we can fast-forward two and a half millennia to Christopher Reeve’s ...

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Dares to Stares: Disabled Women Performance Artists & the Dynamics of Staring

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pp. 30-41

Everyone knows that you are not supposed to stare. Yet everyone does. Both furtive and compelling, the staring encounter generates discomfort and provokes anxiety. So potent is staring that the Western imagination has persistently seized upon this formidable interchange as a source of vivid narrative. Medusa, for example, turned men to stone ...

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Performing Deaf Identity: Toward a Continuum of Deaf Performance

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pp. 42-55

A deaf couple on a cross-country trip stops for the night at an anonymous motel. Later that night, the husband has trouble sleeping, and decides to take a drive. When he returns to the motel, he cannot remember which room he and his wife are staying in. He ponders the problem for a while,and then, smiling, honks the horn for a solid minute. Lights come on throughout the motel, all the rooms illuminated but one. Oblivious to the...

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Aesthetic Distance & the Fiction of Disability / Jim Ferris

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pp. 56-68

Disability obscures the blurry lines that separate fiction and art from real life. Is disability “fictional,” or is it “real”? Social models of disability contend that the oppression that accompanies disability is entirely a social construction—that the social implications of disability are made things that impose an unreal set of assumptions, interpretations, expectations, and ...

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Part II: Disability/Deaf Aesthetics, Audiences, & the Public Sphere

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pp. 69-72

T he essays in this part discuss the development of disability aesthetics by artists in dance and theater who set out to address and counteract the cultural marginalization of the disabled body and the invisibility of disabled people. One set of questions that arises inevitably in this context has to do ...

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Shifting Apollo’s Frame: Challenging the Body Aesthetic in Theater Dance

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pp. 73-85

When CandoCo emerged onto the British dance scene in the early1990s, critics soon took note: they were new and they were different.At that time, Amici and Green Candle (both performing since the 1980s)were probably the most widely known dance companies in the United Kingdom that were not stuck in an aesthetic cul-de-sac characterized by corporeal exclusivity. Both worked with and included disabled and other “non-...

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The National Theatre of the Deaf: Artistic Freedom and Cultural Responsibility in the Use of American Sign Language

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pp. 86-94

The simultaneous presentation of theatrical works in English and American Sign Language (ASL), known as sign language theater or theater of the deaf, has been evolving in the United States since d/Deaf theatrical activity began at Gallaudet College in the late 1800s (Tadie 153). The Connecticut-based National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD), logging over seven thousand performances in national and international tours since its formation...

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Shifting Strengths: The Cyborg Theater of Cathy Weis

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pp. 95-108

The live face in the monitor is New York–based dancer-choreographer Cathy Weis, who proceeds to physically enter the space and interact with her prerecorded self in her piece “Dummy,” one-third of the 1999 Monitor Lizards. Weis’s interrogations of the intersections between the body and ...

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Theater without a Hero: The Making of P.H.*reaks: The Hidden History of People with Disabilities

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pp. 109-128

This essay chronicles the development and production of a play about “the hidden history of people with disabilities” by a group of disabled writers and actors 1 in Los Angeles from 1991 to 1994. The project’s particular— perhaps peculiar to some readers—ambition was to tell the unknown, ...

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Part III: Rehabilitating the Medical Model

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pp. 129-134

Despite thirty years of activism that has fought to claim a minoritarian identity for people with disabilities, the dominant culture persists in considering disability in terms of the medical model. Unlike the social-construction and minority models of disability that emphasize group cultural identity ...

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Performing Disability, Problematizing Cure

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pp. 135-146

In her one-woman show The Woman with Juice, Cheryl Marie Wade sets forth a new political agenda for people with disabilities. She writes, “No longer the polite tin-cuppers, waiting for your generous inclusion, we are more and more, proud freedom fighters, taking to the stages, raising our speech-impaired voices in celebration of who we are.” Disability activists,artists, and performers are throwing off age-old stereotypes of the pitiable...

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Bodies, Hysteria, Pain: Staging the Invisible

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pp. 147-163

Disability can stand in interesting relations to medical science and performances of identity. This essay deals with signifying bodies, invisible impairments, and the historical stagings of meanings. It begins with theatrical discourses and historical practices surrounding hysteria, and charts resonances with two contemporary performance projects by people with invisible, “inner” impairments: Traces, an installation–performance project...

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Performance as Therapy: Spalding Gray’s Autopathographic Monologues

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pp. 163-174

G. Thomas Couser argues that one of the central characteristics of life writing (first-person, autobiographical writing) is the comic plot—the story that leads to a happy ending or, at least, to satisfactory closure. He points out, however, that one genre of life writing, autopathography (auto-biographical accounts of illness, injury, or disability), has a complex relationship to this convention. Although the mere existence of an autopathographic ...

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The Facilitation of Learning-Disabled Arts: A Cultural Perspective

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pp. 175-189

In a discussion of disability and performance, it is worth giving space to an exploration of the work of people with learning disabilities. This an area of arts practice that raises particular questions because of the frequent involvement of non-learning-disabled people in the production of the ...

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Beyond Therapy: “Performance” Work with People Who Have Profound & Multiple Disabilities

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pp. 190-201

This essay focuses on the possibilities of involving a very marginalized group—people who have profound and multiple disabilities—in aesthetic activity, moving beyond purely therapeutic paradigms. I carried out qualitative research, looking at the activities of the London-based arts company Entelechy, in the late 1990s.1 Entelechy took upon itself the task of addressing the social and cultural needs of this group of people in South...

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Dementia and the Performance of Self

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pp. 202-214

Scholars and activists within fields of disability and age studies have fought hard to have disabled people of all ages recognized as people with disabilities, rather than a class of the disabled or the old. These broad categories are peopled with individuals with life experiences and opinions, not just needs demanding attention. To better understand the experience of disability, scholars and activists call for the voices of the disabled, for their...

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Part IV: Performing Disability in Daily Life

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pp. 215-218

Part of sociology’s legacy to performance studies is the idea that we do not just live our “real life” identities, we perform them. An early touch-stone text that employs a theatrical metaphor to describe interactions among people is Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self of Everyday Life (1959). Goffman, who takes a functionalist approach, argues that who we are socially is bound up with who we are perceived to be by those around us...

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Looking Blind: A Revelation of Culture’s Eye

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pp. 219-229

I am not blind. I have, however, acted as though I were. I have performed the role of blindness, not in the theater, but on the stage of everyday life. Sociologists refer to a non-normative person’s performance of normalcy as “passing.” I have passed as blind by using a guide dog and wearing sun-glasses, and thus being seen and treated as blind. Although I caused others to regard me as blind, I did not simulate blindness for myself: I acted blind...

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Men in Motion: Disability and the Performance of Masculinity

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pp. 230-242

This extract is from an interview with a young man whose paraplegia derives from a spinal injury from a workplace accident two years earlier. His account of his social rehabilitation through sport, with its implicit notions of masculinity, is characteristic of the Australian men whose experiences of disability are discussed in this essay. Australia is not alone in its promotion ...

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Disrupting a Disembodied Status Quo: Invisible Theater as Subversive Pedagogy

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pp. 243-254

Invisible theater is a sociopolitical, dramaturgical, and pedagogic intervention formulated by critical educator and performing artist Augusto Boal. It is usually enacted in drama, theater, or performing arts programs,but is adaptable to almost any subject matter. A group chooses and researches an issue and the context in which it plans to make its intervention. The group creates, choreographs, scripts, and rehearses the “everyday...

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The Tyranny of Neutral: Disability and Actor Training

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pp. 255-268

The size, shape, and carriage of an actor’s body on stage convey much more than a character’s physical dimensions. In Western dramatic and performance traditions, outward physicality is most often used as short-hand for the character’s inner psychological or emotional state. Consider Oedipus’s self-inflicted blindness, a bloody wound that signifies his denial of truth; Richard III’s hunchback, a beacon of evil, justifying his antisocial...

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Part V: Reading Disability in Dramatic Literature

The essays in the final part of the volume focus on how the interpretation of plays and performance texts can be inflected by a disability perspective. The texts under examination were not written in order to express the experience or cultural status of disabled people and the issues they face, yet prove to do so in provocative ways when examined closely within the frame of disability studies. Looked at from this point of view, these texts...

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Unfixing Disability in Lord Byron’s The Deformed Transformed

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pp. 271-283

Through a reading of Lord Byron’s last and unfinished drama, The Deformed Transformed, this essay analyzes disability as a body capable of resignifying the terms of its cultural reception. The Deformed Transformed intervenes in disability’s repertoire of representations—what Judith Butler calls the “topography of construction” (28)—in order to revalue a denigrated social...

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On Medea, Bad Mother of the Greek Drama (Disability, Character, Genopolitics)

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pp. 284-301

Six years after a white South Carolinian housewife Susan Smith drove her two sons into rising waters, spurring the vigil and grief of an entire nation, she reported to the New York Times that she had suffered from a suicidal impulse so intense as to have bound her children to her own fate, but in last instant had spared herself from drowning for fear of how her own death...

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Disability’s Invisibility in Joan Schenkar’s Signs of Life and Heather McDonald’s An Almost Holy Picture

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pp. 302-318

From the nineteenth-century “freaks” in P. T. Barnum’s sideshows, to the early-twentieth-century “deformed” patients in medical theaters, to the late-twentieth-century heroic “cripples” in realist drama, physically disabled bodies have appeared on the stage. Whether stared at with curiosity, gazed ...

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Reconsidering Identity Politics, Essentialism, and Dismodernism: An Afterword

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pp. 319-326

For all their merits, the healthy always disappoint” (125). So goes the first sentence of Emil Cioran’s remarkable essay “On Sickness.”1 Aphoristic and given to certain lapses in logic, Cioran’s essay does not argue so much as gesture toward generative speculation. “As long as one believes in philosophy, one is healthy; sickness begins when one starts to think,” he writes. Cioran’s notion of sickness interests me as a metaphor for what disability...


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pp. 327-332


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pp. 333-339

E-ISBN-13: 9780472021727
E-ISBN-10: 0472021729
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472068913
Print-ISBN-10: 0472068911

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 11 b&w illustrations
Publication Year: 2005

Series Title: Corporealities: Discourses of Disability