restricted access The Tyranny of Neutral: Disability and Actor Training
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The Tyranny of Neutral Disability & Actor Training carrie sandahl 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 shorthand for the character’s inner psychological or emotional state. Consider Oedipus’s self-in›icted blindness, a bloody wound that signi‹es his denial of truth; Richard III’s hunchback, a beacon of evil, justifying his antisocial behavior; or Laura Wing‹eld’s limp, a mark of shame, explaining her depression and unrealized cravings for male companionship. Disability in the dramatic canon always signi‹es, serving most often as a work’s central image, what literary critics David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have called “narrative prosthesis.”1 Despite the ubiquity of disabled characters in the dramatic canon, there is a paucity of professionally trained disabled actors to perform them. And because disability always signi‹es in representation, the trained disabled actor is rarely given the opportunity to play nondisabled characters. Disabled actors are told that their impairments would detract from the playwright ’s or director’s intent for a nondisabled character. Disabled people who want to be actors learn this tenet early on and are dissuaded from pursuing training. Other barriers to training include inaccessible classroom and theater spaces and demeaning, stereotypical roles. 255 Training programs, though, are no longer able to deny otherwise quali‹ed disabled students access to their programs based on these barriers and attitudes . Because of civil rights laws such as Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, training programs are required to provide access to their curriculum. As a result of such laws, disabled people in general are becoming visible in U.S. culture, making themselves more and more a part of mainstream life. Some theater artists have begun to take note of the emergent, vibrant disability arts and culture scene and are willing to incorporate disabled people in their programs. Good laws and good intentions, unfortunately, will not signi‹cantly improve training opportunities for the disabled actor. While obvious barriers such as the lack of meaningful roles and inaccessible spaces are being addressed by nontraditional casting practices, new plays by and about disabled people, and the alteration of physical space, less obvious barriers remain that require scrutiny if training programs are to become more accessible. This essay addresses one of these less obvious barriers: acting curriculum. I confronted these barriers myself as a physically disabled student in undergraduate and graduate acting classes where, despite the good intentions of my teachers, I earned credits despite the curriculum rather than because of it. Here, I focus on how conventional associations between outward physicality and inner psychological states are embedded in the disciplinary practices of many actor-training programs. This correlation between body type and inner life suggests which bodies are capable of portraying which inner states and even which bodies are capable of representation at all. To illustrate my point, I will take on two concepts often used in beginning actortraining programs. First is the concept of “neutral,” the physical and emotional state from which any character can be built. Actors who cannot be “cured” of their idiosyncrasies to approach neutral may be considered physically and emotionally “in›exible,” unable to portray anyone other than themselves or those like them. The second concept is what I am calling the “emotional body,” or the belief that physicality develops from past emotional experiences. This belief is put to use in both rehearsal exercises and in the making of acting choices. Uncritical use of the emotional body can humiliate the disabled student in rehearsal and lead to stereotypical choices in performance. Ultimately, unless training programs’ very foundations are rehabilitated, current curriculum will dissuade disabled actors from pursuing training. Evolution of Current Acting Pedagogy Both “neutral” and “the emotional body” are central metaphors around which current acting curriculum is built. As acting theorist Phillip Zarrilli 256 Bodies in Commotion The Tyranny of Neutral 257 points out, discourses of acting, like all discourses, are highly metaphorical. Acting theory, though, is particularly invested in hiding its own metaphorical constructions: admitting to a method’s constructedness “would reveal the fact that this truth is a particular version authored by a particular person for a particular audience in a particular place and time, and is thereby open to question and revision.”2 In my view, many acting teachers perpetuate their methods...