- Disability Theatre and Modern Drama: Recasting Modernism by Kirsty Johnston
In Disability Theatre and Modern Drama: Recasting Modernism, Kirsty Johnston undertakes a productive question that is not entirely rhetorical: what if the questions and creative work prompted by disability are, in fact, foundational to modern theatre's themes and aesthetics? This query launches a valuable, generative book. Johnston's investigation of how such aesthetics might be staged [End Page 110] and embodied stems from her stance that disability theatre is "best understood as a kind of theatre-making that draws from disability culture's challenges to ableism and comprises a growing international field of practice remarkable for its political force, artistic re-imagining of theatre traditions, and lively aesthetic debates" (26). As her work makes clear, she is not invested in predetermining what collaborative and artistic possibilities theatre practitioners will choose. Instead, she productively contextualizes the important questions and the work that theatre practitioners and scholars undertake as they explore disability theatre's possibilities.
Like Stage Turns: Canadian Disability Theatre (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2012), Johnston's new book features two parts: "Critical Survey of Disability Theatre Aesthetics, Politics, and Practices" and "Critical Perspectives." The latter section includes work by contributors, with an equal representation of disability studies scholars and disability theatre practitioners. The breadth of Johnston's implicit audience is impressive. Johnston has written a book of interest to students, theatre practitioners, scholars, and people who reflect on representation in critical ways or who are interested in considering disability and theatre in tandem.
The larger purpose of Johnston's analysis is apparent: by detailing the "prevailing barriers to the full participation of disabled people both on and offstage," Johnson offers opportunities to demolish such obstacles (2). Her immediate focus is apparent in a "book [that] is most interested in modern drama that has returned again and again to these [contemporary western] stages, haunting culture and shaping the ways in which disability is performed and understood" (4). The introductory and first chapters orient readers who may be unfamiliar with considering disability as a cultural and political construct, rather than a biological fact. After showing the ways in which disability is often deployed metaphorically, Johnston demonstrates how this practice continues to exclude people with disabilities. This exclusion, as the book shows, constitutes a system of erasure that is indifferent to, or dismisses entirely, the contributions and experiences of people with disabilities.
The first chapter, "What is Disability Theatre?" situates disability theatre within a civil rights movement. Activism related to disability rights can be especially innovative given the range of bodily, sensory, and physiological differences that might constitute the experiences of people with disabilities. The potential of coalitions as a political strategy is informed by this plurality, including various moments of strategic inclusion and exclusion. For instance, Johnston notes the ways in which Deaf arts practitioners strategically align or distance themselves from disability arts (22–23). People with mental health experiences and diagnoses (who may not have the shared historical and linguistic connections that some Deaf people share) might similarly consider their relationships within [End Page 111] these coalitions (30–31). Although Johnston is most attentive to coalition politics about arts and culture here rather than these intragroup strategies, readers unfamiliar with these issues may find these moments instructive.
By underscoring the specificities within this plural, evolving work, Johnston is able to provide a comparative context about legal gains, gaps in accessibility, and theatrical practice. She considers the benefits of festivals as a way to catalyze disability theatre and to confront the ableism that pervades many theatrical spaces. Her transitions from historical background, theoretical contributions, and theatrical practices (including those of significant companies) are consistently deft. Her clarity in purpose is evident elsewhere in the book, such as the productive series of questions related to access that are poised to prompt changes in theatrical companies' practices or in scholars' assumptions (60).
This background helps the reader transition to a consideration of actors' creative potential and the often restrictive casting practices that they encounter. Such practices are introduced...