A not-review of The Normal Heart

Even — or especially — in student theatre, representation matters

white text, black background, pink triangle after the SILENCE = DEATH Act Up ! Fight AIDS posters. Text: a line of the poem "September 1, 1939", by W. H. Auden, that Larry Kramer insists accompany every production/program of The Normal Heart. WE MUST LOVE ONE ANOTHER OR DIE. A line of the poem "September 1, 1939", by W. H. Auden that Larry Kramer insists accompany every production or program of The Normal Heart.Styled after the SILENCE = DEATH Act Up ! Fight AIDS posters. Art by Robin Eames

When SUDS announced it would be putting on The Normal Heart I felt a gut-wrenching mixture of delight and despair. Delight because it’s a fantastic play, one that I think is topical and important, that includes a wheelchair using character who is actually well-written. Despair because I knew it would inevitably lead to another embarrassing and hurtful instance of cripping up in theatre.

“Cripping up” is a term that has emerged from the disability community taking issue with the widespread issue of abled actors playing disabled roles. When a biped takes the role of a wheelchair user, they are robbing a disabled actor of a role in an area where there is already a dire scarcity of employment opportunities. It also perpetuates inaccurate and often harmful stereotypes about disabled bodies and disabled lives. Actors who crip up do not live in crip bodies and do not know what we are or aren’t capable of, how to manoeuvre, how to be. It took me months to learn my way around my fitted fixed-frame manual chair. The few times I have used steel-framed folding temp chairs, they dislocated my shoulders and left bruises on my arms.

Representation matters. 20 per cent of Australians are disabled. 5 per cent of Australians have “profound or severe limitations”. 16 per cent of all Academy Awards have been won by an abled person portraying a physically disabled or mentally ill person. In the entire history of the awards, only three have been won by physically disabled people. Dan Keplinger, the sole wheelchair user, was unable to receive his award himself because the stage was not wheelchair accessible.

In early April I messaged The Normal Heart’s production team with articles written by disability activists about cripping up, how prevalent it is, how harmful it is, offering to audition myself, to share the casting call in disability circles. The response I received was as follows:

Hello Robin, and thank you for your strong interest in our production of The Normal Heart and for raising this issue. Unfortunately, all the roles have been assigned, and since no disabled actor auditioned for the role of Emma, we did not have a choice but to take an able [sic] actress to play that part.

No choice.

The audition callout made no mention of Dr Emma Brookner being a wheelchair user. Her audition scene likewise did not include any of the stage directions featuring her wheelchair, although her first appearance in the play reads “DR. EMMA BROOKNER comes in from her office. She is in a motorised wheelchair.“

SUDS did not share the audition callout with the Disabilities and Carers Collective. They did not rewrite Emma as an abled person, since they could not find (or did not look for) a disabled actor. They did not choose a different play. “No choice.” There were so many choices.

I was going to review The Normal Heart last week, on the second night of its initial run. I wheeled through the Cellar Theatre on my way into the Holme building. I was next door in the Queerspace when the roof collapsed a few hours later. The sudden crash and vibration made me have a small seizure. I did not review the play that night.

I am not reviewing the play this week, either. The new venue of the SUDS production of The Normal Heart is the second floor of The Actor’s Pulse, up a flight of stairs. It is not wheelchair accessible.

Dr Emma Brookner is a rare gem in theatre: a respectful depiction of a wheelchair user. Angry, compassionate, clever. She is based on an actual person, Dr Linda Laubenstein, an outspoken AIDS activist who contracted polio in childhood and used a motorised wheelchair thereafter. The Normal Heart is in part a tribute to her. I don’t have to wonder what she would think of the SUDS production, because she wouldn’t be able to get into the theatre to see it.