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Disability Theatre and Modern Drama: Recasting Modernism.

Kirsty Johnston. Disability Theatre and Modern Drama: Recasting Modernism. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2016. Pp. ix + 228. $29.95.

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 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 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 in the second chapter, "Critical Embodiment and Casting," which begins with Brecht's critique of casting for type in modern theatre. Johnston then considers contemporary casting and actor training politics, articulating what is at stake in considering casting and disability theatre: "a larger interrogation of theatre inclusion and diversity" (37). She makes productive connections with racially inclusive productions and histories of non-traditional casting, which also consider the importance of inclusive and equitable practices at all levels of theatrical production. The attention to embodiment puts into practice the appeal of "nothing about us without us," a precept of disability rights organizers that insists on the necessity of self-determination by people with disabilities. There is an interesting discussion of the ways in which literalism and realism may be particular barriers to creating equitable practices in theatre--even though those frames are sometimes antithetical to theatrical processes that value the possibility of transformation. In this chapter, and the ones that follow, Johnston sustains an analysis of accessibility in various modes: audience development and access, actor training, theatrical space and staging. In the fourth chapter, "Inherited Plays and New Approaches," Johnston considers what tropes of disability and ability might be unsettled, revised, or reclaimed when actors with disabilities embody dramatic roles.

Considerations of reception--and the importance of distinguishing between lived and metaphorical disabilities--are important at the conclusion of the first part of the book. In part 2, Michael Davidson's essay, '"Every Man his Specialty': Beckett, Disability, and Dependence," persuasively argues that the "human condition in Beckett's plays is living with disability and dependence, however abject their portrayal may be" (126, emphasis original). Part 2 also includes Johnston's interview with Jenny Sealey (Graeae Theatre Company's Artistic Director) and a textual version of a multi-media performance art piece in the final chapter. That piece, "Shattering the Glass Menagerie," by Terry Galloway, M. Shane Grant, Ben Gunter, and Carrie Sandahl is engaging on the page and evokes the potential of Johnston's premise.

Ann M. Fox's essay, "Reclaiming the Ordinary Extraordinary Body: Or, The Importance of The Glass Menagerie for Literary Disability Studies," deserves particular praise in this strong collection. This essay is in sharp alignment with the overall objectives of Johnston's volume, including when Fox writes that
we can find examples of disability representation that, when more
carefully parsed, suggest that disability has been an integral subject
for and part of social protest for longer than we might suspect....
That is important to critics like me and to readers new to disability
studies: it encourages us to reclaim disability history in ways that,
while acknowledging ableism and oppression, also fully appreciate its
presence as generative, innovative, and creative. It suggests there are
opportunities to explore disability and these plays anew, an exciting
situation for both the critic and the artist (132, emphasis original).

Fox then turns to demonstrate what that careful parsing might look like when considering The Glass Menagerie: both scholars' responses and theatre practitioners' insights are included. Fox's consideration of how actors with disabilities might transform and recharge this play suggests the theatrical merit of such contributions.

Johnston's work demonstrates the benefits of thinking creatively about how to navigate ableist attitudes and structures. Throughout, she makes a convincing case that disability has a historical role in modern theatre and that attentiveness to disability theatre practices offer creative, compelling choices within this art form. The creative impact of a sustained inquiry into disability theatre is apparent throughout this work; often, the political reverberations are evident as well.


Eastern Connecticut State University
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Author:McDonnell, Maureen
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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