‘Disability art is fruitful, meaningful and done in ways that are equivalent to, or better than, non-disabled people’: New anthology invites readers into the worlds of Disability performance

April 11, 2022 by Sean McNeely - A&S News

Jessica Watkin could easily deliver a passionate monologue about the lack of representation in academia for theatre written and performed by Disabled artists.

Instead, the PhD candidate with the Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies has edited Interdependent Magic: Disability Performance in Canada to show there’s an abundance of amazing Disability art to be discovered, shared and taught.

Created primarily for educators and theatre practitioners, the book consists of four plays and interviews by, for and about Disabled theatre artists, giving readers a backstage pass into the world of Disability arts culture.

“The driving force for this book was my entire undergrad education as a blind theatre major,” says Watkin. “I was in a lot of classrooms that had a lot of different plays, and not a lot of Disability representation.

“But Disabled artists do a lot of work in professional theatre, and do it in really cool and exciting ways, and the pieces in this book demonstrate that. I'm literally saying to all of my theatre professors, ‘You no longer can tell me there’s no Disability work. Now, you can go forward and educate.”

Book cover with title:  Interdependent Magic: Disability Performance in Canada
Interdependent Magic: Disability Performance in Canada is a collection of plays and interviews by, for, and about Disabled theatre artists that invites readers into the magical worlds of Disability arts culture.

The book opens with helpful sections about Disability culture — what Disability means, current terms related to Disability, recommended language when interacting with people with disabilities. Watkins also covers the topics of “inspiration porn” and Disability justice — helping readers further appreciate the book’s plays.

“I thought it would give an understanding of the lived experience of Disability so as readers continue to the plays, they’re more familiar with terms and concepts and appreciate these beautiful representations of Disability life.”

Each of the plays begins with an introduction to provide context and background, written by a play’s cast member or a Disabled artist connected to the production. One introduction is done through images, supporting the idea that Disability art doesn’t have to be text-based.

The first play, Smudge, by Alex Bulmer, captures her experiences as a young queer woman gradually going blind in her early twenties.

“There's lots of humor, jokes in doctors’ offices, and making jokes with her partner about audio description and how sex scenes in movies are really funny to say out loud,” says Watkin. The end of the play takes a more serious tone when the reality of losing one’s vision sets in.

“Of course, I had a really close relationship with that experience,” says Watkin who gradually lost her vision as a teenager because of a rare degenerative eye disease. Though unable to recognize faces, she has limited vision in one eye and can see light and movement, and can read text in a large font.  

Disability art is fruitful, meaningful and done in ways that are equivalent to, or better than, non-disabled people. It can be just as evocative or engaging and can demonstrate Disability life in vibrant, complex and multi-dimensional ways.

The second play, Access Me, written by Andrew Gurza, Ken Harrower, and Frank Hull — also known Boys in Chairs Collective — is about three gay wheelchair-using men and their experiences with dating and sex in Toronto.

“They very enthusiastically talk about how people treat them in caregiving situations and what sex feels like as a man who uses a wheelchair. It's quite explicit, they want to bring queer and Disabled sexuality to the forefront.”

The third play is a short piece called Antarctica by Syrus Marcus Ware which addresses climate change and white supremacy. Set in the future, the earth is crumbling, and the world's leaders have sent delegates to colonize Antarctica, as it's the only place left that hasn’t been totally destroyed.

“Out of 11 colonizers, we follow the three colonizers of colour,” says Watkin. “They start to question some of the systems that are perpetrating in Antarctica amid these new colonies.

“All three cast members are Disabled and experience chronic pain, but this isn't just about Disability, it’s also about what can the Disability perspective offer in the world that's happening around us. How can Disability change what we think about climate change and white supremacy? Syrus captures that beautifully.”

The last play, Deafy, written by Chris Dodd, captures the experience of what it’s like to be a Deaf person in a hearing world. When performed, it blends sign language, spoken words, and captions, to weave a tragicomedy that deals with deafness, community and what it means to belong.

The book also features an interview with Niall McNeil, a neurodivergent artist with Down syndrome who discusses how he creates and performs his craft.

“I really wanted to have Niall’s voice talking about how he creates in a way that is different than somebody who's non-disabled,” says Watkin.

“But his art is exciting on a level that goes beyond just overcoming Disability,” she adds, noting that in any community, be it Disabled or non-disabled, McNeil has had a distinguished, award-winning career in theatre for over 25 years, as a playwright, performer and director.

By showcasing and celebrating artists like McNeil and the other contributors in Interdependent Magic, Watkins hopes “for readers to explore the different ways these Disabled artists live their lives, have value in their lives and create beautiful art.

“Disability art is fruitful, meaningful and done in ways that are equivalent to, or better than, non-disabled people. It can be just as evocative or engaging and can demonstrate Disability life in vibrant, complex and multi-dimensional ways.”

Virtual Book Launch

Join Playwrights Canada Press in celebrating the launch of Interdependent Magic: Disability Performance in Canada.

This is a live virtual event with readings from contributors Jessica Watkin; Alex Bulmer (Smudge); Syrus Marcus Ware (Antarctica); Frank Hull and Andrew Gurza of the Boys in Chairs Collective with an introduction from Debbie Patterson, Brian Postalian, and Jonathan Seinen (Access Me); Chris Dodd (Deafy); as well as an interview with Niall McNeil and Becky Gold.

ASL interpretation and captioning will be provided during the event. A written document of the excerpts to be read will be sent out ahead of the event and shared during the event. Please send an email to info@playwrightscanada.com by April 11 if you have any other access needs in order to attend.