I have done a couple of interviews about my work on a couple different shows, and it always comes down to the same question. Why do I enjoy the burlesque world? Why do I think it has a benefit for me as a disabled performer?
The answer is in self selecting casting. In theater, I was always cast as either a little girl, or an evil person. Only once did I get to play a young woman in love. Only once did I get to do that. The first role I ever played was Caliban – the monster in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. On looking back on it, many people have suggested that perhaps this was inappropriate casting for a young girl with a cataracted eye. At an Oxford University summer program, I played Cassius in Julius Caesar. I was the evil manipulator, and part of the way my director had me play that manipulation out on stage, was to have Cassius pretend to be a blind man. The ploy for sympathy made sense in the context, but looking back I see it as a challenging way to question disability. Theater and disability are tricky things, and I often just wanted to play someone without having to adapt it to myself. I’ve been witches, and I’ve been old women, and I have been the tortured and angry Betty Parris – but until burlesque, I never felt like I was playing a person I wanted to play. Nobody would cast me as Juliet. Nobody would cast me as Marian the Librarian. Creating my own opportunities became my best chance.
In burlesque, there is frequently no director – and when there is, they are asking you for proposals on what you’d like to do in their show. So through that process we choose what characters we embody. I no longer have to portray the evil character because someone told me to, but rather, I get to choose. When Whedonesque Burlesque called, I was able to self select to a character whom I wanted to play – and it wasn’t a vampire. I suggested three options, and the one my producer decided that we should pursue, was that of Kaylee. I wanted to play Kaylee because I felt like she and I had more in common than many of the other characters. I wanted to demonstrate her sweetness, and her love for her ship. Most importantly, I wanted to have fun – and in regular theater, I rarely got to play fun roles.
I think there’s a lot of power in being able to say who you want to play, and there’s a lot of power in being able to say who you want to be.
This isn’t just a benefit for those of us with disabilities, but for everyone. I think a lot of people can benefit from being able to self select who they play on stage. Many in the theater have roles they would love to play, but would never be given the chance because of what they look like. Perhaps you’re considered too heavy, or too old. Perhaps you think you have the right spirit, but your director doesn’t agree. Self selecting roles is both a way to validate yourself, and a way to show the world that you are something others do not necessarily see.
The downside to self-selection is obviously when those selections are inappropriate. When people put on a race that is not their own, or a disability which they do not live with, or for that matter a mental illness which they do not posses – then it becomes problematic. People feel that because they can choose to become anyone at all, they can do so without judgement. However, because self-selection requires us to look within, we also must look without. Commonly, blackface is verboten, putting on another race is considered inappropriate and wrong. Using another culture is called cultural appropriation. Why is it then, that performers do not see the same taboo in playing disabilities and illnesses which they do not live with? Consider that your actions in costume do reflect upon individuals for whom the costume is reality.
Self selection is a wonderful thing, but with it comes a great responsibility to care for one another. It is this precise self selection which makes burlesque a viable and important art form, but if we abuse self selection, where does that leave us?
(I highly encourage polite dialogue. I screen comments, so be thoughtful.)