by guest critic Steven Strauss
Even in the current march towards greater representation across the arts for all marginalized communities, people with learning disabilities too often find themselves on the outside always looking in, literally. Though their stories have graced stages and screens throughout the years, they’re often performed by actors not personally afflicted with the depicted disabilities.
Such is the case for We Live by the Sea, the first play of this year’s Brits Off Broadway Festival, which annually imports a collection of shows across the Atlantic to New York’s 59E59 Theaters. The production’s intentions undeniably come from a good place. Patch of Blue, the company responsible for this venture, specializes in devised theatre that expands the conventional scope of audiences, and here they share the life of a 15-year-old woman on the autism spectrum.
Even though Alexandra Brain’s lead turn is as deep in its sensitivity as it is in its observational truth, her incessant, erratic twitching can’t help but feel overly performative, especially since they conform to the legacy of familiar character tics many consider to be awards-bait. It’s not that she doesn’t look the part, nor that she lays it on too thick – rather, the awareness that she’s indeed acting almost unavoidably veers into overacting.
Perhaps my unease is due to the plethora of recent productions I’ve seen – too numerous to list here – featuring disabled characters played by disabled performers. They put to rest ignorant notions such as the suggestions that these actors simply aren’t out there, or that the realm of perpetually, penny-pinching theatre necessitates keeping costs down – an impossibility when one member of the ensemble requires special rehearsal conditions.
Did these trailblazers face distinct challenges? Of course. But the return in unparalleled and refreshing authenticity is difficult to match. Art should strive for the new, and seeing the same sorts of actors doing their best imitations usually can’t compare to seeing these people play versions of themselves for the first time. And from a moral perspective, how are these kids supposed to believe acting is even a viable future for them without actually seeing role models like them onstage?
Of course, art dies when it’s decreed that no one can access someone with life experiences far removed from their own; that’s the bedrock of art’s empathy. A litany of examples come to mind proving this point (such as the deservedly-acclaimed Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). But every production like We Live by the Sea must now reckon with the following, potentially insurmountable question:
The world will always need to hear these stories, but isn’t it finally time for the long-marginalized to tell their own?
We Live By the Sea runs through 6 May.
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