I am perhaps the only actor to ever freely admit to struggling with Tennessee Williams, but I do. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the American South I struggle with, having gone to school in North Carolina and two parents born south of the Mason Dixon Line I know the gothic ways of the region. No, I have problems with William’s female characters. More specifically, I have problems with Laura in The Glass Menagerie.
Maybe it’s the weight of expectation that stands so strongly in my way. I cannot tell you how many acting teachers, upon first meeting me have proclaimed: you would make a beautiful Laura Wingfield. I’ve never actually been cast in the play however because most of those teachers soon figure out that I’m about as far away from Laura Wingfield as you can get. Indeed, I’m not frail. I’m not insecure. And I really don’t have time to sit at home and collect glass animals. (I do however have an impressive collection of Happy Meal toys if that counts for anything?)
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if Laura Wingfield didn’t sum up in every way exactly what is expected of you if you are a young woman with a physical disability. People want you to be sweet, shy, even placating even you rock the boat. It makes you easier to handle if you know your place. This is a character with a disability who may not ‘fit in,’ but at least she knows her place is at home and out of the way. Such is what is very often expected of you when you’re a young women with a disability, it just goes without saying.
As an actor we are supposed to be able to relate to all types of people, even if they are very different to yourself. Of course I understand what it is like to lack confidence, to feel disenfranchised due to a physical disability, but it takes a fair bit of my imagination to get there. My objection comes in with the presumption that as a young woman with a disability I should be able to relate to every character with a disability automatically. As if being a woman with a disability is a monolithic experience, I always get told “you’d be great at playing [insert disabled female role here].”
If I was in Laura Wingfield’s position, I’d go to that short hand class, get myself a job, and get as far away from my control freak of a mother as soon as possible. As someone who is much more physically disabled than the character and who picked up and moved eight time zones away from her parents right out of college, I think I’ve earned the right to say that. That doesn’t mean I think my experience of living with a disability is the only one worth relating to. I just wish that more playwrights and drama teachers understood there can be more to disability in storytelling than a few stock characters.
Because it’s a Brave New World out there. Every Day.