Trinity University opened their main stage season this past weekend with “Good Kids.” This show, based on the Steubenville sexual assault case of 2012, tackles the issue of sexual assault and the role of social media in exacerbating the aftermath of such crimes.
An opinion article written by an ex-student in last week’s Trinitonian and the article focuses particularly on the actor playing the narrator of the show, Deirdre, who is in a wheelchair for the entirety of the play. The author of the opinion article claims that because the actor is able-bodied and not disabled, she should not be playing a character in a wheelchair.
As an actor myself, I seriously thought about this claim. This statement means that every actor must already have real-life experience similar to those of their character, otherwise the actor will be appropriating those experiences. The idea that an actor must experience everything the character has lived is taking method acting to another level. For example, if a character is an alcoholic, then a method actor would actually become an alcoholic while embracing that role. If the actor must have experienced everything their character has, it takes away the representation of art and theatre. Acting is about representing, which means that the actor does not need to be exactly like the character; otherwise, no talent would be needed by the actor.
The author says that the department should have actively attempted to find actors in wheelchairs; auditions are advertised and open to all, but no one is invited nor pressured to audition. The theatre department cannot force a disabled person to play a part, as that would potentially cause discomfort and make them feel exposed and used because of their condition. Moreover, what if a student in a wheelchair auditioned, but a better actor was found through the audition process? Would the department be expected to cast the character based on whether they were in a wheelchair or not, instead of casting the better actor? Not casting the better actor would be a disservice to the play.
The author mentions two options the theatre department should have considered: first, that the department should not have done the show. From an outsider’s perspective (which the author is “” she left the school), this claim is disrespectful to the entire department. There is a policy of season selection that involves students and faculty input. “Good Kids” was thoughtfully selected through a process of reviewing the proposed season’s educational goals, budget, past seasons, the size and range of the casting pool, etc. Consequently, it was selected for a number of reasons. Not only that, the play covers important material on sexual assault that any community profits from watching.
The author also suggests that the department should have brought in a guest artist. This has happened before, with a child actor in “Pippin” and then a professional actor in “Mousetrap.” These actors were chosen based on their suitability for the role and the needs of the play. Deirdre, on the other hand, could be believably played by a student actor. Marlon Brando in the 1950 film “The Men” played a paraplegic war veteran to great critical acclaim without actually being paralyzed himself. More recently, Jared Leto played a trans woman with HIV in “Dallas Buyers Club” to astounding success, again without being a trans woman or having HIV himself.
The author also claims that “Representation needs to be rooted in inclusion; otherwise it is appropriation.” At first glance, I had no problem with this statement. However, I started to think: does that mean “Fiddler on the Roof” is appropriation of Jewish culture? What about “RENT”? For example, I had the opportunity to be involved in a production of the one actor show “Amish Project,” a play based on a true story of a shooting at an Amish school. The actress playing all of the characters was not Amish. Does this mean the play was appropriating the Amish community? No, and that is the beauty of representation and theatre in general: one can embrace any role in order to empower a certain people and draw appropriate attention to their community and situation in ways that they aren’t able to otherwise. Again, going back to the example of the sexual assault survivor, does this mean that the actor playing the survivor in “Good Kids” needs to be a sexual assault survivor in real life? Otherwise, is it appropriation of sexual assault survivors’ stories? I would argue, after talking to several survivors themselves, that this play is empowering them and drawing attention to their situations. It is representing their stories. The actors are having the opportunity to empathize and experience a bit of life firsthand with this subject, and are therefore being educated themselves as well as educating their audiences. After all, this is an educational theatre.
My final and most important point: this whole disabilities issue is not the central point of the play! It is focused on sexual assault and how we deal with it in our modern world. We should not be distracted by irrelevant noise trying to drown out an important conversation, but rather realize how empowering this show is. In fact, Deirdre’s disability in the show is a physical manifestation of her dealing with her own sexual assault. The fact of the matter is that this article was written by someone far outside the Trinity theatre department, with no concept of the play, process or conversations surrounding it. I argue that Trinity University and our theatre department are taking major strides by addressing sexual assault. This topic is one that is important to address, but one that many people shy away from.
Theatre has been used, since the beginning of civilization, to place the stories and issues of people on a platform where audiences can be educated, become empathetic and recognize that they are not alone. “Good Kids” has done this for one of the most silenced communities: sexual assault survivors. Our theatre department is not taking a step backward with this production, but rather a step forward in creating change through conversation about a subject matter that is important and relevant to our community.