• Christina Peña

Disabilities in Theater

Updated: Nov 20, 2019

I come from a big family. We are all very close and very protective. 

Both of my brothers are mentally handicapped. My older brother is 33. He doesn’t have a clear diagnosis but to put it in layman’s terms, he has an underdeveloped cerebellum. It’s okay if you don’t understand. It’s taken me 25 years to understand. My younger brother is 23. He has severe Autism, meaning he can’t speak. 

It will always define how I live my life.  

I want you to think about the last time you saw a mental disability on stage or film. Was it Next to Normal? Or Sunset Boulevard? Maybe you watched an episode of Glee?  

Writers have recently started trying to openly talk about mental disabilities on stage and film. I can tell you as an audience member, sometimes I have to leave the theater or turn off the TV. 

When you watch shows like Light in the Piazza, most people are astonished by the voice of the actress playing Clara or they are mesmerized by the beautiful set of Italy. I am thinking about how there is a human of abled body and mind portraying someone else’s story. Clara’s big secret is that she has brain-damaged but you are not supposed to focus on that because she is too sweet and innocent. 

Let me tell you, brain damage doesn’t always define who you are. But it shouldn’t hinder who you are as a person either. 

I took a class last year with this lovely artist, who worked on the role of Clara. It was the first time I had ever seen anything from the show because I had spent a long time avoiding it. Towards the end of our class I had a discussion with her on what it is like to watch from the perspective of a family member. I respected all the research she had done and what she had taught me about what it is like to play this role. 

I hope that everyone out there playing Clara has the same experience that she did. 

There is also this strange interest right now with Autism. I have never seen more plays or TV show or Books about the subject. Shows like The Good Doctor, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, or Speechless all show different aspects of Autism. The Autism spectrum is changing every day and we are always learning something new about it.

It is also a misconception because most people know autism as fully functioning and people who are just a little different. This can make people, who are on the other side of the spectrum more ostracized and alone. 

I think as an artist we can get lost in how pretty the score is or how deeply evolved the character is, that we forget the work it takes to understand what it is truly like to live in the world these characters. 

I’m not suggesting every Clara go get brain-damage for a week. But maybe you go volunteer with a special needs group for an afternoon. Go find a local Special Olympics and play catch. 

Or you call me and I give you my brother’s phone number. He loves to talk about himself. 

I just hope as a loving sister that you go out there and make my brothers proud to be who they are.

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