When retired Syracuse University VPA professor Elizabeth Ingram brought her daughter Becci, who has Down syndrome, to theaters around England, people stared. Their negative experiences in London did not turn Becci away from theater, though. After moving to Massachusetts, Becci gathered neighbors and friends to perform the plays she wrote and directed as part of “The Buckingham Players,” named after the street the Ingrams lived on.
“She was mad about theater,” Ingram said. Doctors told Ingram that Becci would never develop mentally and that she should be placed in a home for disabled children. Becci passed away at the age of 26 in 2000, having written 80 plays in her lifetime as well as several poems.
Ingram founded All Star C.A.S.T. (Community Actors and Students’ Theater) in 1991 so that people with Down syndrome in the Syracuse community could express themselves in a judgment free zone.
A recent GLAAD study found that 1.7 percent of all series regulars on broadcast networks in 2016 had a disability. This is the greatest percentage of onscreen representation since GLAAD began tracking statistics of disabilities in 2010. Most recently, and perhaps most acclaimed, in this trend has been “Speechless” on ABC, which in its first season earned a 98 percent fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes critics. The show stars Micah Fowler as, JJ DiMeo, a student with cerebral palsy. “Speechless” focuses on JJ and his family handling problems that people with disabilities face like being seen as “inspiration porn.”
A&E’s “Born This Way” focuses on the lives of people with Down syndrome. It recently earned an Emmy Award for Outstanding Unstructured Reality Series and has brought disabilities into a realm of mainstream recognition. This rise in representation has also crossed over into film. A study conducted by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that 2.4 percent of all speaking or named characters in 800 popular films released between 2007 and 2015 were shown with a disability.
While on-screen representation has been a relatively new development, Syracuse University has been providing representation of people with disabilities for nearly 20 years since the creation of All Star C.A.S.T., formerly known as the Young Actors Workshop. SU drama students and professors help actors and actresses with disabilities hone their acting skills and put on two shows a year, one each semester.
Ingram found people to participate in the workshop through Becci’s connections and by going to care facilities in the area. Kayla McKeon, a 15-year veteran of the program, who also works as a motivational speaker, discovered the program through the Special Olympics. She has fallen in love with performing and expressing herself through acting.
“I love it,” McKeon said. “I love when I’m up on stage, people guessing, ‘Is that Kayla or is that someone else?’”
Acting majors volunteer to teach and lead the actors through tier exercises and help perform shows. The group has evolved to form two groups in Syracuse: a beginner class and an advanced class comprised of many early and original members of the program. The groups meet weekly and perform plays like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Grease,” as well as plays the actors write themselves.
SU acting major and student facilitator at All Star C.A.S.T., Lucy Bond, has seen how liberating the workshop can be for both the actors and the students that volunteer there.
“It shows what you can do with a play. It doesn’t have to be your idea of ‘Death of a Salesman,’” Bond said. “I’m surprised at how not shy they are. I always leave refreshed and feeling better after [workshop sessions].”
Mark Joseph of Liverpool, another a long-time member of All Star C.A.S.T. said he feels a mix of nervous, happy and excited when he performs onstage. The All Star C.A.S.T. revealed that this semester’s play is inspired by silent films and will premiere on May 7 at the Syracuse Stage.
Fiona Hare, acting freshman, while not involved with All Star C.A.S.T., has also found acting as a useful outlet to accept her own disabilities. Doctors diagnosed Hare with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in middle school. She felt ashamed of her disability but found solace when she began acting in school plays.
“I was an advanced student, and I was diagnosed with a learning disability. The only way I felt better about dealing with the situation was when I was pretending to be someone else in a play,” Hare said.
Hare found strength in her roles to help her relate and personally deal with her disabilities, especially when she was cast as the main character in “Eurydice.”
“I played Eurydice, who was a very strange thinker. ADHD tendencies were written into the character, and I don’t think an actor without a disability would have picked up on that,” Hare said. “My disability helped me understand who she was as a character.”
Hare, like the actors of the All Star C.A.S.T. and Becci, has found acting to be an outlet for positive self-expression and self-acceptance
“[The stage] has developed into a place where I can be more myself than anywhere else,” Hare said.