<Book Review>
Stage Turns: Canadian Disability Theatre
Kirsty Johnston
[McGill-Queens UP, 2012. (224 pp., 23 b&w photos) ]

Kirtsy Johnston’s Stage Turns reflects the works of Canada’s disability theatre and the challenges faced by the art form. Johnston documents the origins of disability theatre, examines the aesthetic choices of the movement, and explores different disability theatre companies across Canada. In this book, Johnston tackles the stigmas surrounding the movement by illustrating why audiences must understand disability theatre as diversity in order to truly appreciate the movement’s opportunities and aesthetics.

Johnston, an associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia, divides Stage Turns into two parts, History and Performance, in order to provide a genealogy of disability theatre and an analysis of its aesthetics and techniques through specific case studies. In Chapter 1, which also serves as the book’s introduction, Johnston discusses the different perspectives of disability and the separation between mindsets of disability as defect or as social injustice. Johnston stresses the importance of illustrating lived experience and documents the strength of Canada at the forefront of disability art and theatre.

Johnston begins the historical analysis of Canadian disability theatre in Chapter 2 with a survey of three Canadian cities: Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver. She provides a social, political, and historical background within disability advocacy in each city, illustrating the structure needed to build a safe haven for practitioners of disability theatre. Johnston describes Toronto’s Glenvale Players, focusing on their inclusive auditioning process, as well as the Sensory Narrative in Full Form company, which aims to change perceptions and treatment of mental illness and madness. Johnston concludes that similar goals exist out of companies based in Calgary and Vancouver, specifically highlighting the need of social activism through solo performance. Johnston’s decision to include various companies and practices strengthens the argument that “some groups have connected to the term disability theatre more explicitly than others” (Johnston 46). These histories analyze the different ranges and accomplishments of numerous companies in Canada, signifying that the movement occurs in many different ways, mirroring the inclusive nature of each company.

Disability theatre’s historical analysis continues into Chapters 3 and 4, moving from a broad view of theatre to a specific exploration of two companies, Workman Arts and Theatre Terrific. As Johnston follows the history of each group’s inception, funding processes, and goals, she specifically addresses debates over aesthetic choices, such as “work[ing] to devalue the axiom that mental illness needs to be written on the body” (50). Several, but not all of these examples focus on the development of new performances or framing of classic shows to change the perception of disability. Both companies evaluate the community’s needs, balancing educational opportunities and development programs for artists. Johnston provides a thorough history of obstacles surrounding each group, clearly explaining how the companies consulted demographics of members and audiences to provide a broad program of opportunities. Unfortunately, Johnston focuses only on the company as a whole without sufficiently illustrating the struggles of individual performers and artists within the groups. The reader could gain significant insight from the inclusion of personal biographies within these case studies.

In the next and final chapter of the History section, Johnston reviews the transition from local theatre to the international stage. Johnston references the negative review of a disabled performance, citing the outpouring support from companies around the world. This chapter illustrates the politics of disability theatre as a worldwide social movement, rather than solely an art form. The international strength of conferences, festivals, and networking opportunities displays the unity of the field, mirroring many other theatrical conferences. Johnston provides dozens of examples of different festivals, illustrating the large number of supporters for the movement. This history details the location, key names, and questions brought up on the international stage, but fails to complete the history by providing examples of international projects and collaborations. While Johnston strongly considers the relationships formed through disability theatre, she fails to detail why and how performers use these relationships to produce meaningful artwork. A case study about international disability theatre would greatly enhance this chapter.

In the second section of her book, Johnston focuses on case study examples. In Chapters 6 and 7, Johnston examines three productions performed to promote public awareness. The Stage Left Productions group’s Mercy Killing or Murder focused on media coverage of a man who felt he had to kill his disabled daughter to end her pain. Similarly, the Realwheels Company produced Skydive, a reflection of two brothers and how the audience viewed the representation of disability. In both instances, Johnston provides an insightful and elegantly written summary and history of each play, noting the important elements behind the shows. She illustrates how both shows attempted to allow disabled and non-disabled actors to participate, creating special spaces to include everyone. The book includes statistics of disabled-fueled injustices in Canada, including an audience survey’s results taken to measure reactions and perception changes in the audience. Discussed in Chapter 7, Johnston uses Vincent, a show about a schizophrenic man, as an example of a challenge to the social stigma and press view of mental disability. Stage Left Productions and the Realwheels Company’s artists interact with these stories to push for fair press coverage, overcome social stigmas, and to introduce social change for disabled bodies on the stage. Johnston’s inclusion of these companies clearly illustrates the strong examples of successful disability theatre in Canada that all performers should aim to duplicate.

In the final two chapters of Stage Turns, Johnston explores disabilities in the public sector, focusing on performances that challenge the medical field and government funding. Chapter 8 focuses on productions of The Glass Box and The Secret Son, reflecting civil rights violations and family embarrassments. Johnston concludes that through these performances, disability theatre works to re-imagine disability as a valued human element, instead of the stereotypes asserted by the medical field. Stage Turns criticizes the public sector’s failure to acknowledge and properly support disability; Chapter 9 interrogates the Paralympic games hosted by Canada at the expense of cutting funds from social programs, such as those designed to empower the same athletes who participate in the games. In both realms, Johnston establishes that Canadian disability theatre aims to include disabilities as valued traits in humanity and as a characteristic that deserves the right to claim its own space in society.

Stage Turns is an easy and informative read for anyone interested in disability studies, particularly the historical and theatre sides of the field. The book serves as an important reference for any actor or director who wish to develop an inclusive theatrical troupe or serve as a theatre activist. Stage Turns remains applicable for audiences foreign to theatre, as it highlights the importance of disability activism and inclusion in all aspects of life.

     — Reviewed by Betsy Hardi, Texas A&M University

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