If you look at photos or video from Marathon of Hope, a new musical that just premiered in Waterloo, Canada, about an hour outside Toronto, something seems off.
The musical is based on the life story of Terry Fox, a young Canadian man who in 1980, after losing a leg to cancer, undertook a country-wide run to raise money for and bring attention to cancer research. He did not complete his effort, because his cancer metastasized to his lungs and he died in 1981. His life is the stuff of legend in Canada, with schools, athletic centers and sculptures standing as memorials to him, and ongoing fundraising to fight cancer in his name. His story has been told in two separate TV movies, in 1983 and 2005.
So what’s wrong with the images?
It looks like the on-stage Terry Fox, especially when seen in running shorts, has three legs. One limb appears to be flesh and bone, the second is shrouded in a black legging and the third is a prosthesis. The images reveal that in telling the story of a man who is certainly one of the best known Canadian athletes and advocates with a disability, Drayton Entertainment, the producer of the musical, has cast a non-disabled actor. The prosthesis is a stand-in for the real one that Fox used to make his run; the black-clad one is an effort to disguise the presence of one of the actor’s own limbs.
The list of actors with disabilities portraying characters with disabilities on stage, TV and film is stunningly brief, despite Harold Russell’s dual Oscar win in 1947 for The Best Years of Our Lives. Deaf West’s Big River and Spring Awakening, with Deaf and disabled actors, were significant milestones on Broadway, but they remain the exception to the rule. Yet the decision to have a non-disabled actor play Terry Fox seems creatively and historically derelict (though it should be noted that Fox’s family approves of and supports the musical).
Drayton doesn’t seem unaware of the casting imperative for the show, making note of their efforts to seek talent in the amputee community. Their announcement of the show’s cast includes this statement.
Given the scope of this particular project, in addition to its regular audition process, the not-for-profit theatre company initiated a nationwide search for the role of Terry Fox through open call video auditions.
The organization also reached out to the National Amputee Centre and 35 prosthetic and orthotic centres throughout Ontario, along with the Amputee Coalition of Canada and Amputees Amplified. Additional leads were generated through Casting Workbook, an industry group providing full service casting software.
There’s no question that these are good efforts to have made. But speaking for the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, where I am interim director, the countless artists with disabilities for whom we advocate, and the hundreds we have in our files for just such casting needs, Drayton didn’t go far enough, based on the final casting of the show.
While national pride could have been an issue in a story so dear to Canadians’ hearts, Drayton may not have reached beyond Canadian borders. Within minutes of learning about Marathon of Hope and its casting yesterday, my colleagues at Inclusion were able to list several male actors in their 20s who are amputees – including Anthony Michael Lopez and Evan Ruggiero (Ruggiero’s musical skills landed him a spot on Ellen). There are other actors who fit the requirements of the role in the Inclusion files, but without public websites or Facebook pages, we’re not able to name them so publicly (Drayton never contacted Inclusion, though we often consult with Canadian as well as UK companies).
Is it possible that Drayton reached out to these performers? Certainly. As it happens, both are working on stage this fall: Ruggiero as the title role in The Toxic Avenger for the Pittsburgh CLO and Lopez in New York Theatre Workshop’s Othello. But the fact is, when telling a story about disability, about a person whose disability was so central to his fame, to not cast the role with an actor with a disability denies one message of the show and insults professional actors who are indeed capable of playing the role. Talent searches among non-professionals may sometimes prove fruitful, but there’s no guarantee. For a show such as Marathon of Hope, if an appropriate actor isn’t immediately available, the show should be delayed until they are.
Pretending to disability under the mask of “theatricality” is no solution – even if it is part of the long, frustrating history of ignoring actors with disabilities. This point was not lost on J. Kelly Nestruck, critic for The Globe and Mail in Toronto, who wrote in his review of the production:
Carroll’s casting has angered some activists who feel that this is an example of “cripping up.” For me, the larger problem is that Mustakas’s production (which also features a pair of able-bodied child actors playing disabled characters) has not found room for disability anywhere in his aesthetic.
This is a musical whose main goal is to inspire – as unabashedly as Fox did. And instead, it sends a message that while a young man with one leg may be able to run 5,373 kilometres, there is no room for anyone with atypical abilities in musical theatre.
It’s worth noting that when the 1983 TV movie The Terry Fox Story was made, an actor who was a real-life amputee played the role. When the story was told again in 2005, the filmmakers cast a non-amputee, and used digital airbrushing to replace one of his legs. Regrettably, technological advancements in filmmaking trumped lived experience. Of course, that’s not possible on stage.
Whatever the future may hold for Marathon of Hope, it has the potential to make a strong statement not only about Terry Fox’s achievements, but also about the avenues open to performers with disabilities. In its present form, it has opted only to advance the former story, while disguising the latter – not once, but three times, per Nestruck – because the producers and creative team did not fully commit to every facet of the story they sought to tell.