I’ve wanted to be an actress since I was nine. I remember being in the attic of my primary school in a drama class and loving it. The school used to be a private house so the attic was small and cosy, and we sat cooped up in a circle near the window. I can still see the red of our matching blouses, the dogtooth skirt of my uniform bunched up against the girl sitting next to me. We were playing a game about how people show their feelings: anger, love, happiness. Simple enough, but the freedom to express emotions, to let another person understand how you were feeling and why, felt like a real departure. It felt like being able to tell the truth. And it was a brilliant feeling, being watched and watching other people. Acting, I decided, was the one thing I was really good at.
I became obsessed with going to the cinema. I loved the tingle of excitement when the lights went down and the MGM lion roared, and would dream about being on that big screen too one day. But at secondary school that confidence was challenged by a reality that, in my childish enthusiasm, I hadn’t accounted for. I had been born without my right forearm.
I carried on with drama throughout secondary school but, around the time of my GCSEs, my drama teacher took me aside for a chat. She was always enthusiastic and supportive, but when I said I wanted to pursue professional acting, her response surprised me. By all means keep it up as a hobby, she said, but it wasn’t sensible to consider it as a profession – because of my disability. Her advice was based on experience: a friend of hers who was a blind actor had encountered many difficulties and closed doors in the profession. It was a shock. And though I trusted her, though I looked up to her, my only thought was: I’ll show you.
With hindsight, I look back at my response with embarrassment. But it wasn’t an entirely negative one.That stubbornness was a reaction to many underlying issues – which I would unpack years later in therapy – but it did give me the energy and focus I needed to keep going. I can see now that Mrs Campbell was being protective and was si cerely trying to help me, but what fifteen-year-old thinks like that? I ignored her: I carried on performing in school plays and then applied to study English and Drama at university. But though I got on to the course, once there I didn’t get into any plays at all. I spent two years thinking I was no good at acting – feeling more isolated and uncertain than I ever had before.
In my final year of undergrad, I decided at the last minute to apply for drama school. I’d left it so late that only one school was still accepting applications. On the day of my audition, I immediately liked the vibes I got from the school. I was early, so early that I arrived before the panel, who all rocked up about five minutes before we were due to start. They didn’t take themselves too seriously and I felt that might be a good fit for me. Two weeks later, I opened up the letterbox and sitting there was a fat envelope with the drama school’s stamp on it. I literally screamed with joy.
For two happy years I diligently took everything in. Looking back, I wish I could have told myself to chill out and not be so bloody earnest, but I suppose that’s how time works. You feel like you’re learning the craft of a thing systematically, through lessons and conscious effort, but you don’t always see how fundamental the simple passage of time is. Twelve years on, that person in their mid twenties is almost unrecognizable. I was so impatient, not ready to relax and be myself. And although I knew it would be difficult out there in the real world, nothing could have prepared me for what it’s actually like.
In the final term of drama school, where it becomes all about the industry and agents and so on, I got a prosthetic. I thought it would help my chances in an industry that felt impenetrable even without giving casting directors an extra reason to say no. I hadn’t worn a prosthetic since I was a teenager.They were cumbersome and uncomfortable. Wearing one after so long, I didn’t feel like I was being me. I was compromising, and hating it, because I was so scared that I might never work without this silicone thing at my side, making me look the same as everyone else.
After graduation, I stopped wearing the prosthetic but still felt very much that a part had to be written with a disability for me to be considered. In rare cases, I was cast in a ‘normal’ role, and I clung to those young directors who thought more broadly, who could see beyond my arm. But I spent a lot of years questioning myself. One time I was doing a show with Graeae, an inclusive theatre company that places disabled actors centre stage, and one of the other actors challenged me in the stairwell. He saw that I didn’t identify as someone ‘different’. I did not really consider myself to be disabled. He was right: all my life I had been able to do what other people could do. Physically, it hadn’t really affected me. But I had to start seeing myself that way, because the outside world certainly did. Being a good actress was not going to be enough. The quicker I got to grips with the reality of my disability, the better.
That talk changed everything for me, challenging my ignorance about disability politics. I realized I had spent my life facilitating others’ needs, with no connection to what I was feeling myself. All the suppressed feelings of anger about how I was stared at every day, the comments people made in the street, were bubbling up to the surface. In the past I had laughed them off – that felt like the safest way to protect myself – but I couldn’t ignore them any longer.
I started therapy not long after that, walking down a long, necessary road of painful realizations and uncomfortable truths. Entering my thirties, armed with new knowledge of my own identity, I began writing to all the people I admired in the industry: I wanted to talk to them about disabled actors in theatre; I wanted to know what the issues were. I knew it wasn’t a topic that people wanted to engage with; you could see that clearly from the total absence of disabled performers on mainstream stages. The only way forward was to find people who were willing to have a real conversation about it.
Those conversations took years to develop. The attitude to diversity was not what it is today, and the meetings I had with people were few and far between, but they were incredibly valuable and each year the pool of people willing to listen got a bit bigger. More people were getting involved, and in the gaps between the meetings I noticed how our understanding was growing. We were less angry, frustrated and scared, more willing to say what we really thought and felt. The requests to talk to people with real power came more easily and I started telling those people more clearly and more often what I wanted to see change.
We talked about so many things through those years of meetings – but time and again we returned to the core idea that a disabled actor doesn’t need to have a part written for them, or to have their disability explained. It can be incidental that a performer has a different body. Having an actor with a disability may even bring an unexpected layer to the text and character, a nuance or dimension or reading which an able body does not offer. We still have a long way to go – but this new practice is happening more and more. And the conversations that led us here helped me harness my ideas about my own work, and my own identity.
So often my daily attitude to the passage of time is a negative one. Never enough time, running out of time, time lost or falling through my fingers like water. But those slow years, before I found my feet in the industry, were so valuable. I spent them talking and listening and considering the kind of actor that I want to be. So that when the time finally came for my career to take flight, I wasn’t walking into the room apologizing for being me. I was ready.