It’s one of the first pieces of advice we hear when we set out to create. Whether it’s that great novel, lyrical verse, an academic argument or a manuscript—a writer’s life experience plays a big factor in the type of character, emotion, imagery or viewpoint conveyed on the page.
Writing what I know was my approach when I created my first piece for the stage way back in the mid-1990s.
It was a time when diversity on our stages was rare, in fact pretty much non-existent. I was still in university studying theatre at the time. And as a young man with a physical disability requiring the use of leg braces and crutches for mobility the glaring lack of diversity in the works I was studying or viewing was glaring. Rarely would I find a reflection of my physicality or lived experience in published works or contemporary performance.
It’s why I set out to write a play where one of the lead characters lived with a physical disability. Not to mention it gave me a lead role I was not getting in mainstream works. It was a cute comedy about two college roommates with opposing personalities and one of those roommates happened to live with a physical disability. I created for myself what I could not find easily as an audience member—representation.
The piece was well received. “An entertaining, easy to digest, comedy with heart,” as one reviewer put it. But, more so, the piece was noticed for its focus on living with a disability and societal misconceptions encountered. Media coverage and reviews heralded the representation.
It was my first foray into not only being a playwright with a produced work, but also a spokesperson on disability rights and representation. Whether I wanted to be or not.
Back then, this twenty-something was much less enthusiastic to talk about his physical difference in public mediums. Creating a character that lives on a page or is protected by a proscenium on stage is one thing. Accepting a real-life label as a “physically challenged writer”—the acceptable term at the time and talking in media about my personal struggles as a disabled man—is quite another.
"I wasn’t a writer—I was a 'disabled writer.'”
At the time, I resented how disability overshadowed any reviews or feedback on the quality of the writing or performances. Instead, attention and feedback reflected most of my identity growing up—external disability seen first—the actual person second. I wasn’t a writer—I was a “disabled writer.” The label came with that typical “good for him” inspirational attitude.
Fast forward a few decades. With a number of works under my belt and much more life experiences to draw from, I still find myself playing a dual role—creator and advocate—but unlike when I started out, I’ve learned to embrace both roles.
In 2018 my most recent produced work, Crippled, debuted. I set out to write the piece as an artistic healing journey. As a writer, I find it a lot easier to discover and explain what I am feeling on paper rather than in spoken word. When my partner of nine years, Jonathan, passed away suddenly in 2013 I was devastated. My entire life had turned upside down. Most painful, because of the suddenness of his death, I never got to say everything I wanted to say. My grief knocked me down, so much so I literally had to relearn how to function in a changed world. I did. And out of that healing came the need for closure. I found it in creating Crippled, a story when I got to say everything I didn’t get to say in real life.
When writing Crippled I debated many times whether the character representing me would have a disability. I wanted this play to be about love and loss. About grief and pain. About finding ways to live on. The more I thought about it, the more I knew I had to be truthful about the impact of the relationship on my life. And that included my life as a man with a disability. And the love of a man who gave me confidence to overcome the self- doubt of physical attractiveness and worth when walking through life every day with leg braces and crutches.
What grew out of the performances and most recently, publication, of the story was what every writer longs for. A true connection to our audience.
Nothing is more satisfying than hearing you made your audience feel what you intended. That you hit the right relatable emotional note. I heard from many how they related to the themes of the piece. Grief, coming out, love, loss and yes, disability. But this time I found I embraced the feedback—especially the impact of disability themes and performer.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate to meet theatre makers across the country including those who identify as living with a disability—both seen and unseen. I’ve also learned that representation has been a long and uphill battle in our arts world when it comes to disability and accessibility. It’s why, even now, thirty years since that first production, disability presence and perspective is still the rarity rather than the norm when it comes to what we read and see on our stages. It’s why such works still attract media attention. It’s why I’m writing this article.
My transition to embracing the advocacy role through my artistic work came one day while writing. I was deciding if disability would be an attribute of a character. I thought, why should I have to go there all the time? Fact is, I didn’t. I could certainly write a piece with absolutely nothing to do with disability. But after a long period of pondering, I thought: if not me, then who?
Today, I proudly think of myself as both a writer and an advocate. The two can co-exist. Correction—must exist. The value of both is what not only drives me to continue creating but has also helped me develop a loving appreciation for my disability and the impact it has on my work and representation overall.
Write what you know—you bet!
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Paul David Power’s work includes roles in over 30 stage plays across the country as well as directing and producing. His was President of the Liffey Players Drama Society in Calgary, Alberta for three years, Artistic Director for Hubcity Theatre in Moncton, New Brunswick for five years and Artistic Associate for the Shakespeare by the Sea Festival in St. John’s, Newfoundland for three years. Paul identifies as a disabled artist. He owns Power Productions, a professional theatre company dedicated to the development of works and artists with a focus on the disabled, Deaf and MAD Arts domain. He lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
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