“Amanda Wingfield only wants the best for her two children, Tom and Laura. With her socialite adolescence behind her, Amanda puts all her energies into pushing her children up the social and financial ladder from which she has fallen. Shadowed by the absence of a father, they struggle to break free from their mother’s imposing ways.”
Since 1990, July has been marked as Disability Pride Month. The month’s origin stems from the enactment of civil rights protections for Americans with disabilities and is now commemorated around the world.
In honour of Disability Pride Month, Magazine 6000 spoke with actor Acacia Daken about her own disability in connection with her upcoming role as Laura in Black Swan State Theatre Company’s production of The Glass Menagerie. Here’s what she had to say…
You’re playing the role of Laura; how do you perceive her as a character? Are there elements of Laura and her story that you resonate with?
Taking on the role of Laura has been a deeply personal experience for me. As someone with a disability, who is still discovering how I want to identify myself in relation to my disability and chronic condition. Laura has allowed me to step into my own story, instead of living in spite of it. She really has been a gift.
Laura is an incredibly fragile human. There’s a line where she says… “If you breathe, it breaks” and I think that’s very true of her, and the way people interact with her. Yet I think with anyone who is that suppressed – deep, deep within there is something wild, yearning to be released. And that conflict is alive in her body. Like her glass animals, she is transparent; she feels things very deeply, very much in her body and values sincerity above all else.
For me what’s most fascinating about her is her inner trauma. It is her severe anxiety which is truly crippling for her. I think she is completely traumatised. She suffered a terrible illness as a child, the days she would have spent alone, wondering if she was going to live, and then dealing with the physical impairment, especially within the society of the 1930s. As Jim says it’s been “magnified thousands of times by [her] imagination” and while that could be read as a dismissive, ableist statement. I truly believe what she is limited by now is her lack of self-belief, and her lack of support. She absolutely is suffering with post-traumatic stress. Something I too was diagnosed with after my initial injury, I am fortunate enough to be living in a time where these conditions are acknowledged, and I had a decent support network around me. Instead, Laura has her glass menagerie. It’s the only thing she can control – it’s her escape, as is the music she plays to soothe herself.
Acacia Daken in The Glass Menagerie rehearsal room. Photography Dana Weeks.
As someone with a similar lived experience to Laura, in having a disability, what does it mean to you and the wider community of people with disabilities to see authentic casting in roles like these?
Visibility is so incredibly important and to be completely honest, I was initially worried because I am someone whose disability isn’t immediately evident. I didn’t want people to think they weren’t being truthfully represented.
In the play Laura is described as having a ‘little physical defect’. She wore a brace on her leg as a child that “clumped so loud”. There isn’t much evidence of how prominent that limp is by the time we meet her as a twenty-four-year-old in the play. Often it is portrayed as a leg length difference. It felt improper to ‘put on’ a limp, when that is not my personal condition. For our interpretation of her physicality, we have chosen to draw on my own experience and acknowledge the physical care and discomfort someone with an ongoing physical impairment has as they navigate their day-to-day life and the exhaustion of that.
I have so appreciated Black Swan for acknowledging those of us who live in the grey area of ‘invisible disability’. It’s the first time in my entire career as an actor, that there has been open discussions about my needs, and I have been given proper support. It has been a very emotional journey for me being able to openly embrace what I live with everyday instead of trying to hide it, and a totally bizarre experience at allowing it to be revealed within my character!
It’s a deeper connection than I’ve ever known with a character, and I can only imagine the story telling we will get when actors of all ranges of abilities are able to work from their lived-experience and are more openly represented in the content we create.
How do you think the theatre industry is adapting to being more accommodating for performers with disabilities? Do you think enough is being done?
Honestly, I don’t – based on the way I have been treated. It often feels like diversity is a box that needs to be visibly ticked. I don’t mean to be controversial in saying that but in the process, I have seen actors damaged. People being told they aren’t ‘disabled enough’ and at the same time losing roles because they aren’t able; queer actors being forced to define themselves in a way that no other workplace requires. It’s so important for authentic representation but I am currently questioning what the black and white labels and boxes we are trying to fit actors into are doing to them. I don’t have an answer yet of what would be a more beneficial way to approach this, but as someone who is only recently speaking up about my own disability – it is definitely a conversation I would like to enter into, educate myself on further and keep engaging with.
I think the Casting Guild of Australia and Showcasts’ Disability Project is a brilliant first step. But I am concerned with how willing companies are (when time is money and money is tight) to truly accommodate performers with varying needs, especially needs that aren’t immediately obvious. I went through Conservatoire theatre training where you had to just push through, and there is very much a belief that performers just need to suffer and grit their teeth, but it’s not sustainable – even for able bodied performers (and crew). I hope more production companies begin to acknowledge there are varying needs and with often small accommodations and a little empathy, actors who fear their ability to work under normal conditions could absolutely be supported and their talent brought fully into the industry.
Acacia Daken in The Glass Menagerie rehearsal room. Photography Dana Weeks.
At the end of the play it’s revealed that Laura and her mother Amanda are left by her brother Tom (who has been financially supporting the family). What do you imagine happened to Laura? In an ideal world what do you hope her future would hold?
I hate to think what might actually happen to someone in her condition… she is based on Tennessee’s sister Rose, who was lobotomized (after the play was written) and institutionalised. Utterly horrific and heartbreaking. But in an ideal world? Look, I don’t think she’d be going off to climb any corporate ladders. She is a gentle soul and I hope she finds a soft life with a full heart, and freedom within her situation and herself. My dream for Laura, is what she almost gets at the end of the play. Someone who truly sees her. Who understands her, encourages her and gives her the confidence to step into herself. I see Laura taking her partner or children to the zoo, playing great imaginary games with them and giving them the gentle, sincere love, she needed.
The play debuted in the 1940s and is set in the late 1930s, what themes or elements of the play do you think still connect with today’s audiences?
I think there is a collective feeling that we are going backwards – abortion rights taken away, gay marriage under threat, the cost of living is high, people are struggling to buy vegetables and afford fuel, the COVID-19 Pandemic has been horrifically isolating and threatening for people with disabilities, as well as chronic illnesses and mental health. You only have to look at the protests, fear and anger from opposing sides, and the overall desperation a lot of people are feeling to make sense of Tom’s line “in Spain there was Guernica… Here there was only shouting and confusion”. It does feel like – what is going on! And all of those issues are only compounded within family life, as individuals wrestle with their own ambitions and vices. Family dynamics are universal. Love, loss, and the varying emotions within Tennessee’s writing is rich within the lives of audiences today. And I hope they connect to that, and also the humour that can be found within the heartbreak, I feel our production has captured that in a unique and beautiful way!
Mandy McElhinney and Acacia Daken in The Glass Menagerie rehearsal room. Photography Dana Weeks.
What about the show are you most eager for Perth audiences to see?
From day one this production has felt magical. This play is poetic, it is entwined with memory, and music, thanks to the genius of Tom O’Halloran. I think our director Clare Watson has created a beautiful spectacle. I hope the audience are able to sit in the nostalgia of this glamorous, gritty time which has been beautifully designed by Fiona Bruce and her team. And collectively breathe in the emotions and connections that come up for them. For me this play captures the heart and humour of real life. The painful suffering, the joy and longing. It’s so universal and I think Tennessee is a master at capturing the tragic beauty of real life. Whether it’s escapism, or indeed uncomfortable familiarity, I hope they find a moment where their heart is moved. Then we have done our jobs.
Black Swan State Theatre Company’s production of The Glass Menagerie opens at His Majesty’s Theatre on August 2nd and runs till August 21st.