“Having to fight to be seen as a woman when you are 52% of the population is nothing short of bizarre!”
With a career spanning over twenty years as an actor, writer and director in the Australian stage, film and television industry, Kate Hood makes it clear that the glass ceiling exists just as much in the performing arts, as it does elsewhere in society.
At the height of her career, Kate’s life took an unexpected turn when she was diagnosed with Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia over a decade ago.
Now in a wheelchair, this multi-talented creative admits her rollercoaster journey took her to some of the darkest places she’s ever experienced.
“It took time to adjust, years in fact. To grieve and adjust to my new identity and the personal losses it brought. I went through a separation which ended badly, friends left, the profession averted its gaze.
“The hardest thing was suddenly being seen as incapable, sometimes by colleagues I had worked with for years. That hurt. But eventually I realised that I had a right to work in my profession.”
While Kate is a proud feminist, she admits that her passion for disability comes first in her life. She recalls a recent chat with a colleague in which she passionately said, “I’m not only a disabled performer, I’m also a woman.”
Quoting Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Kate admits that even though it was clear the performing arts door was firmly shut at the beginning of her transformation, she “screwed [her] courage to the sticking place” and resolved to keep going.
From here, Kate decided to study psychology and shift her gaze towards becoming a counsellor.
“But of course, when you study counselling, you work on yourself, so I realised that what I really wanted was to work as an actor and theatre maker. I began studying writing and there is almost nothing written for actors with disability!”
So, how big is the problem really? While Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data indicates that 18% of Australians live with a disability of some kind, disability is represented at a rate of just 4% across our screens and stages. Even this 4% often only reflects the work of able-bodied actors playing disabled characters.
“What this really means is that disabled performers are not seen as a matter of course and that authentic casting is rarely happening.”
The deeper we delve, the more alarming the situation is because the reality is, this discrimination begins way back in drama school given that schools aren’t accepting disabled performers into their courses. Fast-forward to any third year’s final show at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and agents, directors and producers are not being exposed to talented disabled performers. In other words, no professional pathway is being created for these up and coming disabled performers.
The good news is that progress is happening, even if in bite-sized chunks.
As the founder of Raspberry Ripple, a disability led theatre company, Kate is at the forefront of change – she formed the theatre company to address what is clearly a big black hole in the mainstream performing arts.
In the last half of 2016, Raspberry Ripple’s show Enunciations saw one of their disabled actors securing representation with an agent. Meanwhile, the iconic Aussie soap, Neighbours, cast Kate in an ongoing role and Emma J Hawkins, a short statured performer, has been offered a role in Elephant Man with Malthouse Theatre. While there is a long way to go, these are the positive signs disabled performers have been seeking for years.
Although slowly, Kate says conversation is shifting about diversity in the performing arts over the last few years.
“We’ve seen the inception of the Diversity Committee at Actors Equity, of which I am the deputy chair. Unfortunately, disability is often the last thing on the list, given a much bigger focus on other diversities – not that these are not important too!”
So what needs to happen from here in order to see the Australian industry better supporting disabled actors?
“The industry needs to view disability as something which can bring a wonderful dimension to performance work. It has always bemused me that the performing arts, which relies on stories for its very existence, has until very recently, not told stories of difference.”
Central to this, is the industry’s ability to see disability as nothing more than human variation, as opposed to stereotyping disabled people automatically as a ‘less than’ minority. The great news for budding disabled actors is that thanks to the work of passionate advocates such as Kate Hood and those supporting Raspberry Ripple, the state of play is slowly changing.
What advice does Kate pass onto disabled actors looking to break into the performing arts industry?
“Get educated. Raise the bar for yourself. Don’t take no for an answer. Come to Raspberry Ripple and do a workshop, then audition for NIDA, the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) or the Victorian College of Arts (VCA) and get some skills under your belt.
“If you fail, try again. There are many able-bodied performers who have pursued their passion time and time again. Challenge people within the industry who tell you that you can’t work professionally because you have a disability. That is discrimination.”
This article was first published on This Woman Can on 18 April 2017.