Kyra Ynez Siegel, 10, of Eugene, Oregon, lost most of the vision in her right eye last year. While this may seem a far cry from Helen Keller's complete blindness and deafness, her landing a coveted Broadway understudy role is still a major deal in an industry where only a handful of actors with disabilities are working today. Although the production's producer maintained that they'd need a star in order to sell tickets, he pledged to find an understudy with either some visual or hearing impairment after the casting of Abigail Breslin in the lead drew criticism from advocacy groups. As Sharon Jensen, executive director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, tells the Times when Breslin's casting was announced, "We do not think it's O.K. for reputable producers to cast this lead role without seriously considering an actress from our community...I understand how difficult it is to capitalize a new production on Broadway, but that to me is not the issue. There are other, larger human and artistic issues at stake here."
Given Keller's advocacy for the disabled, the missed opportunity seemed especially ironic to some. The issue prompted a fascinating conversation in our comments section, in which some contrasted the ingrained ableism of the society and industry with the stark realities of a profession in which 99.99 percent of the fully-abled can't find roles and work, to the economic demands of putting on a show in the current climate. Helen Keller's great-niece weighed in to argue in favor of Breslin's casting, stating that
The point of William Gibson's wonderful play is not primarily to advocate for the disabled, per se...it is to tell the story of an amazingly intelligent child, burdened with a treble handicap, who through the foresight and love of both her family and teacher, was able to live an extraordinary life of personal achievement and advocacy for the disabled. Because the actress playing Helen has NO dialogue but is featured in 80% of the scenes, it is an incredibly challenging role where every "line" must be communicated through body language and/or actions. It is also an incredibly grueling part for the actress playing Anne Sullivan. Tremendous amounts of communication must exist between the two (both onstage and off) in order for the story to be presented as it was written and indeed lived by Helen and Anne.
To some, this action may seem a sop - to others, a small step in the right direction. But Siegel's casting seems to have satisfied Jensen, who observed that the 10-year-old will be better able to "keenly understand some of what Helen faced," and praised the production's follow-through. (They've also taken the unusual step of offering audio and caption devices for the show.)
And whatever one's opinion of the controversy as a whole, I doubt anyone will feel anything but good-will for the young actress, who apparently wowed casting directors in her audition. As Kyra wrote to the New York Times, "It is very challenging to use both my eyes together...It makes me sad sometimes, but I don't care because I try not to think about it. Sometimes your dreams get crushed but you just keep going."