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Madness in the Making: Psychosocial Disability and Theater


This dissertation begins at the promising crossroads of performance studies and disability studies. How does theater influence our perceptions and responses to psychosocial disability? While plays and productions often reinforce dominant social views that stigmatize and oppress people who are considered mad or labeled mentally ill, theater attuned to these concerns can also critique such treatment by offering fuller, more complex depictions that encourage us to rethink psychosocial disabilities. This dissertation analyzes North American theatrical productions that engage with madness in atypical ways. Drawing from performance theory, disability theory, and ethnographic inquiry via audience and artist interviews and close readings of live and video-recorded performances, "Madness in the Making" analyzes moments where theater and psychosocial disability work together to disrupt normative practices, initiate productive discussions around psychosocial disability, and reach towards a more inclusive and innovative theater.

Contemporary society tends to regard psychosocial disability as mental illness that should be eliminated through treatment or social isolation. But madness is also a valuable resource for theater. Peter Brook and the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade (1965), for example, used madness as a theatrical device to push the limits of acting and audience expectations. This production exemplified how theater strategically uses mental and emotional disabilities in various productive ways, albeit often without concern for the lived realities of disabled people and in ways that further stereotypes and misunderstanding. Other theater, however, specifically targets these concerns. The Broadway musical, Next to Normal (2010) and Tuesdays at Four (2004) produced by The Fisher Players, a small community theater group from Detroit, consciously attempted to reduce the stigma of mental illness. Mental health advocates praised these shows for educating audiences and empowering mental health consumers. One can see in these performances theater's capacity to engender audience empathy and support. However, a deeper analysis of the work also reveals drama's inherent limitations in representing psychosocial disability. Part of this limitation relates to the need for an intersectional understanding of oppression as well the fact that stigma can never be fully removed from the concept of mental illness. Another challenge lies in the complex relationship between language and disability, and Joshua Waters' Madhouse Rhythm (2008) is a one-person show that addresses this challenge by utilizing linguistic performativity to resist psychiatric discourse. The production also reveals how subversive reinscription and subjunctive space can complicate the boundaries between mental illness and sanity and promote a sense of support and community around psychosocial disability. Lastly, in response to dramatic theater's inherent limitations in critically engaging with psychosocial disability, this project explores how The Wooster Group's Rumstick Road (1977) exemplifies ways that postdramatic theater can critique psychiatric subjection and function as a hermeneutic device for better understanding and embracing psychological and emotional difference.

While disability studies has moved beyond fundamental issues of access and support to analyze how disability operates as a culture, a minority identity, and a resource for all critical and cultural theory, this exploration has not yet adequately included the concerns and unique contributions of psychosocial disability. The cost of this neglect runs high. People with psychosocial disabilities remain not only underrepresented, their voices are effectively silenced by authoritative discourse that speaks for them and often misrepresents their experiences and perspectives. This dissertation addresses this gap by building upon disability studies' initial engagement with mad studies. Using moments of performance to exemplify psychosocial disability's specific perspectives, concerns, and strengths, this work reevaluates the way that disability studies requires and valorizes the functional, normative mind as a way to understand and advocate for those with physical disabilities. By critically embracing psychosocial disability, disability studies may need to revise many of its assumptions and practices. The various performance sites in this dissertation demonstrate ways that psychosocial disability works not only as an object of representation but also an aesthetic and critical tool in theater. Critical disability aesthetics draw attention to the limitations of conventional theater. By deconstructing an ideology of ability and hermeneutic mastery that pervades theater practice, psychosocial disability can engender a more inclusive and critical process for audiences, practitioners, and theorists.

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