Performances from the peripheries

An examination of selected disability performances in the Phillipines


by Neslie Carol Tan, University of Melbourne


In this research, I examine a selection of disability performances in the Philippines. Performing in various peripheries of public spaces, the disabled artists in this study capitalise on what Kuppers (2003, p.49) calls the ‘hypervisibility’ of their disability as an ‘instant categorisation’ in order to address their invisibility as an active member in the public sphere. This project aims to go beyond first impressions and scrutinise the superficially problematic optics of these disability performances. To do so, I  investigate their conditions of possibility and visibility, present a more nuanced reading of their tactics (narrative, musical, spatial, material, and embodied), and engage more critically with the consequences (new forms of audiencing and sociality) they generate. 

Disability in the Philippines

The inquiry on disability experiences in the Philippines has thus far been dominated by social sciences and medical sciences. However, the interdisciplinary nature of disability studies acknowledges that ‘the struggle for social justice and diversity continues but on another plane of development – one that is not simply social, economic and political, but also psychological, cultural, discursive and carnal’ (Meekosha & Shuttleworth, 2009, p.50). These ‘new terms of engagement’ have opened disability studies to aesthetics, literary, performance, and cultural studies. These disciplines may at first seem to have nothing to do with disability, but in fact deeply resonate with the less empirically quantifiable aspects of disability (Waldschmidt, 2017, p.20). Hence, to enrich existing disability studies in the Philippines, this research considers the relations of disability and performance.

I start with the seemingly most ‘problematic’ performance, which at first glance seems carnivalesque in their chaos and provincial fee. This is: the yearly Persons with Disabilities PWD Got Talent competition held in various malls as part of the week-long National Disability celebrations. Then, I move on to two disability performances strongly motivated and shaped by labor: blind buskers at Light Rail Transit LRT stations and people with dwarfism  boxing and wrestling in a bar. The last two performances moves towards the art-framed contexts: a Deaf dance musical and wheelchair dancing act featured in Pilipinas Got Talent. 

Theatricality in disability

This study illustrates how performance can be both a generative and disruptive site to examine disability. The number of critical works that have explored the intersections of performance studies and disability studies suggests the productiveness that this line of inquiry brings to both disciplines. A basic understanding in all of these studies is the strong sense of theatricality in disability (Sandahl and Auslander, 2005, p.5). Disability is always already a performance, whether onstage or offstage. Part of the performances of disability is the act of passing or neutralising differences deemed as marks of inferiority. However, in the case of the performers in this project, they seem to do the opposite. All of the performers in this project capitalise on what Kuppers (2003, p.49) calls, the ‘hypervisibility’ of their disability as an ‘instant categorisation,’ in order to address their invisibility as an active member in the public sphere. Their performances, regardless of skill, are immediately interpreted as being about disability. These are thus framed within problematic culturally recognisable scripts of disability, each with their own mode of spectatorship and affects.

Keenly aware of the automatic process of being slotted into rigid disability frames, the performers in this study seem to have learned to embrace their difference and deploy creative tactics in their dual task of performing dance, music, or sport concurrently with their self-conscious and even theatrical performances of disability in everyday livelihood and art-framed contexts. Performing in various public spaces, from a mall to public transportation stations, from a school theatre to a bar, and from the televisual to the digital, disabled artists in this study cultivate stares (instead of furtive glances) and generate new forms of sociality and audiencing. 

Masquerading in performance

This leaning in towards difference can be aligned to Tobin Siebers’s concept of masquerading.  According to Siebers (2008, p.118), masquerading ‘counteracts passing, claiming disability rather than concealing it.’ The claiming of disability is also noted by Bree Hadley (2014, p.101) when she referred to Rebecca Schneider’s (1997) concept of the ‘paradigm of the explicit’ to help explain how the interventionist performances of disability artist-activists highlighted the stereotypical disability traits dominant in Western cultural imaginary. In contrast, the performances in this study seem to lack the same sense of irony and, at first glance, look straightforward and earnest in their staged practices in public spaces. They thus appear to fall into the very traps that disability artists-activists have been struggling to defy in the past few decades: inviting pity in their busking practices, inciting ridicule with their throwback ‘freak’ spectacles of boxing and oil wrestling matches, welcoming patronising praise in talent shows, or provoking a complex mix of suspicion and inspiration in reality television. The problematic aspects of their disability performances seem to be front and center. 

But, as Hadley (2014, p.32) posited, ‘performance can make a productive, material intervention in the public sphere, one that allows disabled people to speak back to dominant ideologies, discourses and social formations.’ Performing or playing up one’s difference, especially when it is stigmatised, may result in making one a target of further social exclusion, oppression, or ridicule. However, it also has the empowering potential of exposing and opposing existing prejudices in society. It can be an ingenious way by which performers can innovate disability performance aesthetics, advance disability politics, and manage their own public exposures. They may be able to choreograph modes of contact or engagements with spectators within what Michell and Snyder (2006) call the ‘cultural locations of disability’ towards which society has oriented them. Furthermore, Joseph Straus (2011, p.129) notes that it does not hurt that the masquerade of disability may at times be marketable and profitable, offering much needed financial and/or career assistance to disabled people,  who by and large, suffer from negative economic consequences. 

Conditions of possibility and visibility

This project thus aims to go beyond first impressions and scrutinise the superficially problematic optics of the disability performances. It investigates their conditions of possibility and visibility to present a more nuanced reading of their tactics (narrative, musical, spatial, material, and embodied), and engage more critically with the consequences (new forms of audiencing and sociality) they generate. The research engages with a range of methods, such as live performance observations, interviews with performers with disabilities and other key figures in the industry, as well as consideration of audience reception (when applicable). In doing so, each disability performance case illustrates how particular disabled subject-artists capitalise on their hypervisibility through various ways in multiple public spaces for different purposes. Along the way, I complicate notions such as virtuosity, supercrip, freakery, pity, and other related concepts that abound disability performances.

Reference List

Hadley, B. (2014) Disability, Public Space Performance and Spectatorship: Unconscious Performer. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kuppers, P. (2003) Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge. London: Routledge.

Meekosha, H. & Shuttleworth, R. (2009) ’What’s so ‘Critical’ about Critical Disability Studies?’ Australian Journal of Human Rights, 15(1), 47-75.

Sandahl, C. & Auslander, P. (eds) (2005) Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Schneider, R. (1997) The explicit body in performance. London: Routledge.

Siebers, T. (2008) Disability theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Snyder, S. & Mitchell, D. (2006) Cultural locations of disability. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Straus, J. (2011) Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.

Waldschmidt, A. (2017) Disability goes cultural: The cultural model of disability as an analytical tool. In: Berressem, H., Ingwersen, M. &

Waldschmidt, A. (Eds.) Culture – Theory – Disability: Encounters Between Disability Studies and Cultural Studies. Germany: UzK Forum Initiative, University of Cologne, pp. 19-28.

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