Search for amputee actor leads to compromise in push for inclusion

The dilemma haunted Liane Faulder for months. She felt compelled to find an actor who had lost both legs to portray the role of a soldier in a stage play loosely based on the story of Master Cpl. Paul Franklin, whose story she had chronicled in a book called The Long Walk Home. But when she began exploring the world of acting, entertainment and disabilities a whole new story emerged.

Playwright Liane Faulder wants authenticity, but finds it isn’t easy to get

Master Cpl. Paul Franklin adjusts his prosthetic legs at Edmonton's Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in November 2006. He was badly injured in an explosion in Kandahar that killed a Canadian diplomat and injured another soldier. (Jason Kokot/CBC)

It was a dilemma that haunted Liane Faulder for months. She felt compelled to find an actor who had lost both legs to portray the role of a soldier in a stage play loosely based on the story of Master Cpl. Paul Franklin, whose story she had chronicled first in the pages of the Edmonton Journal, then in a book called The Long Walk Home.

Franklin lost his legs in Afghanistan in 2006 in a suicide attack that also killed Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry.

Even after writing the book Faulder remained obsessed with the story. She decided to bring a fictionalized version of it to the stage. Finding the words turned out to be the easy part. Finding an actor was far more difficult.

"I had watched Paul Franklin go through all these changes and such a lot of agony to learn to walk again," she says of the decision to search for a double-amputee. "I just really felt that anybody who had lost their legs would bring that extra knowledge to the role that nobody could really know the loss until they'd experienced it."

Edmonton author Liane Faulder was haunted by the story of Paul Franklin, who lost both legs in an attack in Afghanistan. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Disability lags far behind race and gender when it comes to casting inclusive characters for stage and screen. While it is practically unheard of today to see white actors made up to portray someone of black, Asian or indigenous heritage, it is still common to see able-bodied individuals playing people with prominent mental or physical challenges. But that too is changing.

Authenticity as a guiding principle

In the days of Shakespeare, disabilities were most often written into roles to portray some sort of moral failing. The bard's portrayal of Richard III's twisted body as a representation of evil, or the willful blindness of King Lear are among the examples. Those roles were and still are almost always played by able-bodied actors.

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Today disabilities are viewed through a new lens, says Kirsty Johnston, an associate professor and theatre studies adviser at the University of British Columbia. She believes contemporary theatre has a part to play in showing the reality of lost limbs and chronic disease on the human condition.

"Theatre has a lot to answer for in terms of how it has portrayed disability over time and its role in promoting stigmatized understandings of disability," says Johnston, who has written two books on the topic.

"Disability has very often been invoked to represent something in order to tell another person's story, or raise another set of concerns. And disability artists are pushing back against that and asking to be able to share their own stories on their own terms."

Johnston is a strong advocate of filling roles on stage and screen with actors who have real disabilities, in part to more accurately represent society, but also to better integrate the acting profession and conservatories where actors are trained.

A prosthetic leg — and a sword

As a swashbuckling disciple of Robin Hood in the Citadel Theatre's production the Silver Arrow, Kristi Hansen fights with swords, fires arrows and climbs ropes in her lead role as Maid Bina Fitztooth. She does it so convincingly that some audience members thought her prosthetic leg was a fake.

"People don't believe it's real," she says, "they believe I am just an actor that I must be tucking my leg up somewhere."

Kristi Hansen on stage as Maid Bina fitztooth in the Citadel Theatre's production of The Silver Arrow (Citadel Theatre)

In 15 years on stage Hansen has gone from hiding the fact that she uses a prosthetic leg to embracing it and taking a lead role in what she terms the politics of disability.

"We're representing humanity on stage and on screen, so I think if we can do that as authentically as possible then the audience gets the best experience and they get to see humans at work," she says.

The community of professional actors is still limited, because there are few opportunities for training, or specifically tailored roles. Finding an actor who is a double leg amputee, she concedes, is a tough challenge.

"We are still a small community, so I do empathize with specific casting needs and having a small pool to take from," she notes, "because let's face it, most of the people graduating from conservatory acting programs are going to be able bodied white folk. So that's just a reality."

Epic search to fill demanding role

Faulder knew she needed someone with remarkable acting skills to lift the role of a double-amputee soldier off the script and into the hearts of her audience. She was also short on time — starting the search in January for a play that hits the stage in August.

"I've been making this pitch that I've got great role in a great play at the biggest Fringe Festival in North America. And I was certain if I could just get that word out that I would absolutely find the actor that I was looking for," Faulder told CBC in May.

At the time she was still optimistic about finding the perfect fit for her character. She had worked with rehab hospitals, actors unions, diversity organizations, she published a video appeal, launched a Kickstarter campaign and even went to veterans organizations, extending the search to Britain and the United States.

Liane Faulder meets with Edmonton drama teacher Christian Zyp, who lost both legs to meningitis in 2016. (Terry Reith/CBC News)

The epic journey introduced Faulder to a wide range of insights, individuals and hard truths about those who struggle with limbs lost through accident or disease. It revealed that idealism must sometimes be set aside, expectations altered and dreams rewritten, again and again.

Finding the perfect character, then losing him

Faulder's journey took her to Edmonton's Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, where she found the man of her casting dreams. Christian Zyp was an actor and high school drama teacher — a big, solidly built guy with a blunt demeanour and dark sense of humour. In 2016, what he thought was the flu turned out to be a severe form of bacterial meningitis. Zyp survived, but lost both legs to the illness.

When he heard about Faulder's play he was immediately interested. "I wanted to do something after I was sick," he says. "I kind of had this mindset of — I don't want this (amputation) to stop me from doing the things that I love to do."
Edmonton drama teacher Christian Zyp speaks with students at Holy Trinity High School in Edmonton. Zyp returned to the classroom this year after losing both legs in 2016. (Terry Reith/CBC News)

Zyp, who has returned to teaching at an Edmonton high school, set up a meeting with Faulder to talk about the role.

"I was almost afraid to meet him at first," she says, "because he's a guy who's been through a lot, and I'm coming to talk to him about losing his legs and potentially being an actor in my production."

That pivotal first meeting was powerful for both. To Faulder, it was a wake-up call to the realities of everyday life for amputees. In front of her was a very normal man facing an extraordinary circumstance.

"Christian helped me normalize the experience of having an amputation," she recalls.

Zyp loved the script, the idea of putting the sort of struggles he faced on stage for a live audience, and being part of something so important. But it also forced him to take stock of the challenges he was still facing, and whether he could commit to the demanding role. In the end, he decided he couldn't do it.

"I would love to be part of it, but unfortunately it's just something I can't do at this time," he says, adding another "unfortunately" for emphasis. "But to support it, I'm more than happy to do that, because I think it's important, and like anything else, there's got to be a few things that happen first before the other dominos can start to fall into place."

Deadlines and compromise

With just three months till her play was due to hit the stage Faulder sat down at her computer and started watching a last batch of audition tapes. One was from Great Britain, another from Washington State. A third submitted by a newspaper editor from nearby Sherwood Park, who didn't quite fit the bill. He was a single-leg amputee who moonlighted as a standup comedian. His tape had arrived late. Minutes from her deadline.

But there was something raw and ragged about Ben Proulx that captured the playwright's imagination. "He was believable. He just had such, such a presence and he read the parts from the script with such heart that we just felt that he could really tell the story."
Ben Proulx, an Edmonton comedian and newspaper editor will take on his first leading dramatic role in Walk, which debuts in August. (Terry Reith/CBC News)

Proulx, 27, had played occasional dramatic roles for movies and TV. As he describes it, he's usually the guy in the background who gets his leg blown off. But playing a lead on stage was something new for him, something he hadn't even considered until an agent passed him Faulder's script.

"It's an interesting script." he explains, "It's very unique in that it sheds light on a different side of things than what I'm used to."

Proulx lost his leg when he was three, so he barely remembers adjusting to the life changes amputation brings. What he does bring to the role is a unique understanding of the day-to-day struggles most people can never see or understand.

"I've been in and out of physio my whole life. I know what it entails. I know the difficulties of having to walk with one leg. I know the pain that comes with it. I know some of the hardship that comes with it. Some of the frustrations. So I'm able to build that into the character from my own life experience."

Like Faulder, Proulx believes the role belongs to an actor who has the lived experience as an amputee.

He got the part.

Now as the play gears up for its opening, Faulder has a new challenge. She committed to authenticity — but has a single leg amputee cast in the role of a man who lost both legs. She is still contemplating whether to change the script to fit the actor, or use visual tricks on stage to make Proulx appear as a double amputee.

"I was hoping for the perfect person," but, she concedes, "things aren't perfect all the time, and I'm actually really happy and thrilled that we found a really good actor."

Proulx is looking forward to the role, an opportunity, he says, to raise awareness about the struggles all amputees face. It will be a big transition from standup comedy.
Ben Proulx says playing the dramatic role of an amputee returning from war will be a big departure from his work as a stand-up comedian. (Dan Clarke)

"To shift this now toward a very serious actor, a very serious role within this production that's not meant to get laughs — that's a change for me. But I think it's going to be an interesting one. I'm looking forward to doing it."

Walk premiers at the Edmonton Fringe Theatre Festival, Aug. 16-26


Terry Reith

Network News Producer

Terry Reith is CBC's network news producer based in Edmonton. He's also served as the network's medical reporter, and senior writer for the consumer section of cbc.ca. Reith joined the CBC in 1992 as a local radio and television reporter.

With files from Raffy Boudjikanian