How MS helps actor Debbie Patterson understand Richard III

Debbie Patterson on her portrayal of the 'hunchback king' as "a disability revenge play" and what it means to cast actors with real disabilities.
Beyond playing disabled characters, Debbie Patterson says disabled actors can play any role — it's just a matter of perspective. (Sarah Constible/Clarence Abrams/Doowah Design/Shakespeare in the Ruins)

Richard III was the king of England for two years in the late 15th century. Known as the 'hunchback king,' Richard III had a curved spine and, in Shakespeare's telling of it, an extremely ambitious personality when it came to being king.

In Shakespeare in the Ruins' summer production of Richard III, the title role is being played by Debbie Patterson, an actor who lives with multiple sclerosis. That means a performer with real-life disabilities will be playing Richard and, when it comes to casting, that's not something that happens very often. 

In the play, the state of Richard's body is connected to his twisted mind, but Patterson is subverting that interpretation of the character. Patterson's Richard is not inherently sinister, instead he is "justifiably resentful" of the negative treatment he has suffered as a result of his disability.

It is Patterson's perspective that is invaluable in approaching the character of Richard III in a more nuanced manner. When Patterson first returned to the stage — after deciding she had to stop once she developed a limp — she used chairs and wheelchairs in her performances before deciding to work with her disability.

"I should be moving towards my disability, finding how I can use my disability as an artist," she tells Shad, "rather than running away from it, I have to move towards it."

Though she overcame it in her art, that feeling of exclusion due to her disability is something Patterson says she shares with Richard III, as well as others' perception of their situation.

"People feel sorry for me as if disability is some huge tragedy, and it's not actually, it's just another way of living."


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