girls in the news: Kyra Siegel and Abigail Breslin

This is one bit of news important enough to recap here. David Richenthal is directing a revival of The Miracle Worker set to open on Broadway in 2010. Richenthal decided to cast Abigail Breslin (of Signs, Little Miss Sunshine, and Zombieland fame) for the lead role of Helen Keller. It was a choice that caused controversy and drew criticisms from such organizations as Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, who argued that casting Breslin in the lead role denied the production authenticity as well as a chance for a visually or hearing impaired actress to play Helen Keller, who was herself a well known activist for the disabled.

Abigail Breslin is set to star as Helen Keller on Broadway (image courtesty of cinematic passions)

This wouldn’t be the first time that an able-bodied actor or actress has played a disabled or impaired character. In fact the role of Helen Keller was made famous both on the stage and on film by able-bodied child actress Patty Duke. Duke played Keller on stage for almost two years and then reprised her role as Keller for the 1962 film, which earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Another recent example of this issue would be the Fox television show Glee. The show has come under fire for the episode “Wheels” and for casting Kevin McHale (an able-bodied actor), in the role of Artie, a member of the Glee club who is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair. (For more on the show’s problematic representations related to able-bodiedness, sexuality, and race I recommend an article from popmatters and a column over at FlowTV. I’ll have to devote another entry to this show later on).

Meet Kyra Siegel. Here she's playing Helen Keller in a local community theater production in Oregon (image courtesy of Eugene Weekly)

This could have gone down as yet another example of casting directors refusing to listen to the legitimate concerns of marginalized communities. However, Richenthal took the criticisms to heart and partnered with Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts to search for an understudy for Breslin and the role of Helen Keller. Though Richenthal made no promises, and repeatedly said that he would base his decision on talent (regardless of the actress’ physical capabilities), countless auditions later 10-year-old Kyra Siegel, a visually-impaired young actress, won the part (read more about this at nyt). Siegel, who became visually-impaired after suffering a serious injury at the age of nine, is no stranger to the stage or to playing the role of Keller. She played the lead and her mother Pamela Lehan-Seigel played the role of Annie Sullivan in a production by Cottage Theater, a local community theater group in Eugene, Oregon (read a review of this performance by Eugene Weekly).

Richenthal’s decision is certainly not a solution to the hardships disabled actors face in the industry. But it is a step in the right direction, and demonstrates that is possible for directors and producers to connect with marginalized communities and reach satisfactory results in terms of casting. So congratulations to Kyra! And while I certainly hope nothing befalls Breslin, I would love for Kyra to have her moment to shine on stage and in the spotlight.

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~ by actyourage09 on December 22, 2009.

5 Responses to “girls in the news: Kyra Siegel and Abigail Breslin”

  1. Thanks for posting this! I hope Siegel gets some stage time too. At the very least, maybe Breslin could sit out on some of the performances. While she’s not as famous, Siegel’s actually played Keller before. 🙂

    I also appreciated you bringing in Patty Duke into this discussion. I actually didn’t know about her stage and film work in this role, but wondered how many able-bodied girl actors played Helen Keller in the past.

  2. […] just posted a piece on Abigail Breslin playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, paying particular attention to her […]

  3. Yeah Kristen! Now I have another blog to read and be enlightened by! Love the banner pics. Can I expect a Raven and/or Taxi Driver post? Two of my all-time favorites.

  4. curran friend – you can definitely expect a Taxi Driver post and a Raven post in the future. i’m currently working on typing up my notes on a jodie foster biography – so i’m sure you’ll be seeing some of this soon!

  5. […] in December I wrote about Abigail Breslin starring in The Miracle Worker on Broadway and how Kyra Siegel would be her understudy. The NYT […]

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