Abigail Breslin’s casting as Helen Keller draws criticism from an advocacy group

Abigail Breslin Visits fuse TV's "Let It Rock"
An advocacy group called The Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts has spoken out against Abigail Breslin’s casting as deaf and blind activist Hellen Keller in a Broadway revival of the play based on Keller’s amazing life. According to this group, a deaf or blind actress should have been considered for the role. The producer says he’s just trying to ensure ticket sales, and that he’ll try to cast a deaf or blind understudy for Breslin – if they can find someone “qualified”:

It was announced Wednesday that 13-year-old Abigail Breslin will play Helen Keller in the Broadway revival of ‘The Miracle Worker’ this winter. But the news is being met with extreme opposition by blind and deaf advocacy groups, simply because of Breslin’s ability to see and hear.

“We do not think it’s O.K. for reputable producers to cast this lead role without seriously considering an actress from our community,” said Sharon Jensen, executive director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, to the New York Times. “I understand how difficult it is to capitalize a new production on Broadway, but that to me is not the issue. There are other, larger human and artistic issues at stake here.”

The show’s producer, David Richenthal, made it clear that he wanted a star to play Keller in order to ensure commercial success, and he was unable to find a blind or deaf child actor who fit the bill. Breslin’s star power stems from her Academy Award nomination for her role as Olive in ‘Little Miss Sunshine.’

“It’s simply naïve to think that in this day and age, you’ll be able to sell tickets to a play revival solely on the potential of the production to be a great show or on the potential for an unknown actress to give a breakthrough performance,” he said. “I would consider it financially irresponsible to approach a major revival without making a serious effort to get a star.”

The producers do plan to audition blind and deaf actresses for Breslin’s understudy, however, in a compromise that Richenthal says will still allow for high ticket sales. But he stressed that a seeing and hearing actress may be cast as understudy if they cannot find a “qualified” deaf or blind actress.

Helen Keller was a deaf and blind author and activist. ‘The Miracle Worker’ follows the relationship between Keller and Anne Sullivan — the woman who taught her to communicate.

[From Popeater]

First of all, it’s worth noting that despite the use of “advocacy groups” in the cited text, this is just one specific group that objects to Breslin being cast. I think that when a group has a controversial viewpoint there’s a tendency for outsiders to lump them all together and that’s not the case. The National Association of the Deaf and the National Federation of the Blind are not the ones making a stink here. They probably have a lot of other things to deal with. (I’ve emailed both organizations for comment and will update this post if I hear back.) Second, no one is dissing a little girl. It’s not Breslin that this group has a beef with.

Many of us will side with the producer who is just looking at the bottom line, because that makes sense. However, there’s also the tendency to discount the fact that a blind or deaf actress would be capable of playing the part. People without disabilities often make false assumptions that the disabled can’t do basic things, or have a much harder time than they do. Some of us don’t understand that they’re just as capable as we are, and often overestimate the accommodations they need. There’s another issue though, that deaf and blind kids might not have experience on the stage – because they’re not being hired in the first place. It’s kind of a catch-22.

I get what the producer is saying – he needed a known commodity in the lead in order to sell tickets. On the other hand, it’s time that disabled people aren’t just portrayed on screen and are hired for both those type of roles and more mainstream roles. Can you name a deaf or blind actor or actress other than Marlee Matlin?

Abigail Breslin Visits fuse TV's "Let It Rock"

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51 Responses to “Abigail Breslin’s casting as Helen Keller draws criticism from an advocacy group”

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  1. Firestarter says:

    Somebody is always up in arms over something these days.

  2. Popcorny says:

    I don’t think a public noogie attack was appropriate by that group.
    If these groups want to be advocates -how about pro-active advocating … and not just lazily playing Monday morning armchair quarterbacks pissing and moaning.

  3. Jess says:

    I’m with the producer. Plus, she’s a fantastic little actress.

  4. bros says:

    this is dumb. by this rationale, only british actors should be hired for roles requiring a british accent, a real russian for when a russian role is in a script. its called ACTING people-approximation and pretend is the name of the game.

  5. Victoria says:

    Pretty girl. Ive liked her since Signs, she was so cute in that movie!

  6. Alison E says:

    Amen to bros. “We object, she’s not REALLY blind and deaf!”

    Yes. That is why it is called “acting.”

    I’m currently playing Fruma-Sarah in Fiddler on the Roof, should people be pissed off because I’m not REALLY dead?

  7. Snarf says:

    The current trend to scream ____ism or ___ist because someone is cast in a role that isn’t a member of the paticular group that they’re portraying is short shighted and disengenous. Entertainment is a business first. Producers and director’s first priority (besides getting someone who can actually do the job) is getting a “name” that will attract the ticket buying public.

  8. Lenore says:

    I can name a deaf actor! Howie Seago. He was in one episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, as a mediator deaf and dumb from birth who had to use sign language to…to…

    I’ve outed myself as a total geek, now, haven’t I?

    As for the story – I’m actually stunned that the producers consider Abigail Breslin such a hot ticket that they think she’ll increase their chances for ticket sales. I mean, she’s talented and everything, but does she have that much of a fanbase? It’s not like the freakshow you’d get if they cast Lindsay Lohan. How many people are going to be eager to see a Broadway show purely because it stars Abigail Breslin?

    Wouldn’t it be as big a selling point if they got Helen Keller to be played by an actress who was genuinely blind or deaf or both?

  9. Fire says:

    I’m PISSED!!! Robert Pattinson isn’t a real vampire!! WAH!!!!

  10. Just a Poster says:

    Are you kidding me???!!??!!
    Call me silly, but I thought being in a play was all about acting.
    Did I miss the memo stating otherwise?

  11. princess pea says:

    Oh good, y’all are already on my page on this. It’s acting.

    I remember when Catherine Zeta Jones was in the Zorro movie and Salma Hayek threw a hissy fit because she wasn’t Latina. It was stupid then and it’s stupid now. Imagine if only gay guys could play gay guys… no Brokeback, no Milk. And if only vampires could play vampires, no Twilight (well, that wouldn’t be SO bad). This is ludicrous.

  12. Green Is Good says:

    @Just a Poster:

    The memo must have gotten lost in the mail, ’cause I missed it, too!

  13. WTF?!? says:

    This debate has been around for decades, raised in the ’90s by BD Wong regarding non-Asians being cast in Asian roles. He cost a very talented actress the lead in the West End production of Miss Saigon, then went on to do the worst stereotyped show ever, All American Girl.

    It’s the lead in a Broadway show, they want reliable cast members (Lohan will never see Bway in her current state), and if she may also bring in some add’l audience members, so much the better.

    If there’s a blind child actress (a deaf one would not be practical, she has to be able to hear her cues, but they could put a guy wire at the edge of the stage for a blind actress, which is common practice in such cases) with the chops and experience to do the role, casting her as understudy is reasonable. But they need an ACTRESS, first and foremost.

    Following this group’s logic, why not pick physically deformed people for every Elephant Man production, or crazy folk to play in Cuckoo’s Nest, or a paraplegic for Whose Life Is It Anyway? It’s called “acting” because the people ACT like they are blind, deaf, gay, an accountant, whatever.

    PS Before someone brings it up, Marlee Matlin is talented, but roles she’s done had her involved in the scenes (and she also has a ton of experience). Helen Keller is in her own world for most of the play, she would need auditory cues to be effective. Howie Seago was a novelty, but not a very good actor.

  14. CathyT says:

    I’m outraged that the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts would settle for casting either a blind or a deaf actor.

    Only an actor who is both blind AND deaf should play the role of Helen Keller!

  15. princess pea says:

    LOL @ Cathy T — We should write angry letters!

  16. Giz says:

    Okay, all you snippy follks out there, keep in mind that Marlee Matlin was hired for her role as a deaf student in “Children of A Lesser God”, who by the way, is deaf! Matlin was nominated and won an Academy Award for that very role! So are you saying that wasn’t acting? ‘Just putting the question out there! Think about it.

    Wonder what Ms. Matlin has to say about this.

  17. Obvious says:

    I feel Abigail was a great choice for the first run. if it’s a success they will most likely not need a “star” and can hire your deaf, blind weak and constipated because there will be buzz.

    First you need to create buzz. and a producer the bottom line in $$, so advocacy groups need to back off and find something more important to whine about then a play.

    Take on those prius-the blind can’t see them and they’re so quiet they can’t hear them coming. that’s something a bit more “dangerous” than a play who cast a hearing seeing actress.

  18. Embee says:

    Wasn’t there a similar kerfuffle recently over the casting in a movie of a physically disabled person who was wheelchair-bound?

    I completely understand the deaf and blind community’s frustration over this. It must make you want to scream that a part in which your disability could actually enhance your understanding of the character and performance goes to someone else. Particularly when so many parts are not available due to the same disability.

    That said; it’s business and the bottom line has to prevail.

  19. bo says:

    I totally understand where the group is coming from. I’m sure there are plenty of talented actors who just want to be able to do what they’re good at, and are constantly told that if only the character were blind and deaf, they’d have the role. Now there’s finally a character that fits the requirements for these actors to show off their skills, and it’s being given to someone without the disabilities.

    No matter what anyone says, acting is better when it comes from your real life and when you’re playing yourself. It’s sick to think that this group is being denied opportunities because they are blind and deaf. And I realize the producers simply DON’T CARE, but can we let them get away with that? Is that what we are about as an audience?

    I wouldn’t see this play because I don’t trust it to be authentic. NOT because of Abigail Breslin or the acting, but because the producers have already shown that they do not care to treat blind and deaf people with authenticity, nor do they sympathize with blind and deaf people’s struggle for equality. So there.

  20. WTF?!? says:

    “No matter what anyone says, acting is better when it comes from your real life and when you’re playing yourself. ”

    Not true, bo. Everyone has life experiences, but acting is a talent and a skill; life experience doesn’t automatically translate into a brilliant performance. And if “you’re playing yourself”, you aren’t acting. Unless Helen Keller magically springs back to life as a child and does the role, it will never be as you describe, anyway.

    For $130/ticket, the performances/actors need to be as good as they can be and not a pandering to some group or other who thinks that imposing “reality” over all other theatrical considerations is paramount. To say “the producers have already shown that they do not care to treat blind and deaf people with authenticity” is premature and inaccurate.

  21. princess pea says:

    Giz, I don’t think anyone is saying that the deaf or blind CAN’T act, or shouldn’t. I do think there’s a difference between movies and stage performances, though the very fact that you cite a role in which Matlin was nominated for an OSCAR tells me that you don’t. She was acting in that role, and all her others, and I think she’s a fine actress. However, the producer has a right to pick the person he feels will put on the best performance. You’re not actually insinuating that Marlee Matlin and Abigail Breslin should typically be competing for the same roles, are you?

  22. Fire says:

    Sorry, bo, your logic is kinda skewed. Did you refuse to see Milk because Sean Penn is not gay? Did you not go see Forrest Gump because Tom Hanks is not really “slow”? To Kill a Mockingbird because Gregory Peck is not really a lawyer?? I could go on and on…

    The point is, it is all about ACTING. And certainly when you can bring real life experiences to your performance, it does help, but it’s not a requirement for someone to be blind to play a blind person. If Abigail Breslin’s notoriety can bring more people to see this play, then more power to her (and the producers). If there is someone who tried out for the part who is in fact deaf and blind and was better at the role, then I can see the outrage. Did this happen??

  23. bo says:

    OK, you make sense. I’ll scale back my stance a little. But I still suppose that the anger is a result of these actors being told that they cannot get a role because the character is a hearing person or a sighted person, and then that excuse kind of being revealed as bull. But fair enough, you all make good points.

  24. original kate says:

    the bottom line is it’s about money. broadway took a hit after the economy crashed, like everywhere else, and people are being choosier about how they spend their entertainment money. an oscar nominated abigial breslin (who is a very good actress) will beat out a talented deaf/blind unknown actress every time because she is a bigger draw.i don’t think it’s anything deragatory towards the disabled community. i also wonder what marlee matlin has to say about this.

  25. wif says:

    The point of the advocacy group here is not that they hired a hearing-sighted person…it’s that they didn’t even consider looking within the Deaf/and or blind communities. These are communities that have all sorts of limitations set on them based on OUR perceptions, and not what they are actually capable of, and as such are vastly underemployed.

    So now, you take a play that is very well suited to a community member, but again, s/he will not be considered because our system sucks and as much as people say that they support equality they never put their money where there mouth is. I think their frustration is understandable.

  26. Shannon says:

    Shoshannah Stern is a really talented deaf actress. She’s been on Weeds and Jericho.

  27. wif says:

    Oh, and WTF? I have to disagree with you regarding the practicality of hiring a Deaf actress. I’m an ASL interpreter, as well as an actor. As such I’ve seen a number of Deaf actors work and there’s a ton of tricks they can use to get around auditory cues.

  28. bros says:

    WTF and fire are owning this argument. when you are in an industry and that industry is called dressup and pretend, you get whoever can dressup and pretend the best. this is not the authentic and true industry.

  29. Iggles says:

    @ princess pea:

    “I remember when Catherine Zeta Jones was in the Zorro movie and Salma Hayek threw a hissy fit because she wasn’t Latina. It was stupid then and it’s stupid now.”

    I don’t think that was stupid. Salma was arguing for representation of hispanic actors and actresses. Hollywood pulls this crap all the time, where they favor certain groups of people for roles, even in cases where script calls for minority actors.

    The question is, where do you draw the line? Yea, hollywood is business but is it ok to do a film with entire cast in blackface? If not, then why is it ok to whitewash the characters in the “Avator: The Last Airbender” movie? My point is, hollywood is not above reproach.

    In this case, I think the criticism is pretty harsh. There are few deaf/blind actresses available to audition and I think Breslin would be a good actress for this role. However, I think it’s valid that the advocacy group wants promote awareness because often the disabled are overlooked for roles in the entertainment industry. I think it comes down to who does the best in acting out the part.

  30. princess pea says:

    That’s cool Iggles, I did think it was dumb but it’s just my opinion. The characters father was Anthony Freaking Hopkins, so a Welsh chick fit the mold nicely in a makes-no-sense-if-you-are-looking-at-the-actors-and-not-the-characters kind of way. And it was the way she went about it that I found really weak; it honestly sounded like she was mad that she didn’t get the part and like she thought she should be the first actress chosen for any part about a Spanish speaker. (I think she’d get more work if she didn’t have such a thick accent… then she wouldn’t HAVE to play a Latina)

  31. WTF?!? says:

    Sorry, wif, but translating for a deaf audience in a play where deaf actors can use other cues to complete their performance is a totally different animal. I don’t know at what level of theatre you work, but community theatre has a lot more latitude (and smaller talent pool, especially amongst the children) to choose from. Here in the professional theatre, there are many more considerations, and the best gal for the part deserves the part.

    A deaf actress specifically playing this role would be– no pun intended– a handicap to the production. Helen is off on her own and completely non-interactive for a large portion of the action, the actress must be able to hear what else is going on onstage. A blind actress can pretend she doesn’t hear and come in on cue better than a deaf actress (especially an inexperienced one, which she most likely would be at that age) can track her eyes, yet pretend to be blind.

    It’s not like they held a nation-wide search for “The Next Helen Keller”. If that were the case, I’d be inclined to agree w/you, bo, but it isn’t and so I don’t. “Awareness” will be brought just by producing the show, it is way more gimmicky to stick a blind or deaf child in the role just to say they did it than to cast a proven actress who can rock the part.

  32. Fire says:

    bo – Didn’t mean to jump on you earlier. I do appreciate your opinion and I love when people on here can disagree but are able to support their stances with thoughtful reasoning.

    I do understand that people with disabilities don’t get treated the same as folks without them. I am all about equality! My mom has worked with people with mental and physical disabilities for over 32 years, getting them jobs in the community, so I understand how the underdog feels.

    I think Hollywood needs to step up and write more roles for these folks. I think Marlee Matlin was AWESOME in Children of a Lesser God. Frankly I don’t know how anyone else could have pulled off that role. And I was happy to see the role of Corky on that show Life Goes On. There needs to be more roles like these considering the number of people with disabilities there are in the world!!

  33. stacy says:

    It doesnt make sense that the community is outraged because the producer didnt look within their community for a blind/ deaf person to play Helen Keller. If there were deaf/ blind talented actors that were good enough to act on stage with all the appropriate cues, wouldnt those actors be in talent agencies and pools from which a producer would pick actors for their plays?

  34. Firestarter says:

    The Grinch community is STILL furious over Jim Carrey’s portrayal of the character in How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

  35. wif says:

    WTF? please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that Abigail Breslin is not the right actress for the part. She has a well proven track record and a well deserved reputation. I’m just trying to use the experience I have to illustrate why the position of this advocacy group is not as ridiculous as everyone else seems to think.

    I doubt that they would have found an actress within the Deaf community with the same experience. However, deafness comes in many different forms. It’s not just a decibel issue. I know a Deaf man who can hear me whisper, but not talk. So my argument is that, again, we’re shutting doors on accessibilty rather than keeping an open mind about the possibilities. That’s all.

  36. WTF?!? says:

    wif– point well taken. Oh, and Firestarter– ROFLMAO.

    Giz– keep in mind, movies (where they can say “Cut. Back to one” and re-shoot a scene) is very different from live theatre, where you get one chance per performance to get it right. Once the filming’s in the can, the actors don’t have to replicate it eight times a week in front of an audience– and adult actresses have more experience than children, impaired or not.

    That being said, the gal who played Matlin’s role in the original Broadway production of CoALG was, indeed, deaf, and won the Tony for her performance.

  37. MissTiss says:

    Abigail played a blind girl on NCIS
    Google her name and NCIS. She was amazing in the roll.

    It’s called acting, and if I hadn’t already known who she was I would completely have believed her to be blind.

  38. WTF?!? says:

    Talk about topical, I JUST got this notification in my email:

    *NEW The Miracle Worker, a revival of William Gibson’s 1959 play about the young Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan…. Auditions by appointment for deaf and partially deaf female actors who would like the assistance of a sign-language interpreter: the week of Oct. 26.

    [It was in the trade papers last week]

  39. Trillion says:

    Lou Ferrigno!
    But I don’t know if he counts as “deaf”.
    And I don’t know if what he’s done counts as “acting”.

  40. Harmony says:

    I understand how they would be upset, but I do not think the casting people did anything wrong. She is a terrific actress! Casting someone who is actually blind or deaf is completely unneccessary and I dont think anyone would expect that! She was well cast and I am soooo excited to see this on broadway when it comes out!!!

  41. Samantha says:

    Oh come on! She’s an actor! She will ACT. It’s not like they are making an effort to NOT involve deaf/blind people in the production. Theater is becoming a dying art form in America so it’s the same as with every other Broadway show- you hire a star -> you sell tickets. I don’t mean to be harsh but the producers aren’t trying to do any favors for the deaf/blind community by going out of their way to find a disabled lead. I’m sure if a great girl auditioned she could be an understudy or fill the role when Breslin leaves but seriously, unnecessary activism isn’t going to sell tickets. Whenever I see people up in arms about ‘lack’ of type casting I always think, “You don’t like it? Put on your OWN Broadway show”

  42. Piper says:

    How do you think I felt as a green-skinned individual when they had the audacity to cast a WHITE woman as Elphaba and put her in green-face. Offensive and disgraceful. I can hardly get enough work as it is. You’d think they’d seek out a person who actually possessed this quality as opposed to an ‘actor’ who had to ‘pretend’ to understand what it was like.

    Stephen Schwartz has yet to respond to any of my angry letters.

  43. tiffany says:

    I absolutely LOVE her from the alien movie to no reservations, and she even made the semi sucky ‘The sister’s Keeper’ movie look good. Have they even heard of acting just because you are not blind and deaf does not mean you can’t pretend to be, ugh. critics.

  44. Zoe says:

    As a professionally trained actor who once played Helen Keller on the stage (and was inspired by the role to later learn American Sign Language and thought about working as an interpreter), I have to say this comment is ridiculous. First of all, it’s called “acting” for a reason. I suppose serial killers should all be played by Ted Bundy and Elvis should come back from the great beyond to play himself. The whole point of the process of acting is creation and becoming something other than what you are. This reminds me of the lame controversy when Zhang Ziyi got all that anger from the Japanese who refused to watch “Memoirs of a Geisha” because she was a Chinese girl playing Japanese. SHE’S AN ACTRESS. It’s what she DOES. Secondly, as someone who spent time volunteering in the Deaf world, I can say that deaf and blind people have FAR bigger hurdles to climb with respect to their advocacy rights and the issues facing their community than a little girl playing a role. Considering the massive inequality in education and stereotypes for people with disabilities, you’d think these groups would spend their time fighting for people’s rights and actual progress.

  45. WTF?!? says:

    “deaf and blind people have FAR bigger hurdles to climb with respect to their advocacy rights and the issues facing their community than a little girl playing a role. Considering the massive inequality in education and stereotypes for people with disabilities, you’d think these groups would spend their time fighting for people’s rights and actual progress.”

    Zoe wins the smarty-pants award. Brilliantly said.

  46. Oh My says:

    another thing to consider is that you don’t generally cast an unknown in a husg starring role of a well-known play (especially one in which previous performers playing the role received awards). On a side note, could you imagine the brouhaha that would be raised if they cast an advocacy approved actress in the role and she couldn’t quite pull it off?

  47. wif says:

    “you’d think these groups would spend their time fighting for people’s rights and actual progress.”

    I think this advocacy group would say that a Deaf or blind actress getting a break would be actual progress.

    I think the issue is that these problems are an everyday struggle, not an isolated issue for this play. I know a Deaf plumber, laid off from his employer after 25 years when the company closed. Do you think anyone would hire him? No. 25 years of experience and anyone he contacted said “I think the job would be unsafe for a deaf person.” (Well, it clearly hadn’t been for 25 years.) That’s what they face everyday, us saying no due to ignorance and incorrect assumptions.

    I honestly don’t think anyone’s saying Breslin can’t do it or understand it, I think they’re saying, “Crap another opportunity we don’t get.”

  48. WTF?!? says:

    wif– no other actress got that opportunity, she was offered the part, there were no auditions.

  49. wif says:

    WTF?!? I know that’s the case, I’m just trying to point out how the other side feels. I just don’t want everyone thinking that these advocates are mere whiners. I think that they’ve been put into a position of having to always be fighting for themselves. This is another fight.

    (Incidentally, I think the producers are right, it is necessary to cast an actor who will draw in an audience if you want a good run on a production.)

  50. bragin09 says:

    can u guy tell me the wedside to watch this drama plz thank you

  51. Em says:

    I can understand why they’d be upset, but it’s kind of stupid. Undoubtedly there is someone out there that is blind and/or deaf who could play her. But Abigail Breslin will definitely make them money and pull it off well. And they may not want to go to the trouble of finding a good actress who is blind/deaf. It’s not like films about real people are played by the people they are about.