Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony included a historic moment: Actor Shia LaBeouf presented onstage with his co-star, Zack Gottsagen, lead performer in “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” who was born with Down syndrome. It was the first time an actor with an intellectual disability (ID) presented at the Academy Awards.
His presence there was well-earned. Gottsagen is an extraordinary actor, and he produced a richly comic and finely acted lead performance. He also developed a genuine friendship with LaBeouf, visible in the easy camaraderie between the two onstage at the Oscars.
At Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts in St. Paul, actors with intellectual disabilities have appeared as professional actors since 1991, appearing as lead performers and sharing the performance space with other disabled and non-disabled performers. These performances have toured nationally and internationally and have appeared at the Guthrie Theater to rave reviews.
We know that actors with intellectual disabilities bring extraordinary skills to the performances, including the ability to create complex roles, improvise, and perform with profound empathy and humor. We would like to congratulate fellow actor Gottsagen on his historic moment.
Hollywood has a long history of representing intellectual disabilities on-screen, sometimes with little sensitivity (characters with IDs have been presented as comical or monstrous), sometimes with sensitivity, as in 1981’s “Bill,” based on writer Barry Morrow’s relationship with St. Paul’s Bill Sackter, who was warehoused for much of his life due to his intellectual disability.
Bill won an Emmy and Golden Globe for Mickey Rooney, who played Sackter. As sensitive as the film is, it represents a longstanding trend in Hollywood: casting performers without intellectual disabilities to play characters with intellectual disabilities.
There have been a few notable exceptions, including Chris Burke, who co-starred in the television show “Life Goes On,” and Jason Kingsley, who was a regular cast member on “Sesame Street.” But these sorts of roles have largely been the domain of abled actors, paralleling a similar trend in which characters with physical disabilities are played by actors without disabilities.
This trend is slowly changing, and at Interact Center we were pleased to see Gottsagen sharing the Oscar stage with his movie co-star. We have spent almost a quarter-century creating art that challenges perceptions of disability and know that nobody is better at representing the experience of a disability than somebody who experiences it.
We also know that performers with disabilities can play any role that an abled actor can play, if given the opportunity. In our forthcoming performance, “Cloud Cuckooland 2020,” performers with disabilities appear as everything from Greek gods to contemporary politicians.
So, again, congratulations to Gottsagen for his historic appearance. May it be the first of many, in an unlimited variety of roles.
Max Sparber is an advancement coordinator for the Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts in St. Paul.