Othering: Sydney Festival 2023

Jackie McMillan
14th Jan 2023

Debra Keenahan has a nice arse. It’s okay, she told me I’m allowed to think that. Her one-woman Sydney Festival show, Othering, at Casula Powerhouse, kicked off last night by breaking down what you can and can’t say about people with the genetic disorder achondroplasia dwarfism.

With the uncomfortable stuff seemingly out of the way, Dr Keenahan takes her audience on a fast-paced, 60 minute ride through her life as a person of short stature. Starting life as a much-wanted daughter she takes you through diagnosis and the rapid medicalisation of her body to the present day: where she is a mother to a daughter of short stature, and is married to a man who has only ever seen her for herself.

Converting her hospital ward of memories to an impromptu art gallery, Keenahan gives you a guided tour of the artistic and cultural constructions of dwarfism through the ages. More exciting than it sounds, this covers off freak shows, the “resting place for desirable monsters” (a court-appointed harem where dwarfs were sexually exploited) and the “ugly laws”: legislation that excluded people with undesirable physical traits from public life in action in America until 1974.

But surely things are better now? As Keenahan explains, some pieces of popular entertainment today have actually depicted dwarfs as people. Citing Fantasy Island, James Bond, Seinfeld and Game of Thrones, she points out that they all humanise men. Existing at the intersection of misogyny and the systematic dehumanisation of people with dwarfism created an incident on a train that audiences might struggle to forget.

With a seamless segue from trauma to testimony, Keenahan shared some of her words from the 28th hearing of the Disability Royal Commission. Wrapping herself in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the show ends on a hopeful note. By setting out so beautifully what peace, human dignity and acceptance actually look like in her everyday life, Keenahan lights the way forward. Avoiding staring, catcalling or taking photos when she walks down the street with her daughter doesn’t seem like much to ask…

13–15 January Casula Powerhouse $25–35 + BF