Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.
When actor Daniel Monks became disabled at the age of 11, just as he was beginning to navigate his emerging sexuality and a burgeoning love of performance, he recalls it robbed him of much of his confidence. Looking around at stages and screens, a career in acting seemed to be beyond his reach.
However, in embracing independent filmmaking alongside director Stevie Cruz-Martin, he realised he could take control by telling his own story. He’s since thrived on stage, starring in Teenage Dick at the Donmar Warehouse in London and The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man at Melbourne’s Malthouse, both of which directly referenced his hemiplegia. He’s also expanding the scope of the roles available to people with disability, appearing in shows including Chekhov’s The Seagull and STC’s Lord of the Flies, with The Normal Heart up next at the National Theatre in London. He is an outspoken champion for better representation of different physicalities on stage and casting that doesn't pigeonhole performers with disability, as well as calling for more visibility for LGBTQIA+ stories that feature people with disability, such as that captured in Monks' award-winning film Pulse.
Had you always wanted to be an actor?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in love with acting. My first time on stage was when I was seven months in utero in my mum’s belly. She wrote and performed a one-woman show about pregnancy called From Here to Maternity. So I feel like the adrenaline of being on stage was kind of imprinted on me while I was still in the womb.
Was it a straightforward path to the main stages?
When I became disabled, I suddenly felt like I was told by industry that it wasn’t a feasible career path anymore. And I accepted that. So I gave it up until I was 22. During that time, I pursued filmmaking instead. It was only when I was making my own films, with lead characters based on me, that I felt, ‘well, there’s no one better to play this’. Shooting Pulse, with my film partner Stevie Cruz-Martin directing, gave me that opportunity. My favourite part of the very long process was the acting. It might not have felt feasible in the industry as it was then, but fuck it. Life’s too short. Fuck feasibility. So I decided to pursue acting again. I’ve worked across screen and stage, but I’ve found that, as a person with disability, it just so happened that theatre, both in this country and abroad, is much more progressive.
We still don’t see a lot of people with disabilities on our stages, do we?
Oh my gosh, not at all. We have so far to go. It’s very easy to feel quite disheartened. Even comparing the opportunities for disabled artists in London to Australia, there’s a big gap. But there are amazing Australian disabled actors and artists, writers and creatives and we’re all banding together, trying to push the culture forward so that it’s easier for the next generations. But as any minority will tell you, it’s often a really hard slog, and often you just want to make your art.
How important has it been to star in shows focused on both disabled characters, and roles not specifically written as such?
As a disabled audience member, it feels incredibly important to tell stories through a disabled gaze. Especially because our stories have so often been co-opted by non-disabled people to tell Oscar-baity tragedy narratives, without our involvement at all – not only in the acting, but also in the creation of it. But I am very aware that I don’t want my place in the industry, or any minority representation, to be tokenistic. I don’t want only to be called upon to tell disabled stories. I want to be as integral to the tapestry of the industry as any artist. It’s way too myopic to relegate us to that. It needs to be true inclusion.
Do venues need to step up too?
Accessibility for audiences is so important. We have a very simplistic view of access. For example, how do we ever expect to get reviews through anything but the abled gaze when opening nights are inaccessible to a lot of disabled people? It would be really wonderful if access shows, which are only very few, instead of being relegated to later in the season, we could actually have them at the forefront. So have audio described, captioned and Auslan performances be the opening nights, for every production, so it really centres us as part of the culture, as opposed to giving us the scraps later on at the end of the run.
What does the future of performance look like in this country?
What needs to happen is, truly, all people, especially from minorities, be included in the telling of all stories. No longer centring our storytelling, through actors and creative teams, on straight, white, cis, abled men. It’s such an ecosystem, and in doing that, the audiences that will come to see them will expand so much more and actually make the artform that much more vital and alive and useful to now.