Over the last year, our Writeability Goes Regional project has included a remit to showcase the work of some of Victoria’s regional writers with disability.
After receiving widespread acclaim for his role in the ABC production of Christos Tsiolkas’ ‘Barracuda’, Geelong actor, writer and disability advocate Chris Van Ingen discusses how his writing has influenced his current success and why people with disability are best placed to play characters with disability…
It has been said that art is like holding up a mirror to life. I am an artist that subscribes to this theory with a slight twist; I use art to hold a mirror up to ability.
My name is Chris Van Ingen. I am a thirty-three year old street performer, poet, public speaker, and professional actor with cerebral palsy. My career has reached a high point over the last few months when I was cast as Dennis in the ABC mini-series ‘Barracuda’.
Even though I live with a disability, my journey to ‘Barracuda’ has been a slow but traditional one. I fell in love with acting at the age of sixteen after being cast in the role of ‘Wheelie Boy’ in the Arena Youth Theatre’s production of ‘Chronic’ directed by Rose Myers.
‘Chronic’ was the first time I felt truly independent. That was when the acting bug bit me. I decided right there, in the middle of the stage on opening night, that I wanted to be an actor for the rest of my life.
The Australian film and television industry, however, was not quite ready to hire a guy in a wheelchair. Perhaps they were afraid that I would slow down production or get sick, or that they would have to hire a carer to be with me on set, in effect hiring two people to do one job.
But I loved acting so much that these so called barriers didn’t stop me from pursuing it. I started studying with Screen Actors in Geelong and joined their agency. It wasn’t long after that that I started to get some work as an extra.
I went on many auditions and attended every showcase I could. All the casting agents were impressed with my work but told me “there are not many roles written for people in wheelchairs”.
So I began to use my writing skills to create my own short films to show that I had the ability to play any character.
I started receiving auditions with character descriptions such as ‘guy in wheelchair’. I was shortlisted for a few roles—but they ended up going to actors without disability.
After a long period of getting close and falling over at the last hurdle, I seriously considered quitting acting. At the very moment I did this, things started to turn around. In the space of four years, I appeared in a Village Cinemas commercial, a string of short films for TropFest, and a national radio commercial. Then I finally got the call that would change my life.
My agent had sent off a clip of my recent short film to Jane Norris, the casting director for ‘Barracuda’. Jane and the director Robert Connelly liked my performance and wanted an urgent screen test. I went to Melbourne, did the screen test and Dennis was born.
This is going to sound like a cliché but the moment I got on set for ‘Barracuda’ it was like a dream come true. Everything I had ever been taught in my professional acting classes came back to me in an instant. Being on set as a real character, not just an extra. Being respected for my performance and treated as an equal. These are all things I imagined in my head a thousand times but I couldn’t believe they were coming true. I was worried that my fellow actors and I wouldn’t have good chemistry because they had never acted with a person with a disability before, but we worked.
Robert Connelly said on ABC iview extras that it was very important to him to get an actor with a real disability to play Dennis and that “Chris is an incredibly instinctual actor and a great improviser”. I was lucky to find him.
The reaction from the audience since episode four, the last episode of ‘Barracuda’, has been phenomenal and for me, I have finally been able to show that characters with disability can and should be played by actors with disability.
About Chris Van Ingen
Chris Van Ingen is a professional writer, actor and motivational speaker. He has cerebral palsy but has never let his disability stop him from achieving his goals. Chris is passionate about many social justice issues and uses his professional speaking skills as a presenter for Global Poverty Project as well as being a member of committees such as the Karingal PR and Marketing Committee, the Regional Disability Advisory Group and Barwon Ability Alliance.
© Chris Van Ingen 2016
Writers Victoria acknowledges the generous support of Perpetual Trustees for the Writeability Goes Regional program and these commissions.