As a gay teenager growing up in Perth, filmmaker and performer Daniel Monks used to stay up late at night and watch short YouTube films about sexuality.
“I would delete the browser history so my parents wouldn’t find out, but those films let me feel less alone in my struggle — that other people go through this and there’s a future for me,” Monks says.
The internet has become an invaluable resource for young people coming to terms with their own sexualities and identities, but Monks had another difficult personal realisation to deal with as a young person: a mobility disability.
At the age of 11, a large tumour was discovered in Monks’ spinal cord. The operation to remove it resulted in paralysis to much of the right side of his body, which drastically changed how he looked and moved.
But while Monks was able to watch a whole range of stories about being a young gay person, the situation was quite different when it came to disability.
“I really struggled with both things, and really wished that I was straight and able-bodied. But I never saw disabled stories that reflected my experience or gave me hope. I felt really alone in that.”
“When I acquired my disability, my body completely changed and the way people treated me completely changed.”
Monks has since become an award-winning short filmmaker, and earlier this year debuted his first feature, Pulse, at Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Pulse stars Monks and tells the story of a gay disabled teenage boy who changes into the body of a beautiful woman so he can be loved.
But this weekend he opens Frank Enstein — a wild and outlandish dance theatre piece for children and adults inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — at the Gold Coast’s Bleach* festival.
“It’s not a traditional telling of the Frankenstein tale at all,” Monks says. “In this reimagining, the doctor, who I play, has a physical disability and he creates his monsters to be hyper-able and, in his mind, perfect creatures to be able to do things that he can’t, and to love him in ways he feel he can’t be loved by real people.”
The piece is directed by Grayson Millwood and Gavin Webber, but was created in collaboration with the cast, which includes Monks and four other dancers. To a certain degree, it reflects Monks’ own experiences and relationship to his own body.
“In my own work, in my own writing, and my own acting, I’m drawn to the idea of bodies and how much our bodies make up who we are. When I acquired my disability, my body completely changed and the way people treated me completely changed.”
Monks was always performing as a child and wanted to become an actor. He gave up hopes of being on screen or stage after acquiring his disability, and it wasn’t until he was 23 that he started performing again.
Now, five years later, Monks says he’s realising that performing has always been his greatest passion.
“I thought because dance is a physical medium and I have a physical disability, I wouldn’t be able to do it,” he says. “But realising that I can have my own physical expression that’s unique to myself and has its own worth — to embrace and celebrate that has been really exciting. I hope other young disabled people see it and it inspires them to embrace their physicality, whatever it may be and whatever restrictions it may have.”
There are certainly more disabled people pursuing careers in arts and entertainment than there were a few decades — there’s currently an acting student in second year at NIDA who has cerebral palsy and is apparently the first student in that course with a mobility disability — but there are still very few stories about people with disability being told.
“[T]he dream, and the holy grail, is to play characters where the disability is neither denied or highlighted, but just part of the character.”
A recent Screen Australia study found that only 4% of characters on Australian TV dramas have a disability, despite the fact that 18% of Australians are disabled.
And when those stories are told, they’re often not led by writers, directors and other creative talents who have disabilities.
But while the majority of Monks’ work, up until this point, has been focused on experiences of disability, he does hope to work on more projects in which disability is a factor but not a focus.
“Riz Ahmed talks about the different stages of being a minority actor. First you’re just a token role, serving the stereotypical notion of your minority, and then the second stage is being able to play characters in stories that are still about you being a minority but show a more humanising, three-dimensional look at that minority. I think that’s really important in terms of disability because there have rarely been authentic representations of disabled characters by disabled people. But the dream, and the holy grail, is to play characters where the disability is neither denied or highlighted, but just part of the character.”