The title character of Shakespeare’s Richard III is one of the most prominent disabled figures in English literature, presented by the Bard with a hunched back and an arm “like a blasted sapling withered up.” Of course, the Plantagenet king is also a right bastard, “determined to prove a villain,” as he says in his opening soliloquy. Richard is embittered by his outward appearance but also more than willing to use it in his manipulations as he clears his murderous path to the throne.

So how does an actor start to find a connection to such a determined villain? “I am someone who understands ambition,” says Katy Sullivan, who plays Richard in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new production, running February 2 to March 3. “The first thing you have to do is [ask], What is that tiny little rock-climbing handhold that you have in common with the character, however different from you they are? Ambition is sort of my connection to him at this point.”

Sullivan, born without the lower half of both legs, is being touted by Chicago Shakespeare as the first woman with a disability to play Richard III in a major U.S. production. Her own ambition has led her to accolades, including a 2023 Tony Award nomination for her role in Cost of Living and, in an entirely different arena, a U.S. 100-meter record as a 2012 Paralympics track athlete.

The Alabama native, 44, who now lives in Lombard, didn’t start competing in races until she was 25 and residing in Los Angeles as an aspiring actress. “I was, like, a geriatric track runner,” she jokes. “And that was because someone handed me a pair of blades to try. I didn’t know I was an athlete until I was given the equipment. It was a time when opportunities for performers with disabilities were really few and far between, and I was like, ‘Let’s see.’ ”

Her athletic success boosted her confidence in the way she presents herself to the world. “It helped me get to a deeper sense of appreciation for my body and what it’s capable of,” she says, noting that she stopped trying to conceal her prosthetic legs in auditions and on dates. “It helped me to just accept who I am. And thank God, because it’s changed so much of what I’ve been willing to explore as an actor, and understanding using vulnerability to my advantage.”

Katy Sullivan sitting in the audience seats
Says Sullivan: “I like the idea of the different ways I can use my body to inform the story.”

That was evident in her performance in Cost of Living, Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer Prize–winning drama. Playing a woman who reconnects with her ex-husband following a car accident that leaves her a paraplegic, Sullivan appeared in the 2016 premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, in subsequent stagings off-Broadway and in Los Angeles and London, and finally in its 2022 Broadway debut. “I was the first actress who is an amputee to ever be on Broadway — that’s wild,” she says.

The London production was directed by Edward Hall, now in his first season succeeding Chicago Shakespeare founder Barbara Gaines as artistic director. “There are just some people you work with and really hit it off,” Sullivan says of Hall. “I told him when I left London, ‘Anything that you can dream up that you want me to do, the answer is yes.’ And he was like, ‘I’m gonna hold you to that.’ ”

When the opportunity for Richard III came along, it coincided with Sullivan’s relocation to the Chicago area, where she’d worked early in her career at the Goodman and Northlight Theatres. Her husband, Scott Aiello, is a fellow actor — he’ll play Richard’s doomed brother, Clarence — and a native of the Chicago suburbs. The couple moved to be closer to Aiello’s family.

As Richard, Sullivan will be using her own prosthetic legs — sleek, muscular-looking devices in black and silver — and other means of conveyance. “I like the idea of the different ways I can use my body to inform the story and to manipulate the people who are around him. Shakespeare makes the most powerful person in the show the one who is ‘broken,’ in the way that we typically look at people with disabilities: ‘What is it that you can actually accomplish?’ And Richard is like, ‘Hold my beer.’ ”