All in Row Review – representing autism on stage

I’ve spent longer than usual ruminating on this one. There is so much to unpack and I want to do my best to do it all justice. This is a longer read. So buckle up!

First of all I’m not an autistic person. I have not experienced this hostile world from an autistic perspective nor have I faced the discrimination or prejudiced that many of my autistic friends will have.

I am, however, a mother to two wonderful autistic daughters with learning disabilities and auntie to two autistic nephews with additional needs.

Professionally I am a theatre maker with a specific interest in theatre for young people and extensive experience working with people with learning disabilities and autistic people. I have also been privileged to have worked alongside a range of brilliant autistic adult artists and academics.

As a playwright I have just written and we are about to record an audio drama podcast about Judy Fryd who founded mencap, in response to the lack of support she received for her daughter Felicity who, if she’d been born now rather the in 1938 would probably have been diagnosed as autistic.

As a neurotypical person I will never be an expert on autism but, both professionally and personally, I have knowledge about autism, learning disabilities and neurodiversity and a vested interest in these topics.

Many of you will have seen the #puppetgate controversy in response to Alex Oates play All In A Row at the Southwark playhouse. The play tells the story of a family with an autistic son Lawrence who is violent and his parents as they spend their last night together before their he moves away to residential school. The main focus of people’s objections to the play was that 11 year old autistic Lawrence was represented by a puppet.

Some people seemed to suggest that the playwright, who I understand had worked extensively with autistic children and their families, was not allowed to tell this story. This bothered me. As a writer, I regularly write characters whose stories are worlds away from my own. I do this by researching a lot and listening a lot.  I think it’s my job to tell a range of stories from a range of perspectives. This doesn’t mean that I would stand in the way of someone more qualified or experienced to tell my story but I definitely think that I should be allowed to write beyond my own experience.

From what I read most of the people who objected had not seen the play. I felt uncomfortable about this. I can think of plenty of examples of theatre where a puppet has more humanity than an actor. Without really understanding the intention of this decision or experiencing its affect I felt uncomfortable condemning it. It plainly shows a lack of compassion if neurotypical people demand that autistic people, who may have felt excluded or othered, deliberately go and see something potentially triggering and traumatising. However, I remained concerned that, if the piece is condemned without it being seen, then stories about children like mine, families like mine, may never be told and we remain invisible.  I don’t know how to reconcile this problem.

So I went to see it. I was actually lucky enough to be sat next to producer Paul Wilshaw from Mind the Gap who told me he is one of Britain’s only learning disabled theatre producers. He was there for the same reasons as me. He couldn’t critique it without seeing it. He quite rightly pointed out how inaccessible the performance seemed to be from the off with a very clear guide from the stewards that if we left we would not be readmitted. I realise that this is an intimate performance space but it didn’t really set a great tone in terms of inclusivity although I am aware that they did offer a relaxed matinee.

So what did I think? The play is exceptionally well crafted. I wept uncontrollably through a lot of it as so much of it chimed with my own experiences. I think that Oates has created an exquisite piece which gives voice to an experience which I have not seen on stage before. The acting was truthful with outstanding performances from all three performers. 

In terms of the subject matter, I think some people might take exception to the way in which the piece problematises the autistic person. The focus is very much on the impact of having a child with uncontrollable behaviour on the whole family. It is about a family at breaking point. Is this representative of autistic people as a whole? Of course not. But it is representative of some families and I think it is a story that, especially in a time of austerity where disabled people and their families are disproportionately affected, needs to be told.

Autism is, as we all know, a spectrum. Having the honour to love, live and work alongside a range of autistic people I now feel that we need more words to express what this is. My children seem a world away from some that I teach and even further away from some of the gifted and intelligent artists whose work I have admired. All in a Row, in part faced a backlash because we are not telling enough stories about autistic people and autistic people are not being given the platform to tell their own stories. This needs to change. 

So, now for what you really want to know – what about the puppet? 

Let’s backtrack. If Oates wanted to tell this story what options did he have available? He could have chosen for the Lawrence to be always off stage and only spoken about. He could have made this choice but, as Lawrence, and his extreme behaviour is central to the story, I don’t think it would have been a good choice. 

He could have cast an autistic actor in the role. Yes, he could. However, Lawrence is 11 and, I think, needed to be child size. Casting a child would have been problematic owing to the physical nature of some scenes not to mention child licensing laws. 

It would not be ethical or possible to cast someone who is as disabled as the child in this story. Someone so profoundly affected, like my children, could not have given informed consent and would not be able to perform on demand. 

For all these reasons I can see why the decision was made to use a puppet. Obviously a puppet was never going to be a realistic depiction of an autistic child but the frankly odd design choice of giving the puppet grey skin added to to the weird and alienating affect of the puppet. Personally, I didn’t think that the puppet moved very effectively. Yes, I know not all autistic people move in the same way but I’ve been around lots of people who have non verbal autism and he didn’t seem true for any of them. This may be in part because of the strange design. 

Would it have been better if the puppeteer was not neurotypical? Well, we don’t know that he was neurotypical. Should the puppeteer be forced to declare his autistic status? Surely not. If he is autistic then he is obviously not affected in the same way by his autism as Lawrence is in the play. Autism is often referred to has a hidden disability. This is true for many but often autism displays itself loudly and proudly. Sometimes you can tell by looking. If the puppeteer was more visibly autistic would this have felt better? Would a performer like this have been able to capture the way a child like Lawrence might move more effectively?

The short answer on the puppet was that I didn’t think it worked but I wasn’t offended by it. Ok, I’m not the subject of the puppetry but four members of my family, who I could not love more, are and I am usually up first to go in to bat to defend my kids and my nephews. Many of the people who were upset by the decision are autistic people but they are not autistic people like Lawrence. I’d find it fascinating to introduce Lawrence the puppet to my daughter and her classmates to see what they made of him but they are not his audience nor would this specific group understand the concept of being offended by something like this.

This doesn’t mean that I would seek to silence any autistic people who were offended. Their opinions are important to me but, as the story is so close to my heart, I wanted to explain how I felt as a parent of a child like Lawrence. I think this goes far further an a debate about a puppet.

I’m glad All in a Row was produced and that stories like this are being told. It opens up a welcome and much needed debate about representation, neurodiversity and identity. I was particularly mindful of this when I came to write my Forgotten Women podcast episode Green Class about mencap founder Judy Fryd whose daughter Felicity (born 1938) would today most likely have been diagnosed as autistic. Like Lawrence she was a more severely disabled person although she did have some language skills. I found myself facing many of the same dilemmas. 

Green Class is about a mother fighting for the rights of children with learning disabilities. Although Felicity is extremely important, it is not her story. I think we need to tell stories about autistic people and people with learning disabilities but this isn’t one of those stories.    When I was writing this audio drama I was always thinking about how I would bring Felicity Fryd to life. Thinking about this forced me to find a new way of telling the story. Working with partner organisations Access all Areas and The Orpheus Centre I was able to find two performers to voice her. Emma Selwyn is an autistic actor. She is a far more capable person than Felicity was able to be but her neurodiversity is central to her artistic work. I didn’t feel comfortable asking an actor of Emma’s calibre to come in and make some noises and echo some lines. I wanted to find a way to empower Felicity especially as that’s what Judy wanted. I needed to go inside Felicity’s head. I knew, from interviewing her family, that Felicity was gifted musically and loved to sing. I therefore chose to find another neurodiverse performer in classical singer Charlotte Rowling. When Charlotte sings Felicity’s aria Emma is able to take the narration and tell a little of Judy’s story from Felicity’s perspective. I’m not telling you that I’ve got it completely right but I do know that by trying to think inclusively the young actors at Peer Productions have had the opportunity to work with two gifted and talented neurodiverse performers and I, as a writer, have found a new way to tell stories. 

 

If you’d like to join us for the live recording at South Hill Park there are a handful of tickets available – https://www.southhillpark.org.uk/events/forgotten-women/

Alternatively subscribe to the Forgotten Women podcast where the finished piece will be dropped – https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/forgotten-women/id1441259768?mt=2