Note: An Easy Read version of this blog is available at the bottom of the post.
For the last week or two my timeline’s been full of discussion about ‘All In A Row’, a play which opened this week at Southwark Playhouse. The play centres on a family’s experience of autism and is written by a non-autistic writer who has experience as a paid ‘carer’.
By being in both the disability and theatre communities I’ve seen a lot of exchanges about this piece, some of them understandably very angry. I imagine that for a mostly non-disabled production team this anger may be hard to understand.
There have been many eloquent pieces written about the play by #ActuallyAutistic people, so up until now I’ve avoided writing about it myself. But there are some aspects of the discussion that I feel particularly well placed to comment on. Like the writer, I have experience of supporting families raising an autistic child with severe learning disabilities and challenging behaviour. Also, I’m neuro-diverse myself and have involuntary challenging behaviours, including biting and self-injury – I’m also a theatre maker.
The outpouring of pain by the autistic community shouldn’t be dismissed, and I’m writing this post in solidarity with the many autistic people who have raised their concerns. I plan to use some of the tweets by those involved in the production as the starting point for sharing my perspective. It’s taken time and energy to write (resources I don’t have in abundance) so I’m hoping you’ll read it with an open mind and in a spirit of generosity.
Understood. I will say publicly that your blog is nuanced and I do appreciate the candour and depth to it. But fundamentally I cannot abide someone declaring a public position on art that they haven’t seen, particularly when they are an artist themselves.
— Paul Virides (@PaulVirides) February 10, 2019
Paul Virides is the Producer.
I haven’t seen the play myself, so I’ll focus my thoughts on only those elements of the production that I have seen – publicity material, videos and casting. I’m raising my concerns in the hope that it might help this production and others in the future to tread more lightly.
The Publicity Image is of four fondant fancy cakes. Three are yellow with chocolate icing and are in a neat row – one is blue and on its side. Puppeteer Hugh Purves, who operates the puppet that represents the only disabled character, Laurence, a non-verbal eleven-year-old, tweeted back in January:
I'm the blue fondant fancy who's fallen over! https://t.co/LIlQRJGXcJ
— Hugh Purves (@Hugh_Purves) January 10, 2019
This image reinforces the idea that autism is out of the ordinary. Blue is not a natural colour for food, and while eye-catching, this image sets up the autistic character as ‘other’ and as ‘damaged’ or ‘broken’.
The Use of Puppetry in this show seems to set the disabled character apart even more. While all the non-disabled characters are played by people, the sole autistic character is a puppet.
Writer Alex Oates tweeted:
So I had the idea of a puppet and raised it with all the parents I knew, they thought it was an exciting idea. Puppetry as I'm sure you know is a highly effective branch of theatre with an amazing history.
— Alex Oates (@FunkSmuggler) February 1, 2019
This is of course correct. We used puppetry in our show Backstage In Biscuit Land precisely because of the amazing potential it has as a storytelling tool. For example, in the show I explain to a dolphin glove puppet what my tics feel like, and a mini version of Touretteshero has a ‘ticcing fit’, carefully assisted by puppeteer Jess Mabel Jones.
The key difference between these very different uses of puppets is that as a disabled theatre maker I was in control of how puppetry was used to tell my story. It was used to show surreal aspects of my life, whereas in All In A Row it seems to have been used for predominately practical intentions.
Many reasons have been put forward for why a puppet was chosen to depict the autistic character. I would like to respond to the three main ones:
1) The character has ‘severe autism’ and someone with this level of impairment could not play the role. This makes the classic mistake of believing that representation of disability requires an exact impairment match between the actor and the character. An autistic actor would bring additional lived expertise to the role without it being necessary for them to precisely match the same degree of impairment as the character.
Also, there are some incredible learning-disabled and non-verbal artists making work, and a great deal of knowledge is being amassed about how to support and promote learning disability culture. Heart N Soul, Blink Dance and Access All Areas have particular expertise in this area.
2) The character has challenging behaviour that we couldn’t ask a child or neuro diverse adult to replicate, or which would be too shocking.
Behaviour is a form of communication, and challenging behaviour often communicates an unmet need. That need may be physical, practical, emotional or sensory. It might be shocking to non-disabled people, but for me and many others it’s part of everyday personal and professional life. Seeing diversity of communication and behaviour on stage may help non-disabled people better understand how disabled people live. The idea that this is more palatably presented by a puppet is hurtful and misses a vital opportunity for authentic representation.
3) A disabled or child actor would be more expensive as they would need more support. This response is largely based on assumptions, rather than facts. For example, disabled performers can apply for support from Access To Work to cover the costs of any practical support they need to undertake a role. It might take more time, energy or expertise to employ a neuro-diverse performer, but the depth and authenticity it adds to the production is invaluable.
If you choose to tackle subject matter that is deeply personal and relates to the lives of marginalised people it is unacceptable to cut corners. Budgets and timescales need to adapt to the project, not the other way round.
The Accessibility Of This Production appears patchy at best. If you’re making a show about disability and barriers it’s essential that there are as few barriers as possible for those wanting to see it. This show has only one ‘relaxed performance’ which, given its subject matter, is an oversight. But there have been a number of tweets like this one from the cast and crew:
Most shows only do one relaxed performance in the year. However you’re more than welcome anytime. The play doesn’t have anything that would be changed that much in a relaxed performance anyway and exits are easily accessible should you need them x
— simon lipkin (@simonlipkin) February 15, 2019
Unlike All In A Row, most shows don’t tackle issues that relate directly to neurodiversity, but where they do, relaxed performances ought to be a requirement. And in fact, there’s no reason why all shows shouldn’t take a relaxed approach, regardless of the subject matter. We’re currently working with Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) to develop a Relaxed Venue methodology. BAC’s spring programme is 95% relaxed.
The lack of relaxed performances isn’t the only barrier to disabled people seeing the show. There’s currently no pre-show information to help audiences decide if it’s for them, and there are no captioned or audio described performances for people with sensory impairments either. This suggests it’s intended mainly for a non-disabled audience.
Well it’s been a journey but tonight we did our first preview of @allinarowplay I’m immensely proud of everyone involved. Whatever questions you have about the play, all I’d say is come and see it. If you wanna chat about it after, I’ll be there with open arms and an open mind x
— simon lipkin (@simonlipkin) February 14, 2019
The cast’s response to most people who criticise the play is along the lines of:
“Whatever questions you have about the play, all I’d say is come and see it.”
This misses the point that many disabled people will need to think about a range of additional factors before deciding to come along to the theatre, and that without the right information being available, marginalised people have to take risks with their money and emotional wellbeing. I would strongly urge the producers and company to consider what steps they can take to help overcome these barriers. Sean May whose review of the play is here suggested several simple ways to improve access.
Having followed this production closely for the last few weeks, I don’t think anyone involved wanted to upset or further marginalise autistic people, but good intentions don’t protect against unintended damage and it’s been frustrating to see so many eloquent disabled voices dismissed.
The truth is that as an eleven-year-old, Laurence’s whole childhood would’ve been dominated by austerity politics – in his short lifetime many equalising measures have been lost like The Independent Living Fund, Disability Living Allowance and Legal Aid.
I know of many young people like Laurence whose childhood and quality of life have been badly affected by a lack of social care support. These are the stories that matter to many disabled people and from what I’ve seen they’re not reflected in any detail in this production.
I understand that disabled people don't want to be 'othered' but I stand by my conviction that this will not dehumanise Laurence. All the best X
— Alex Oates (@FunkSmuggler) February 1, 2019
Alex – if many, many disabled people are telling you there’s a problem, please listen and engage meaningfully – it’s ok to make mistakes, it’s not ok to keep making them when they’re being pointed out and explained so clearly. Listen to people with lived expertise and your work will be stronger creatively, politically, and socially.
Disabled people’s lives aren’t free material for playwrights. What we need is support to tell our own stories, invest in disabled performers, and for assumptions to be replaced with genuine discussion. The long-held motto of many disabled people is ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ – this should be the basis on which anything addressing disability is built.
At a time of increasing hatred directed at disabled people, creative spaces have the potential to unlock new ways of presenting difference, and of connecting people with opportunity – but only if people with lived expertise are at the centre.
Because this play draws on the lives of non-verbal, learning disabled people I have created an easy read version of this blog below.
All In A Row – An Easy Read Blog By Touretteshero
‘All in a Row’ is a made up story about a child with autism and his family.
It is a play. This means actors perform the story in a theatre to people who are watching.
Autism is a condition that a person is born with.
Everyone who is autistic is different. There is easy read information about autism here.
The writer of ‘All in a Row’ is called Alex. He does not have autism.
He used to work as a carer helping disabled people.
My name is Touretteshero. I don’t have autism but I do have Tourettes Syndrome.
I am a disabled artist and an actor.
Tourettes Syndrome and autism can affect how a person experiences the world.
I have not seen ‘All in a Row’.
I am writing about things to do with the play I have seen on the Internet.
The autistic character in ‘All in a Row’ is called Laurence.
Laurence is played by a puppet – a puppet is a type of doll.
All the other characters are played by real people.
Lots of people are upset that a puppet is being used instead of an actor.
They are worried it might make people think that if you are autistic you are not a real human being.
Alex, the writer of ‘All in a Row’ chose a puppet because he thought an autistic actor would find it hard to pretend to be Laurence.
I think he is wrong because I know lots of brilliant autistic actors.
There are groups that train people with autism and learning disabilities to perform.
Three of these are: Graeae Theatre, Access All Areas Theatre and Blink Dance.
If a disabled person needs support to do their job – including being an actor, they can apply for help from Access To Work.
Access To Work gives money to cover the things someone might need to do their job.
There will be one ‘Relaxed Performance’ of ‘All in a Row’. There is information about this on the theatre’s website.
Relaxed Performances are shows where you can move around and make noises if you need to.
Relaxed Performances are for everyone, but they are particularly good for people with autism, learning disabilities or Tourettes Syndrome.
I think that plays about disability should be easy for disabled people to go to. This normally means having more than one Relaxed Performance.
Lots of people have offered the ‘All in a Row’ team advice on how to make sure their play is accessible to disabled people. So far there is still only one relaxed performance.
Disabled people had to fight for basic rights and to be included in the world.
Activists often say: ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’. This means do not make something about disability without including disabled people.
I hope that in the future any artists making stories about disability will listen to disabled people.