When I stumbled across a promotional video for new play All in a Row it took me a good while to lift my jaw off the floor and its effect has been nagging me ever since.
All in a Row is a play written by Alex Oates and directed by Dominic Shaw, which starts previews at the Southwark Playhouse tomorrow. It’s a play about:
A couple, Tam and Martin and their child, Laurence who is autistic and the challenges that they have faced and are facing. It explores their relationship and it’s set the eve before he’s being sent to a residential home and the impact that that has on their lives. And it looks at the fact that there’s no perfect answer.
Says actress Charlie Brooks in the above mentioned promotional video, which if you’ve not seen I’ll direct you towards in a second. So there’s me innocently thinking: Oh, this sounds quite good. The story of a couple whose lives and decisions I’m sure must resonate with parents of autistic children globally whilst bringing them into the public consciousness of those who cannot directly relate.
Actor Simon Lipkin goes on to explain how this play deals with a hard subject in a “truly realistic fashion.”
Then we hear from the writer himself:
I wrote this play because I’ve worked with disabled people for over ten years and it’s something that’s really important to me. The issue of disability and representation is something I’m passionate about.
Well, fabulous. Here’s someone who can bring a depth of knowledge as well as understanding the need for actual representation on stage. It’s going to be great to see how they’ve worked with an autistic actor and their access needs.
Now I’m going to point you towards the video, watch it if you’ve not seen it by clicking on the link below. See if you can spot the issue. If you need subtitles you can click on the cog icon and select subtitles from the menu. Or if you’re using a mobile click the 3 vertical dots icon and select captions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4SoRCn0vV4&t=5s
A puppet! More accurately, it’s half a puppet as according to autism awareness campaigner and mother of 2 autistic children Anna Kennedy who was invited to see a rehearsal of the play its torso “is attached to a very talented puppeteer Hugh Purves. His lower body became the lower body of the boy.”
But it’s a puppet all the same. Did it make you go “what the…?” too?
It’s a decision that has caused much outrage online from autistic people, their parents, carers, family, friends, autistic allies, the wider disability community and opposition from the UK’s leading autism charity, The National Autism Society who in a statement said:
The production company behind this play contacted us and we arranged for autistic and non-autistic people to give feedback. We are pleased the production company made two changes in response, one for accuracy and another around representation. However, while recognising some of the plays strengths, we decided we could not support the play overall due to its portrayal of autism, particularly the use of a puppet to depict the autistic character alone.
Puppetry in itself can be a beautiful and evocative art form, which many of those against All in a Row appreciate in its own right. However, its use in this context jars in an otherwise Stanislavskian reality.
The idea of using a puppet seems to stem back around 2 years ago as disclosed by Alex Oates on Twitter where he says that after having the idea of using a puppet he got in touch with Siân Kidd the puppet designer/ director who “spent 2 years researching this and designed the character of Laurence.” This idea was broached because Oates felt “the idea of a neurotypical adult actor to me seemed offensive” and that “an actor somewhere else on the spectrum was an option but still difficult to effectively portray a child.”
The latter statement teamed with Kidd’s that
The power that puppets have is that they explore movement and can just with the turn of a head or some degree of small movement give life and character in a way that you wouldn’t achieve with a human actor.
And Shaw’s claim that using a puppet “made perfect sense to me because Laurence does some shocking things physically… He has very challenging behaviour,” seem to weirdly negate acting ability and that acting is pretending. Laurence may be non- verbal but surely an actor can more accurately capture other communicative methods and a human face more malleable to expressions. It baffles me further that in all the rhetoric about reality, truth and showing what may be happening in many households Shaw then says having a puppet depict such physicality means “it’s slightly removed from it being real. And that’s a gift to this production.”
In another public statement producer, Paul Virides addresses Laurence’s character development through the use of a puppetry workshop. From this workshop and comments received from an invited audience including autistic people they “altered the puppet’s characterisation” and from feedback later on in the process they “changed some key points in the script, including the process of Laurence being moved to a residential school and the opening scene where Laurence is introduced.”
There’s no mention of whether there was any opposition to using a puppet. Neither is there mention of whether the other characters were explored through puppetry or if there were workshops to explore other casting ideas for Laurence. For example, inviting autistic children/ young adults who enjoy acting or work in the industry to explore the role. Working together to make sure access needs, safeguarding measures and changes to the script or staging, such as having some behaviour happen offstage and told in a different way or not have the actor on stage when there’s more adult language to see if this would make it viable for Laurence to be portrayed by a human being.
Many autistic people feel this is literally de-humanising Laurence, aided by the puppets grey lifeless pallor. The ability to control him is a stark reflection of how they or people they know might have experienced none- autistic people trying to control them. The symbolism musters some dark images.
They also feel that issues stem from the description of Laurence and subsequently real autistic people as having “challenging behaviour,” or being “challenging,” which they say is outdated and lends itself more to how a none- autistic person may view autism and neurodiversity than of behaviour being the result of an environment or situation.
Of course, these may be addressed in the play, which all involved in are keen should be seen before making judgements but using such terms in public communications doesn’t show much understanding. And much like the NAS, many will not show their support because of their insistence of using a puppet for the character of Laurence.
There are, of course, location and access issues that may prevent people from seeing the play. While they are doing a relaxed performance it’s been little publicised and seems a little hidden on the All in a Row booking page. There are no other accessible performances scheduled. Southwark Playhouse also have no information on their access page about relaxed performances and what they entail in general let alone more specific detail about how All in a Row will be adapted for autistic and neurodiverse audience members. The auditorium does not sound an easy place for audience members to go in and out of if they need to, which is a staple of relaxed performances. The use of the outdated term “registered disabled” and that there is “a maximum” of 2 wheelchair spaces aren’t conducive either.
It’s fair to say that All in a Row is a play about and partially for parents of autistic children. With many expressing an interest in seeing the play and seeing the story of other parents of autistic people. Their stories do have their place, indeed they are becoming a more frequent narrative. It’s possible All in a Row will be well received in the wider world and invoke more empathy for the families of autistic people.
The issue, of course, is the use of a puppet and the miscommunication of the words ‘disability representation.’ It’s great that Alex Oates wanted to see disability represented on stage but it’s unfortunate that these staging choices were the outcome.
It’s also important that this narrative is not the only one being told or receiving more commercial platforms. For true representation, more work from and by an autistic person’s perspective and roles for autistic actors need to be commissioned. There’s a wealth of talent out there. You can hear about leading disability arts companies opinions on the following link: https://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2019/graeae-hijinx-criticise-disappointing-use-puppet-autism-play/ Disability Arts commissioners Unlimited have also expressed their disappointment with this decision.
Hopefully, the public outcry here will be a catalyst for more great and truly representative work.
* Disclaimer: I’d like to point out that whilst I am a disabled person (with neurological symptoms) shocked by this clear misrepresentation I am not autistic. I wanted to write this post to draw attention to an audience who may not understand why this is an issue and to discuss it in terms of theatre and disability and disability representation in general. In debating whether to write this post I was conscious of taking the position of talking on behalf of autistic people, albeit with the best of intentions and trying to be a good ally. Autistic people’s voices should be heard on this issue and all issues that include them. I have offered the use of this website as a platform for a guest post from an autistic person’s perspective about All in a Row, although I know it’s is not a large platform and my own circumstances mean I’d not be able to pay (which I know in itself is not the best.) Below I’ve shared links to other blog posts and resources that have already been published by autistic people about this show and would encourage you to listen to their viewpoint.
Review from Helen Ellis, an autistic woman who went to see the show: https://hjellis.blogspot.com/2019/02/all-in-row-autistic-review.html?spref=tw&m=1
Review from Shaun May, an autistic theatre lecturer who also has seen the show: https://shaunmay.co.uk/allinarow/
Check out this brilliant open letter by Chuck Winters: https://medium.com/@chuckwinters/an-open-letter-to-alex-oates-and-the-company-of-all-in-a-row-6960dfb8b582?fbclid=IwAR2EABuFiH8LJjIm_vtvKyKLC3u9XVQYVbI8c4mkG8HpTOq4tdfX8-4Iq5A
And a collation of posts and statements at www.allinarowisableist.com
Opinion of Jess Thom/ Tourettes Hero a theatre maker with Tourettes syndrome: https://www.touretteshero.com/2019/02/17/whos-in-the-rows/