Autism Theatre Company Consultation

Successful autistic actor Daryl Hannah

Successful autistic actor Daryl Hannah

A message from Peer Productions’ Artistic Director, Nina Lemon.

It’s time to talk about autism and theatre and I want to know what you think.  I am interested in building a theatre company made up entirely of young adults who are diagnosed as on the spectrum but who would be regarded as high functioning, aspergers or similar; young people who have perhaps pursued an interest in theatre and who have already gained some experience and potentially a level 3 (A Level/Btec) qualification.

Now before I risk antagonising the entire autism family community with this statement let me explain where I am coming from. I have both a personal and professional interest in autism and learning disabilities.  I am proud mum to a daughter who has brain damage who, whilst she doesn’t have an ASD diagnosis, shares many characteristics with her autistic friends and am a loving aunt to a nephew who is severely autistic.  I have worked with autistic people my entire professional life right back to my trident work experience age 15 (almost 20 years ago – dear God!) where I supported a drama worker with a group of adults in what was then called an ‘adult training centre.’ I have delivered drama projects in many special needs schools and community groups and have also supported many brilliant autistic people to take part in drama in a mainstream setting.  Of course every day I continue to learn but in short it’s fair to say I get it.

So why, with all this experience, do I want to focus on those young people who are seen as most capable?  Surely I should target my efforts at those who are worst off, those whose families would most benefit from the respite care a drama class could provide.

The simple answer is that I can see a gap which (to my knowledge) is not being filled.  Where we are (Surrey) we are so lucy to have professionally run theatre charity Dramatize just up the road who specialise in accessible drama workshops for adults with learning disabilities – but the young people I am talking about, in the main, would feel quite frustrated working with people of such varying abilities.  I can’t blame them.  Often they have fought their way into and through mainstream education.  They have battled to succeed in a mainstream environment and, like any other young person, they want to pursue their passions to the next level.   Maybe they have a Btec in Acting or an A Level in Theatre Studies.  They might apply for drama school or to study performing arts at university but for many this is where their journey ends.

Truthfully, I fear that we at Peer Productions are adding to this problem.  In addition to our inclusive youth theatre (which includes several kids with ASD – we run a full time actor training program for young actors (aged 16 – 23 years) – . These young actors are very carefully selected.  Not only do they need to be able to perform at a high standard, but they also need to be capable of learning how to work collaboratively and quickly and must be able to cope with some of the challenging environments in which we deliver work with targeted, disadvantaged and vulnerable people.  The training we offer, by necessity, involves putting yourself out there in quite a challenging and public way.  You have to have a lot of confidence to deliver a play about sex education to 250 rowdy year 9s!  The truth is that, whilst we have on occasion taken people on to this course who have ASD, the vast majority of the young people with autism who I audition and interview (and the number who apply increases year on year) are simply not capable of doing this (yet!) I therefore find myself inviting these often brilliant and talented young people to join youth theatre. But a workshop, however inspiring, on a Sunday afternoon, cannot provide for them the level of training or experience which they are seeking and I feel we are letting them down.

So here’s a sticky question.  If the eighteen year olds I am auditioning are not capable of excelling in a touring theatre company shouldn’t they and we accept that and encourage them to pursue a less challenging career?  Are we not putting off their inevitable disappointment?  Perhaps an actor with ASD will never be able to ‘pass’ on stage as someone who does not have autism? – Ok that was several sticky questions.

My hunch, and it is at this stage it is a hunch, is that that’s not right.

So what are some of the barriers?

Physicality – this can be a big one.  Owing to a number of factors including sensory and digestion issues, people with ASD often move unusually.  Some actors with ASD struggle to mask their own physicality when playing characters.  From speaking with teachers and their peers from sixth form colleges and youth theatres, often we, as theatre educators, feel uncomfortable tackling this issue.  There is an underlying attitude that a person with ASD cannot change their physicality so teachers don’t always give advice or redirection for fear of looking like they are drawing attention to the student’s difference.  As a result, the student doesn’t get the same level of coaching and misses the opportunity to improve their performance and make their character more convincing.

So is it that an actor with ASD cannot change their physicality or that everyone has been too embarrassed or lacks the time to try and help them do so?

(Note: Exactly the same applies to vocal tone and expression).

What if, of course, actually as a performer they don’t need to change themselves?  What if their own unique brand of self could be offering a whole new dynamic to a production? What if they could be a performance artist or poet or stand up comedian? What does an autistic aesthetic look like and sound like on stage?

Of course body and voice are only two areas where there are challenges.  What about following instructions, team work, ability to empathise, ability to cope with change etc etc….the list goes on.  But ultimately none of these challenges strike me as insurmountable.

So if they are not insurmountable why not just take the people who are auditioning?  I have thought long and hard about this and I suppose the simple answer is simply that I have no choice but to work within systems which cannot accommodate these young artists and I am mindful of putting any young creative in a process or environment where they could be harmed or lose confidence.

But surely there are lots of young people who would find the full time course too much?  Why not set up an access course to help develop all these young people regardless of ASD status?  Why separate the people with autism?  This is a fair point but I suppose I am intrigued by what could happen if we did work exclusively with an ASD group.  What could Autistic theatre (with a capital A) look like?  What stories could they tell?  What voices might we hear?

So, whilst I grapple with these ideas I am interested in hearing from anyone who has an opinion, an idea or a contribution to make on this.  Perhaps you are an actor with ASD?  Perhaps you are the parent of an autistic teenager or a teacher of an autistic sixth former?  Do you think this idea would be appealing?  Would it work?  What haven’t I thought about?

Please email your thoughts and suggestions –