When Queer and feminist theatres started to emerge, some were (and some continue to be) deliberate in avoiding the arguably conservative confines of realism. For some, realism reflected and reinforced dominant cultural norms, prescribing a ‘normal’ and killing off or demoralising anyone who didn’t ascribe to this. Brechtian conventions were useful, post-modern and post-structuralist ways of creating and analysing key, the avant-garde celebrated. In these subversive styles, audiences are often made aware of the constructed nature of the performance and at times directly implicated or confronted.
Experiments with stagecraft conventions inevitably impact structure and can lead to the creation of new styles and approaches to exploring social concepts on stage. Anne Bogart has recently discussed the role of theatre being an artform that allows us to imagine new ways to get along and provides a platform for experimenting with working examples of different ways of being together.
In working on an autistic theatre piece, it was necessary to create a set of rules – which became conventions – moving us towards a style of performance that would facilitate telling stories of autistic experience in a way that was also accessible to a neurotypical audience. This, of course, was to encourage an empathetic response to understanding autistic experience and change perceptions in the community around autism and in particular, autistic women. I felt strongly from the beginning that realism wasn’t the way to go. Afterall, if we were to be realistic about the status and power of autistic people in the community, we would need to prioritise a neurotypical narrative and perspective, since that reflects the reality of the power structures we live with. Those stories abound and usually focus on autistic men and boys, so a story that examined female experiences of autism needed to be lifted out of the conservative confines of realism.
That’s not to say it would be impossible to use realism to tell the story we’ve told, but perhaps more importantly, it seemed to me that the point of the piece was to illuminate a way of thinking and perceiving the world that was different from neurotypical peoples’ everyday experience. We needed a way to make the everyday strange, new, curious. Also, on a practical level, indie theatre means budget, and realism is hard to do well without money for a convincing realist visual world.
Besides, I tend to find realism less exciting than the avant-garde and believe in the power of theatre to change the way people think – by making them feel. The way I like to feel is when I am intrigued by a new way of looking at something ordinary. I love when I walk away from a production having learnt something and even more when I start to think about the world – or at least some small part of it – a little differently. Sometimes a production can transform the way I feel about a chair, or a type of light, or a mundane greeting. So it seems obvious in a way, that in order to create a theatre that aims to imagine a new way for diverse neurotypes to get along, wants the audience to learn something and wants to give voice to a typically marginalised group, then we would be drawing on and referring to some avant-garde and Brechtian conventions.
In Alexithymia we developed some non-naturalistic (some might say abstract) uses of space along with heightened gesture. Much of this was very deliberate to ensure the audience experience was received through the autistic character’s point of view and to make a point about the ways different brains remember different kinds of details, especially when navigating emotional memory.
Much to the chagrin of my visual designer (Stu Brown) and lighting designer (Pete Amesbury, who is going to kill me if I do another show in a non-traditional space), the piece was also set in the round. The intention was to create a sense of community but also invite the audience to directly engage with the actors and each other. This sense of shared experience was also intended to retain a sense of safety and familiarity, to further encourage an empathetic response to the stories and their characters (for parts 1 and 3 anyway). Audiences were also being watched by each other, perhaps even feeling that there was a 'correct' and 'incorrect' way to respond, monitored by fellow audience members. This too was part of creating an 'autistic' experience; this sense of self-monitoring, checking in for clues for whether one is 'getting it right' are a regular part of social life for many autistic people.
The bright stage colouring and non-descript costume choices were another way, along with character names Blue, Red and Yellow, of tapping into a ‘strangeness’ (though there were more and deeper ideas behind the design, despite what you may have heard about ‘modern art’ in the show). Generally, I was aiming to take some familiar aspects of social life that neurotypical people could relate to in some way and make them ‘strange’ – not to objectify or fetishise, but to rather create the space for a deep enquiry into how the familiar for one is the strange for the other. This, I believe, is at the heart of neurodiversity: responding to each others’ strangeness with curiosity and empathy, imagining how that strangeness might be ‘normal’ for me, rather than objectifying or judging.
Whether or not people like the stylistic choices we made is less interesting to me than whether or not they walk away able to imagine the world in a slightly different way, from a different perspective. The aim of theatre should never be to please everyone, but to open up a world where we can imagine our lives being different to what they are, to get an empathetic workout. The theatre invites us to experience the world through someone else’s eyes, whether that feels complicated, exciting, tedious, odd, nonsensical or beautiful to the spectator.
It will take some time, further experimentation and contributions from other neurodiverse artists until a fully formed sense of an ‘autistic’ style or aesthetic is reached. In any case, I hope you were able to find at the very least a fleeting moment in which you were compelled to contemplate some aspect of your experience of life and the world differently, for all its wonderful strangeness.