By Alexandra Suttie

Alexithymia is proud to have a neurodiverse cast and creative team! We chatted to two cast members Keagan Vaskess (playing Blue) and Emma Hoy (playing Yellow) about their experience with Aphantasia - a condition where one does not possess a functioning mind's eye and cannot visualise imagery. They talk about how it affects their life and how it's impacted their professional careers.

Can you define aphantasia or describe what it means to you?

EH: Aphantasia is the inability to actually picture anything in your mind so if I said to you ‘imagine a beach’ and you can see a picture of that, I can’t. I imagine the concept of a beach and it’s sort of more about words than pictures.  People with full blown aphantasia, they can’t really hear music in their head, they can’t see anything at all… not a lot is really known about it. I just know that I have a lot of trouble picturing things, so I get lost really easily and I find it really hard to remember things because I find it really hard to picture them (faces, things like that).

KV: I guess it’s like a blindness of your mind’s eye. So when I close my eyes I don’t see anything, I also don’t hear or have any memory of smells or tastes or sensations. I sing but I don’t hear music in my head so I don’t experience having a song stuck in my head. It’s really hard, it makes things a bit tricky. In a yoga class when the teacher says ‘imagine you’re on a beach,’ – well, I’m just like ‘there’s probably sand, there’s probably an ocean, there’s probably a seagull or two and it’s probably warm.’ I know the facts about a beach but I can’t see a beach. So I know what a beach is but I can’t see it, I can’t see my Mum’s face, I can’t see anything like that.

How else does it affect your day to day life?

EH: My memory is awful because of it.

KV: It doesn’t really as a functional human, but as an actor it makes things quite difficult. Like a lot of what you do at drama school is visual based. They’ll say ‘imagine your character as a 6 year old -  how do they behave in this situation?’ I’m like, ‘well what do 6 year olds do?’

It gives a very generalised idea of any sort of backstory and you need specificity as an actor and that makes it quite difficult without going through and making up specific facts about a character. I guess it makes it quite hard. And also because I can’t hear music I can’t pitch a note out of nowhere. That makes it quite difficult to learn music I have to do it by rote.

I always thought I wasn’t very creative all through high school and uni because I couldn’t come up with brand new things. But I realise now, how could I possibly imagine something that doesn’t exist when I can’t imagine something I’ve known my entire life?

How does it affect you as a performer?

EH: The big thing for me is all my work has to be text based, not image based, so when I remember things it’s about rote learning words and getting them into my body rather than remembering concepts. I was always a terrible dancer because of it because I can’t remember or recreate dance moves in my head.

What are other tools you used when training to act?

KV: Mostly it’s rote memory. I have to write. I find writing very helpful so I write out my lines. Copy out the sheet music that I’m learning. I do that quite a bit. Physically doing it gets it into my body more, I like to walk when I’m learning pieces of music or dialogue. When I’m doing something with my body it tends to stay with me a bit easier than just sitting in a darkened room learning my lines.

How do people react when you tell them what Aphantasia is?

KV: A lot of people don’t believe it. They kind of just go ‘no, but you can see things’. No, it’s just black there’s nothing in my head. It’s not even a white noise thing it’s just black, there’s nothing in there. I guess it’s quite calm. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be super busy with lights and colours and visuals and stuff. The more I talk to other people about it the more they’re like ’no I have a million questions…I want to know everything’.

EH: I remember when Keagan first brought this up and I was like ‘oh that’s me!’ I knew I struggled with exercises and I just thought everyone was struggling, pretending to picture a beach like I was. It’s been a relief, and it’s really interesting to talk to other people because they don’t believe that minds work like mine and Keagan’s.

Is aphantasia related to autism or does is more come under the umbrella of neurodiversity?

EH: I think it’s more under the umbrella of neurodiversity and, you know, accepting that people’s minds all work differently and there’s nothing wrong with that.

KV: I guess it’s just a different kind of, I don’t know how to say this, mental state? Because it’s not like it’s a condition, it’s not debilitating, it doesn’t alter my life that much but I guess it’s just a different way of seeing…and translating the world around us.

Has working on Alexithymia - a production that’s extremely aware of neurodiversity - been a different, or even better, experience for you as a performer than anything you’ve done before?

EH: Yeah I think so. Jayde and Tom are very accepting of people having to work in different ways so a big thing for me has been struggling to orient myself in the space with the three colours because I can’t imagine them when they’re not there. So Jayde has kind of let me have a bit more of a free hand in deciding where I go because I can’t lock it down until I have those colours in front of me.

KV: It’s very cool actually. Jayde’s hyper aware of myself and Emma having aphantasia. So she finds really interesting ways to get us to act in the way that she wants. So she’ll describe things that she wants us to do differently to how she would describe them for Nicola (who is neurotypical). So she might say ‘imagine that you’re wearing a coat made of puppies’ and that’ll kind of evoke some sort of warm, happy, fuzzy feeling in me.

How did you find out about aphantasia?

KV: I saw a Facebook post actually. This guy wrote this huge, long Facebook post about ‘I just found out something about my life and I’m 35 years old and I just found something out and it’s blowing my mind’. And I read it and was like ‘oh yeah that’s me… wait, people can see things?’.
I just assumed that when people said picture ‘blah blah blah’ they were talking metaphorically my whole life. I just assumed no one could see anything. And then finding out that people actually see stuff in their heads blew my mind. And so I shared the post with our VCA Facebook group being like ‘hey does anyone else experience this?’ and so many people put their hands up. It was very odd. A lot of creative people apparently experience it.

EH: Keagan put a post up on our uni group and about 30 people were like ‘oh my god me too, me too!’ and we just started having conversations about how it affected our training over the years because visualisation is such a big art of acting training.

Do you think it’s given you a different perspective coming into Alexithymia?

EH: Yeah I think so. Reinforcing that there’s no such thing as normal and that everyone’s brains do their own thing and that’s great.

KV: It’s just been another window to look at it all through. And we often talk about it just in our discussions of the piece. Like ‘how does this work with aphantasia, like is that similar to an aphantasia thing’ and a lot of it is. It’s just translating the world differently. It’s so weird to think of other people’s brains working in completely different ways to yours because you just assume that the way your brain works is the way everyone’s does and the way you see the world is the same.

Why should people come and see the Alexithymia?

EH: I think it’s exploring a topic that hasn’t been explored much in public life. Especially autistic women and alexithymia. I think women are expected to be naturally empathetic towards the people around them so it’s really interesting to explore a set of women who aren’t.

KV: You should come and see the show because it’s telling a neurodiverse story about autistic females which is not a very common narrative. We always tend to hear about autistic males in the media and this is quite cool that it’s about women.

Alexithymia is running at the Poppy Seed Festival 2017 until November 19th. Book your tickets here.