COMMENT: It’s right for theatres to take action on mental health projects, but they have to understand the problems, not just give a generic leg-up.
This is an article that, a few years ago, I would have had no intention of writing. Those of you who know me will be aware I have a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. That diagnosis came about under some pretty horrendous circumstances that have nothing to do with theatre; this is not the place for a blow-by-blow account of that – if you want to read about that you can read about it here and here. One of the earliest decisions I made on finding out about this is that I wanted no special treatment from anyone, in theatre or elsewhere. So after that, I carried on doing what I was doing and barely mentioned it.
However, as anyone who has followed this blog may have noticed, more recently I have been getting noisier on this issue. One of the first things that prompted me to speak out was ITV’s awful hypocrisy over Susan Boyle and their selective freak-show mentality. But the things that’s mostly prompted me to speak out isn’t what I expected. A big thing has been made of diverse programming in the last few years ago. In principle that’s a good thing, and I’m not going to spend the article getting involved in any of those debates other than the one that concerns me. But for people like me, I have found a lot of these initiatives to be simplistic, and, in some cases, misguided. Late last year I did a guest post from someone who I believe understands the issues and does something about it – but I’m also seeing a lot of back-patting over things that aren’t helpful.
So it’s February 7th, and it’s Time to Talk day. This day seems to be mostly about positively sharing stories of mental health, but I want to talk about being included. Now, I’ve said before I don’t know whether my Asperger’s has been a help or a hindrance. Indeed, there is an argument that it’s been a net benefit, because in a place where support for aspiring theatre-makers was next to non-existent, the only people who stuck at it were people like me who develop obsessive interests to the exclusion of everything else – so when an local opportunity finally came along, I was the first/only person in the queue. But I’m also identifying areas where I believe there are barriers, and I don’t believe enough people realise these barriers exist to do anything about it.
So here’s my list of three things that I perceive to be barriers for people’s with Asperger’s in theatre. Again, these are problems with no simple solutions. I will give some suggestions of what might help, but it’s really in the hands of theatres what they do about it.
Before I begin …
Before we even start on this list, there’s three very important things to get out of the way.
Firstly, I said these are perceived barriers. They are all highly subjective, and I could be right or wrong about any of them. In fact, I’d love to be proven wrong on all three counts. But a barrier that exists in perception only is still a barrier. People might complain about them, but the more likely reaction is to not get involved. This is why saying “No-one’s complained about this before” isn’t good enough. The reason for that could well be because the people you’re excluding know the score and don’t bother to say anything.
The second thing, and far more important thing: I am speaking for myself and no-one else here. Certainly people with low-functioning autism are likely to have a very different set of barriers to me, but even at my end, we are not a monolith – we are just as diverse as people without Asperger’s. Where possible, I have restricted this to issues where I have reasons to believe it affects people other than me, and avoided personal bugbears. But I am not the self-appointed spokesperson for anyone on the autistic spectrum. And you should be wary of anyone who thinks they are. Some goes for anyone attempting to speak on behalf on any other minority (or majority). And, for reasons I will come on to later, you should be especially suspicious of anyone who promotes hand-picked individuals as spokepersons for their demographic.
Finally, for anyone reading this from any theatre I’ve worked with or asking to work with, please be assured nothing here is a coded attack against you. I’ve deliberately refrained from personalising this because I don’t have any specific gripes against any particular theatre (and, let’s face it, even I I did, you’d be hard-pressed to beat a certain ex-employer of mine). I’m happy to answer any concerns you may have, but if you’re wondering if anything I’ve said is a dig at something you’ve done, the answer is almost certainly no.
Those two notes of caution aside, let’s get going.
1: Lack of appreciation for different thinking
I have a far bigger bone to pick with my former employer on this issue, but a big problem I and others faced was having working practices imposed on me. This problem is far from unique to people like me, but the worst mentality I came across in the civil service was from managers who believed that as they did someone a certain way and it worked for them, everybody else should do things exactly the same way as they did. And if you did things differently, that was wrong. The fact that you were perfectly capable of doing the job your own way was an irrelevance – if necessary, they would prove you were doing it wrong by making problems out of things that didn’t matter.
I have never had anything of this scale in any dealings with the theatre – but neither is theatre free of this mentality. In initiatives to encourage creativity, I often observe a very exact idea of the correct and incorrect ways of being creative. Playwriting books and courses are, in my opinion, amongst the more obvious offenders. Not identified a protagonist and antagonist before writing your script? Then your play is written off as not keeping interest before the play’s been read. Not decided on every aspect of your lead characters in advance of writing? Then you can’t be trusted with characterisation. Not written down a scene structure on paper? Then you clearly don’t know how to plan a play (and definitely not because you’re capable of formulating a plan in your head).
These are extreme and exaggerated examples, but too often I see red flags that writing and other kinds of theatre-making gets judged on how it’s being made instead of what’s actually being made. Most people can mitigate against this by working out what people higher up the theatre hierarchy want and change their methods to work with that. People on the autistic spectrum often can’t, but the fact that they can make decent theatre their own way – and I think I’ve had sufficient success on the Brighton Fringe to put myself on this list – gets overlooked. And as long as doing things differently is confused with doing things wrongly, that’s always going to be a barrier.
What might help: In all of these cases, I want to avoid advocating specific measures for people with specific needs. If you create 101 little rules to cover 101 situations, nobody’s going to keep track of it. So the solution I’d advocate for the problem of dismissing people who think differently is to stop doing that. You shouldn’t be doing that no matter who you’re dealing with. Judge theatre on what’s being made, not how it’s being made.
In practice, however, I suspect it’s not as simple as that. I accept that in reality theatre makers have to form relationships based on who they trust to know what they’re doing. The easiest way is to simply trust people who make theatre the same way that you do – and that is exclusionary. But if someone does something differently to you, how can you know if that method’s valid? I don’t have an answer to that. But a good start might be to recognise that “different” does not mean “wrong”. At the very least, if artists produce work successfully, the fact that they used unconventional approach should not count against them.
2: The culture of networking
There’s quite a lot of overlap between these issues. One problem I touched on above is the informal nature of forming relationships. Well, in addition to as approaching people who you think know what they’re doing, the other thing that’s a major factor is considering who you’ll get on with. Now, the idealist in me would like to say that this should not matter in the slightest and as long as that person can act/sing/write/dance/direct, that’s all you need. But the pragmatist in me knows from experience that this is not the case. When there’s a lot at stake on a theatre project, you do not want to discover your key performer is arguing with you at every turn (or worse, arguing with the other performers). So it’s quite natural that theatre makers prefer to approach people who they personally know and trust. Especially if you’re a small ad-hoc company. A difficult collaborator at a big theatre could, at worst, spoil a production. A difficult collaborator in a small group could finish off your group.
But for all the good reasons to recruit people you get on with, there is a price to be paid, and that is paid by people who are less good at networking. Which isn’t exclusively people with Asperger’s, but affects us disproportionately. A common phrase used is “shy bairns get nowt”, but that to me is a pathetic excuse. Is it really acceptable to systematically shut people out of making theatre – just because they’re a bit shy? I accept there’s no easy way to eliminate the over-dependence of networking, but shrugging shoulders and telling yourself it’s not a problem and the people who lose out brought it on themselves is not an acceptable solution.
If that’s not enough to make you take this seriously, here’s another reason: the networking culture also enables other forms of discrimination to take place, from big topics to sex and race to more obscure things such as accent or how you dress. I have no idea how much discrimination goes on under the radar, and I’m definitely not saying that anyone who gives opportunities based on networking is biased. But it does mean that if you’re already prejudiced against certain artists for who they are, the networking culture makes it a hell of a lot easier to do that undetected.
What might help: I don’t advocate ending the networking culture. It would be hypocritical of me to do so, seeing as my two best opportunities to date came through networking. But some types of networking can be reduced; other kinds of networking can be improved.
One thing that might help (and I’m saying this because I don’t want Live Theatre to think I mean the opposite) is networking sessions. That might seem like an odd thing for me to suggest, but given that networking is going to happen whether you like it or not, it’s better to open it up to everyone. This is not going to be perfect – people who already know each other are bound to benefit from this more – and there’s always ways you look at making this work better – but if we’re going to have networking, let’s maximise the positives and minimise the negatives.
The other thing is something that only other people can answer. As I said, small groups probably have no choice but to work through networking, but big theatres are a different matter. All major theatres could benefit from more transparency; I’m not really interested in which major theatres get on with which major writers, but what happens at the other end of the scale. Somehow, theatres need to demonstrate how people who aren’t part of their in crowd stand a fair chance against the people who are. I have no idea how that could happen – I know next to nothing about the inner workings of theatre – so if this is to happen at all, it’s in the hands of the big theatres to make this work.
A couple of more specific suggestions that might help people with Asperger’s. The first one, which you have absolutely no excuse not to do: stop making stupid judgements of people based on irrelevant observations. I really don’t have the energy to go over all the times I’ve been on the receiving end of this, but if you are making assumptions as baseless as someone not making enough eye contact not being interested in what you’re saying, don’t. I don’t want to hear any excuses of “I didn’t know you had Asperger’s”. You shouldn’t be doing that at all. Stop it. Now.
Then there is the idea of giving people a leg-up to overcome their disadvantages. I am wary of this. I will support the idea if the people doing it understand what the barriers are and have thought about how they’re overcoming these barriers, which is why I support Lava Elastic. But I’ve steered clear of schemes that offer extra help for people with disabilities with no explanation of how it’s supposed to help. Those schemes can be little help, or useless. They can even be worse than useless. This brings me on to the third problem – and not everyone’s going to like this:
3: Talking over people
Now I return to the thing I said at the start: I only speak for myself. At the risk of stating the obvious, there are 700,000 of us in this country and we have a wide variety of views and experiences. Now, I should make it clear from the outset that I will defend anybody’s right to speak for themselves however they like, whether your voice is the same as the last 99 voices that’s been heard, or something different and outspoken. But I see very little variety on stage – it feels like along with the subject of mental health going into fashion in theatre, which is good, there’s also a checklist in fashion for what you’re supposed to say. That is not so good.
This isn’t unique to me: I’ve heard complaints across the board of people who shout you down for not minoritying correctly, or not womaning correctly *cough* Graham Linehan *cough*. What seems to be a particular problem for mental disabilities, though, is that many people – both inside and outside the performing arts – only seem to want to hear stories that make us into victims. (Well, apart from some right-wingers who like to use the odd success story to portray everyone else as lazy spongers, but that’s not someone you get in theatre.) I should probably stress at this point that, in my experience, theatre groups (and groups in general) who specialise in mental heath are usually pretty good at understanding all the nuances. But outside of this, it goes downhill very quickly into a preference for simplistic victimhood stories.
What’s more, it’s only the right kind of victimhood stories. I’m not interested in producing my own story as a play because that isn’t how I want to be defined, but I’ve held a lingering suspicion for some time that no-one else is interested in my story because it doesn’t fit into the fashionable narrative of bastard cuts from bastard Tories. Don’t get me wrong: I’m dead against that myself. But – and I really hope I am wrong on this – I can’t help thinking that as my own experience (which could have pushed me to suicide under different circumstances) was the fault of civil servants, rather than something you can pin on the government, no-one notices or cares. If I ever was to tell my story, I would say something like “It was never a problem until people who claimed to care about diversity made it into one” – I suspect that’s too off-message.
This victim narrative is why I don’t automatically trust opportunities aimed at someone with a disability. As soon as there’s someone deciding who does and doesn’t get the opportunity, it raises questions on what basis we’re being chosen. One possibility is your application’s success or failure will be decided on whether the selection panel approve of what you say about people like yourself. In which case, they aren’t amplifying the voices of a marginalised group – they’re using cherry-picked people from a marginalised group to amplify their own voices. Or it could simply be that all the people who applied were saying the same thing. But given the black box nature of most selection processes, we don’t know which is which.
To be fair, there are other explanations for the apparent lack of variety in voices. One thing that may skew the output is that not everybody with a disabilities wants to be identified that way. I’m guessing that those who don’t are less likely to want to be part of schemes that highly trumpet this fact, and that those who don’t want to make a big deal of it are likely to have different views from people who do. But there is, I believe, too much complacency on this subject. It’s too easy to stop looking for other people’s perspectives after hearing what you want to hear.
What might help: I’m not expecting the worst offenders to change their ways. Anyone who is already thinking “Shut up you disabled, let me tell you how you are oppressed” has probably stopped reading my now. But on the off-chance you are still reading. Stop it. You have no business using us for your own agenda. And I don’t care if you also have a disability or even Asperger’s. That’s still your view and your view alone. You have no more business passing off your view as everyone’s than I do.
Everyone else: you may have the best of intentions, but please refrain from jumping to conclusions about our experiences. Your preconceptions about the terrible time we are having are not proven true just because you heard one person who agrees with you. Those of us who don’t have a problem with something have just as valid views as those who do.
As for the question of whether theatres are selectively promoting only those voices of people with disabilities that say what they want to hear – that’s a harder one. It might be that you welcome input from everyone even if their views and experiences are completely at odds with the dominant narrative. You might have every intention of standing up to anyone who tries to enforce a minority hive-mind. But if that the case – yes, that’s great, but say so! It’s no use welcoming differing views if people assume they’re not welcome and stay away.
I must apologise for a post over 3,000 words that will sound like a rant at times. There are no simple answers, and even with the best will in the world, there will be a lot of trial and error before things can be put right. And, of course, there’s plenty of other people with different challenges that need to be catered for too. But if something like that can steer things into something that helps, rather than what some people thinks helps, maybe this rant will do some good.
UPDATE 03/04/19: I’ve been thinking a bit further about the pattern of people with disabilities having a victim narrative forced upon them, whether or not they wish to be treated as victims. I’m standing by what I said. However, it’s increasingly occurring to me that there’s another narrative being pushed upon them, and that’s how brilliant everybody is at being inclusive of you – whether or not you agree you are being included. This is a particularly popular corporate narrative, where every big employer embraces disability awareness schemes. The experiences of employees and/or ex-employees who were at the receiving end of mistreatment from the same employers are ignored. (And yes, I’m talking from experience here.)
This, if anything, is worse than blanket victimhood labelling, because it allows big employers with scant regard for employment rights to paint themselves as the good guys and drown out the voices of anyone who knows they haven’t practised what they’re preaching. (Worse, all of the charities and campaigns they are collaborating with don’t seem to realise it’s a problem. I realise it’s a lot easier to for a charity to work with an employer than against them, but who is speaking up for the people who are being wronged?) There is a fine line between raising awareness and “move on, nothing to see here”, and that was crossed a long time ago.
This is more a gripe against corporate culture than theatre culture, but theatre is not immune from this. I hope no theatres are promoting these awareness campaigns without asking themselves if they’re doing what they ask of others, but if you are, you are part of the problem. I am not your beating stick to make other people look bad, and I am not your pawn to make yourself look good. And if I find out any theatre is using disability awareness as a whitewash for their own behaviour, I will not hesitate to call it out.