On Puppetgate

COMMENT: It was a pretty dumb decision to use a puppet to depict an autistic child for All in a Row. But the drive to talk over people on the autistic spectrum with differing views is worse.

I apologise for yet another autism post. I’ve been getting noisier on this issue in recent years , but after this post from earlier in the month on what I see as the problems in performing arts (along with this thread on twitter about my worst experience outside of theatre), I was planning to give it a rest. But then came along – and many of you should have heard by now – a particularly stupid incident over at Southwark Playhouse in London. A new play called All in a Row depicted an autistic child as a puppet. Cue outrage from everyone.

For anyone who’s not up to speed here, this article from the Evening Standard is a good summary. All in a Row is a play by Alex Oates, who is probably best known for Silk Road, a play about the dark web and buying drugs online. This play was meant to be drawn from his experiences as a carer, and it never really got any attention until a video trailer came out that made a big deal of portraying the child as a puppet. That was controversial, to put it mildly. I’ve checked some of the blog posts about this, and it seems that the objections were centred around the puppet rather than the actual content of the play. The National Autistic Society, which this theatre company had worked with, then went on to say it had withdrawn support. Alex Oates then, in an arguably ill-advised move to make the point of how important the story was, linked to a story about parents who’d ended up killing their autistic child. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t trying to justify why it’s okay to do that sort of thing, but after all this talk of a puppet being dehumainsing, that was the way may people saw it. And as is customary for incidents like this, all bloggers on the autistic spectrum are now obliged to give their opinion on the matter.

To be honest, if this was a straightforward story of arseholery and uproar, I would probably have sat this one out and let other people get on with it. However, I’m going to give my opinion because I think a lot of nuances are being overlooked. I still think it was a pretty dumb decision, but we should not waste the opportunity to learn from mistakes.

Before I go on, I’m not claiming any special authority on this matter just because I’m on the autistic spectrum. I’ve always found the idea that someone has a lived experience on a topic in question solely based on what demographics they’re in to be incredibly simplistic – you don’t get to speak on behalf of an entire demographic just because a bad thing happened to someone else who you share a characteristic with. In this case, we are talking about a play where the child depicted on stage has a very severe form of autism. Although I’ve had my own horrendous experiences, they’re completely different to the subject here. So please do not treat my opinion as any more authoritative than that of Joe Public. And you should be wary of anyone who claims their opinion is.

With that caveat noted, however, here is my view which might be unpopular: I wasn’t offended. This might be down to my favourite puppetry-based ensemble being Sparkle and Dark who use puppets all the time. The complaint I heard is that representing one character as a puppet is dehumanising, but I saw Killing Roger back in 2013 where an old man who wanted assisted suicide was played by a puppet, with all other characters played by humans. Was Roger portrayed in a dehumaising light? Absolutely not – and anyone who’s seen this play can back me up on this. However, I’m in the minority here, and if you’re not used this this level of puppetry in plays, it’s quite understandable that you’d interpret the use of a puppet that way.

None of that matters though. There is no right or wrong answer to whether a play is offensive because offence is subjective. No-one has any business telling people that they should or shouldn’t have been offended by something. It is, however, a good idea in general to avoid needless offence – and that is where this play falls short. Common sense and discretion goes a long way, and in this case common sense should have told you that you’re treading on thin ice by using a puppet. To be fair, I’m saying this from a position of hindsight, someone that Alex Oates didn’t have. If it was an obscure fringe group that made this mistake, I’d urge people to forget about this. A play backed by the Southwark Playhouse, however, should have thought of this. Worse, they ignored the red flags after they were in plain sight. It was a great that they asked the National Autistic Society for input in this play, but if you’re going to do that, you have to take that on board. If you ignore what they say the moment their feedback becomes inconvenient, you can expect consequences.

I do have some sympathy with the situation this play was in. They argue that it would have been impossible to play this character with a real child – that is probably correct. But that alone is not a good enough reason. If you’ve gone through the trouble of asking the NAS for their opinion, you have to take their response seriously. As soon as they knew the NAS had problems with the puppet, they should have tried to find a solution that both parties would be happy with. Could you run whole scenes with puppetry? Could you narrate part of the story? One important clarification from the NAS’s own statement is that the use of their puppet was their main objection, but not their only objection – this production would have to address the other complaints too. If they truly couldn’t reach an agreement on how to proceed, and if the only way to tell the story would be to go ahead without their blessing, only then might they have grounds to say “so be it” and do it regardless. But it seems to me the root problem is that they were so wedded to the idea of using a puppet, they pressed on long after it became clear it was a bad idea.

But … please keep this proportion. A lot of the criticisms I’ve seen online are reading far too much into this, extrapolating this into conclusions over what the play’s saying without actually seeing it, or even listening to anyone who’s seen it. Everyone who is offended by this as every right to say how they feel, but as with most incidents of mass offence, people are routinely conflating offensive with harmful. Yes, you might consider the play dehumanising of autistic people, but it’s quite a leap in logic to think that simply from looking at a puppet is going to make anyone think of real autistic children as less human. The play itself could influence people for the worse, depending on what’s in the script, but the response from the reviews – even the ones that were critical of the puppet – is that the subject material was fine. The London arts media routinely mauls plays for minor moral transgressions, so if there was any objectionable message coming out of the play I’m confident it would have been flagged.

I am a long-standing opponent of censorship, especially when the sole reason is because people found it offensive, so I cannot under any circumstances support the calls to get the play cancelled. The protest is fine, but the correct way to prevent yourself watching something that you find objectionable is to exercise your own freedom of choice to not see it. I realise there’s the argument that merely knowing the play is going ahead might upset some people, but the blame for that has to be shared by the people who spread the outrage. If all you wanted was to avoid people on the autistic spectrum having hurt feelings, why did you tell them about this play in order to get them upset in the first place?

The thing I find most distasteful is the speed in which some people have dismissed the opinions of the members of the production team who are on the autistic spectrum. To repeat the same point I made in my last article, there are 700,000 of us in the UK and we have a big range of views and lived experiences. It should not come as any surprise that theatre professionals who work with puppets all the time don’t see the use of a puppet as a big deal. And yet I’ve seen some blogs that have been appalled that Southwark Playhouse could mention that people on the autistic spectrum have different views. Apparently, the people who had the wrong opinions are victims because someone mentioned that unspecified members of the production team are on the spectrum and that’s a breach of confidentiality. Anyone who’s saying this: fuck right off. Maybe they are open about their condition, maybe they’re not, but for you to barge in and claim victimhood on their behalf in order to impose your own preferred narrative is contemptible. Talking over people who don’t have the opinion you expect them to have is a far bigger problem than a puppet.

Alex Oates wanted to write a story about autism and I will always defend everybody’s right so write about any subject material they like. If they get it wrong, you should tell the world why. I am disappointed that what could have been an informative and sensitive portrayal has been undermined by easily avoidable controversy, and I despair at the way he dug himself into a deeper hole as the outrage grew. I hope that this is a lesson taken on board for everyone that you can’t ask a group like the National Autistic Society for their input and then behave like it doesn’t matter.

So if you want to dog-pile, I won’t stop you. But the question you should always ask is “What harm has this done?”, and so far I’ve not heard any arguments that justify the level of authoritarianism that some people are advocating. No group should be treated as a hive-mind, and just because the majority of views expressed have been negative doesn’t mean everyone thinks that way. We should not allow Alex Oates’s dumb decision to lead to thought policing – that really would be harmful.

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