My thoughts on Alphabetti’s Aware

I said I wasn’t going to review Aware from Alphabetti Theatre – I don’t think I am fairly judge a performance based on artistic merit on an issue where I openly take sides. However, I presume a large part of Alphabetti Theatre’s aim is to raise awareness, I can do my bit by giving my own take on neurodiversity in respect of these issues. The short version is that I believe they did best they could realistically achieve from one production, but there’s a lot of details to get through here.

First, a catchup on where Alphabetti Theatre is.* Alphabetti Theatre has gone from one of the most cautious theatres to one of the most bullish. Last year, when most theatres were looking at an autumn reopening, Alphabetti were predicting nothing until the New Year. They did go for a low-scale socially distanced production for Christmas, but we know what happened then. But when May 17th was named as re-opening date and numerous theatres went for that very week, Alphabetti went one step further and went for an audio production, Listen In, which you could listen either online or at a table at the theatre. The table in theatre option didn’t go head in the end, but respect for trying nonetheless.

* The thing I haven’t discussed yet is their much-publicised new programming policy. That’s not a huge surprise, as Alphabetti was headed that way already; however, it is worth discussing where this what this means for grass-roots theatre in the wider north-east. However, that’s a debate for another day.

There are two observations about Alphabetti’s current programme. One is that they’ve gone, quite sensibly, for flexibility and resilience – that’s why Listen In went ahead as online-only instead of be cancelled. The other thing – possible in response to George Floyd, possibly what they would have done anyway – is a very heavy focus on minority voices. Both of these feed into Aware. They are three short films that could be watched either in person at Alphbetti or online, and the topic was neurodiversity.

Minority representation is tricky. Even the word “representation” can be a problem – I never got a vote for who represents me, what is my redress if I disagree? But aside from semantics, there’s two pitfalls. One is that if you overplay the diversity hand, you can end up with people looking through the programme wondering which minority box each performance is meant to be ticking. That benefits nobody – I certainly would not want people thinking someone gave me a job or put me in a programme only to score neurodiversity points – but that’s a wider debate that’s way beyond the scope of this post. The other issue is the thorny question of whose voice is it anyway. Are you really giving a representative voice to minorities, or are you cherry-picking individual minority voices to validate your own views? This one I can start to consider.

The other thing is that neurodiversity is complicated. I am happy for people with lived experienced elsewhere to list how complicated their issues are, but trust me, neurodiversity is not nearly as simple an issue as some people think. There are many different aspects to consider, and one 75-minute production cannot cover them all. There are broadly three strands this falls under, and Aware makes a reasonable stab at two.

The first strand, which covers all three to some extent but particularly Creation, is the therapeutic value. In this case, the fact that neurodiverse people take part is an object in its own right – if you get wide audience appeal or something competitive with other productions, that’s just a bonus. This is not my area of experience at all, so I can’t say how well this is being done, but I do know that drama therapy is widely recognised for all sorts of benefits. (I can possibly apply this to myself, but my experience is too different from what’s being done here to draw any meaningful comparison.) Beyond that, I’ll have to leave it up to drama therapy experts to give a better verdict. Everybody else: please let the people who know their stuff get on with it.

The other strand is giving a voice to neurodiverse people. I will concentrate first on Remake, Retake, as this is the one where I had some worries. This commented on the depiction of neurodiverse characters in films my neurotypical actors, and the reason I was concerned is that this is frequently the subject of the practice I call “performative solidarity”: that is people whose sole interest in getting outraged over films like Rain Man is to show off how worthy their opinions are. Admittedly, film like this are an issue that a lot of neurodiverse people genuinely have issues with, but the performative solidarity crowd get angry every 18 months when something grabs headlines (e.g. All In Row, Music); ignoring all nuance, and ignoring anyone neurodiverse who says they weren’t offended. Meanwhile, the other 101 sources of shit neurodiverse people have to put up with get no attention.

Was this what Remake Retake going to be? A subject chosen by normies so they can be outraged over the correct things, brand Dustin Hoffman as Satan for playing Rain Man, and back-pat themselves for what great allies they are? I’m happy to say, no, it wasn’t. Instead of finding reasons why a depiction must be bad based on who’s playing it, the depictions were considered on their own merits – precisely the way it should be. And in the case of Forrest Gump, some good arguments were made on both sides of the fence.

That leaves The Audition, a documentary about 30 neurodivergent actors auditioning for roles in an unspecified film. But it’s not about the film but the people auditioning. The first and most obvious observation from this is that some people have easily-noticeable learning difficulties, but for others it’s not so easy to notice. The take-home message, of course, is that some people have hidden disabilities. And yes, everybody should have got that message by now, but the failure of some to recognise this is a serious problem for many people. I could spend the rest of this post banging on about that, but we have to finish talking about these films.

However, there is one gap in these films that none of them cover. The set of films collectively veers dangerously close to portraying neurodiverse people exclusively as victims. This imbalance is particularly pronounced in the The Audition, where the auditionees overwhelming talk about how tough life is or things that they would like to do with their lives. That depiction is fair and accurate, but what it omits is that many neurodiverse people do indeed achieve things their lives. To be fair, the very nature of this documentary probably made that impossible – but if this film doesn’t cover it, who will?

And this brings me to the third strand, the one that Aware didn’t cover: inclusion. Not everybody wants or needs to be siphoned off into a special box for special treatment. But although some neurodiverse people do achieve great things, we don’t how many other perfectly capable of doing this are sidelined because of barriers: sometimes petty prejudices, something dogged refusal to understand or implement reasonable adjustments, but always avoidable barriers. Some of us are crying out for this issue to be taken on.

But, here’s the thing. Not all problems facing theatres can be solves by making a play about it. Much as I wholeheartedly recommend one particular play, the real task is for theatres to get their own house in order and ask what barriers neurodiverse people face. And no, contrary to what some theatres seem to think, sensory backpacks does not mean job done: a lot of us to be included making theatre, not just included in the audience. In order to understand the problem, you’re going to have to reach out and ask. Simply asking the opinions of the people you programmed is not good enough – of course they’re going to say you’re great. You need to be getting the opinions of the awkward squad who feel shut out. Only then can we start thinking about what the answer might entail.

Alphabetti Theatre deserves credit here for taking on an issue that, so far, neither Live Theatre nor Northern Stage has started addressing. Aware is good at covering what it did, and where it didn’t cover issues, that’s still no worse than the other cultural venues in Newcastle. So what Alphabetti’s done so far is best considered a work in progress, with a lot still do to. This is a good start – I hope they don’t make the mistake of thinking the job’s finished.

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