Enough with the grand gestures. I want real change.

COMMENT: The highly-publicised practice of giving grants and opportunities to artists with disabilities is good for a few but does little for the many. If you’re serious about helping, you’re going to have to do some hard and thankless work.

Apologies for the long essay here. As they say, I’ve written a long letter because I don’t have the time for a short one.

It’s quite common for acts of hypocrisy or censorship to push me to boiling point, but this is the first time I’ve been prompted to speak out by good intentions. I might be imagining it, but I could swear that in the last few months most of the local theatres have gone into overdrive announcing all the ways they are supporting artists with disabilities. It is not clear whether this was something planning in its own right or it’s a side-effect to theatre’s reaction to the George Floyd murder (presumably by accompanying opportunities for black artists with opportunities with other minorities), but they’ve really gone to town advertising what they’re doing. It varies from theatre to theatre, but it’s a predominantly a mixture of partnerships with disability advocacy organisations and opportunities for artists with disabilities – either in conjunction with partner organisations or schemes in their own right.

Teal Deer sign
Warning! Very long post ahead! (Skip to Summary)

So why should I have a problem with this? In principle I should be delighted that disabilities are being taken seriously, especially mental disabilities. We have been making progress on obvious areas such as wheelchair access for decades, but it’s really only in the last 10-20 years that society has started getting to grips with access for people who think differently. Disability discrimination is quite different from other forms of decision in one respect: whilst you generally need some pretty unpleasant views about someone’s race, sexuality or gender to discriminate on those grounds, disability discrimination can simply come down to thoughtlessness. Something as basic as failure to respect communication preferences can be huge problems for some people, an the fact this is finally being recognised is a good thing.

The problem is a lot of people are way ahead on being seen to be fighting disability discrimination than doing actual fighting. I’m afraid I’ve seen little evidence of any theatre making progress where it counts: identifying where the barriers are and removing them. The unfortunate truth is that the hard work needed for real change is an unglamorous job that requires a lot of trial and error, which offers few opportunities to advertise the good you’ve done. The one recurring problem I observe with the arts is that they will always pick a simple and easy solution with superficial changes over difficult and complex reforms that solve the root problem – and this culture of grand gestures is a prime example.

Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Today is Time to Talk day. Let’s talk.

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.

Teal Deer sign
Warning! Long post ahead.

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.

Continue reading

Guest post: Sarah Saeed on Lava Elastic and neurodiversity


Introducing a brand new feature for this blog: guest posts. Regular readers here will know by now I have a number of subjects that grab my interests. One thing I’ve been speaking out on lately is diversity, especially for people with disabilities. I’ve done this with some reluctance – ever since my diagnosis with Asperger’s seven years ago, I’ve wanted to work to the principle of wanted to be treated like everyone else. Lately, however I’ve felt compelled to voice my concerns over some of the schemes meant to help; not because nobody needs help – of course some people do – but the simplistic approach taken. At best, they assume that anyone with any kind of disability needs a leg-up without attempting to understand what the barriers are in the first place; and at worst, they assume that anyone with any kind of a disability is a victim and only promote artists who give this message.

But I’ve come across one venture that is doing something right. Lava Elastic – who came to my attention through their association with Sweet Venues Brighton – is an event that calls itself “One of the UK’s first openly neurodiverse comedy/performance nights”, run by Sarah Saeed. What do she offer that other ventures don’t? She gets it. She shows an understanding of the barriers faced and how they can be overcome that I find sorely missing from other initiatives. So I am delighted to have as a my guest poster Sarah Saeed, founder of Lava Elastic, for her take on the issue:

I have to admit to having been incredibly cross very often (understatement) about the lack of respect given to gifted, inventive, often highly trained, performers and very, very smart people by promoters and similar… just because those people are different, or don’t do things quite like everyone else. It’s one of the main reasons – subconsciously, in retrospect – I started putting my own nights on, sporadically (when I lived in Leeds before moving to Brighton) To give platforms to unusual acts that didn’t get as many bookings as more ‘run-of-the-mill’ less creative (but much better at networking) individuals…it is a side of the performance world that has always driven me bonkers! Continue reading

On Northern Broadsides’ Richard III

Mat Fraser as Richard III

COMMENT: There is no easy solution to including disabled actors in theatre. But what Northern Broadsides is doing is an important step in the right direction.

I’m very late to the party on this one, but one thing I’ve been meaning to comment on is Northern Broadsides’ much talked-about recent production of Richard III. Not so much the production itself, although Northern Broadsides have a good track record of critical acclaim. This time, is was the casting of Mat Fraser as everyone’s favourite Shakespeare villain, because it is one of the few times a person with a visible disability has been cast in the role. So this is a good opportunity for me to give my thoughts on something I’ve wanted to opine on for some time.

So far, I’ve shied away from commenting on plays I’ve seem which include disabled actors in the cast. It’s always worked whenever I’ve seen this done, but it is difficult to put this into a review without making it sound like a review of accommodating an actor with a disability rather than a review of the play itself. I’d find it condescending if anyone reviewed a play I was in saying how great it was that they included someone on the autistic spectrum. However, as Mat Fraser has given a lot of interviews about being cast for this play specifically in relation to a disability, such as this one to The Stage (which I broadly agree with), I think I can safely assume he wants this talked about. Which is good, because although this production may only be a small step in the right direction, it’s an important one.

Continue reading

No easy answer to #OscarsSoWhite

Promo image for Moonlight

COMMENT: It’ll take more than a Best Picture award to solve the racial disparity in Hollywood. The root problem is the broken culture of A-lister casting.

I know I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but I’ve been wanting to comment on the news from the Oscars. My main interest is, of course, the fiasco over reading out the wrong winning film, because I work in a job where I have to think over everything that could go wrong, and, quite frankly, PWC’s fuck-up is unforgivable. But on the expectation that most of my audience aren’t risk management nerds, the other news was Moonlight, the proper winner. After the big #OscarsSoWhite row last year, this was seen my many as a breakthrough where a low-budget film with an all-black cast did so well.

I am hopeless at keeping up with films, so I haven’t seen Moonlight  (or La La Land, or any of the other numerous films I’ve resolved I absolutely must see), but I’ll take the word of everyone who says how great it was. A lot of people are talking about how this will change attitudes to race and casting in Hollywood. Without being able to earwig on what film producers and casting directors say about race, it’s hard to say whether there are attitudes that need changing and whether films like Moonlight can change this, but that’s a red herring. As I see it, the root problem isn’t attitudes. It’s money. Money, and the broken system of casting lead roles that comes with it. Continue reading

Are we in danger of a “can’t-do” attitude for disabled artists?

Devotes and Disgruntled logo

This is a post I am syndicating to both my theatre blog and the web page of Devoted and Disgruntled. For theatre blog regulars who don’t know what this is, Devoted and Disgruntled is a series of theatre networking events which broadly works as a free-for-all discussion forum where anyone can lead a discussion and anyone can go to any discussion they like. They do occasional forums across the country on an open theme, but there’s lots of these in London on specific themes. Last week there was one on artists with autism and learning disabilities at the Vault Festival. I was coincidentally in London for the Vault Festival that week, and I have an interest in this. Those of you who know me will already know why I have an interest. Those who don’t … well, you will know shortly.

It was an interesting afternoon, and the main lesson learned was how complicated this issue is. So many issues were interlinked to other issues about theatre in general. There’s plenty of other topics on the D&D site that’ll interesting reading; for now, I can say that the most surprising observation was that – even though the attendees were all supportive of inclusivity in theatre – there was little support for quotas. Anyway, enough of that. I need to got on with my particular topic, which was to ask if there’s a danger of creating a “can’t do” attitude. Confused? Let me explain. Continue reading

Sorry Graeae Theatre, but I don’t want to be a quota-filler

COMMENT: Graeae Theatre’s “Write to Play” sounds like an great opportunity for writers with disabilities. Here’s why you can count me out.

Write to play logo. Sub-title Last week I had one of the strangest experiences in my writing career. On Tuesday, a writing opportunity came up on Live Theatre’s Twitter feed, from Graeae Theatre Company. Normally, I don’t bother with these things. Blog regulars will know I’m generally cynical about script submissions and competitions – the rest of you can look here to see the depths of my cynicism. The reasons I rarely take part are many and varied, but the bottom line is that the chance of getting somewhere is usually so vanishingly small it’s not worth my time to put an e-mail together. But this was different. It pays well – and believe me, I could do with the money. It would involve a partnership with Live Theatre – and there’s nothing I could use more than a new writing theatre seeing first-hand what I’m doing. And – most crucially of all – what they are looking for would put me with an excellent chance of getting this.

But I didn’t snap it up. I had reservations. For six hours, I ummed and ahhed about whether to put myself forwards. And then, coincidentally, I read an article in The Stage where the artistic director Jenny Sealey called for something I fundamentally disagreed with. So I said what I thought of this idea, and put myself fundamentally at odds with her position. And in doing so, I think I’ve burnt my boats. I don’t think Graeae’s going to be coming back to me in a hurry now.

So what was this programme that looked so good? It’s their Write to Play scheme, now in its third year. What do they look for? Live in the Yorks, Humber or the north-east. Tick. Have a passion and commitment to writing for stage. Tick. Have experience of writing for performance. You betcha. And the biggie: identify as deaf or disabled. In law, yes. That’s most of the competition out of the picture – and also the problem I have with this opportunity. Let me explain. Continue reading

Don’t rely on the Bechdel test too much

Scene from the new ghostbusters (okay, the old ghostbusters with four heads stuck on it)
Scene from the new Ghostbusters (honest), yesterday

COMMENT: The Bechdel test is a good guide for female inclusion in stage plays and screen plays. It should not be used as a gold standard for what’s “sexist”.

So, all-female Ghostbusters. That should keep the Twitter trolls on busy on both sides for a while. And since I prefer to keep my opinion posts on this blog combative and controversial, and I’m feeling a bit left out of all this mutual rage, let me begin by saying two things. Number one: I don’t care for the original Ghostbusters. And number two: I don’t care for Bridesmaids or the other films from Paul Feig. Hopefully that’s alienated everybody in the world, and the whole of Twitter can unite in hatred against me. Anyway, given my overwhelming indifference to all of this, I don’t really have an opinion on Ghostbusters Rebooted. I do, however, have views on the under-representation of females parts in screen plays and, to a lesser extent, stage plays. Yes, it is a problem.

Whilst you’re all still riled one way or the other, I’ll drop in my next inflammatory statement. I am strongly of the opinion that is it not the responsibility of writers to provide jobs for actors or balance under-represented demographics. It is their responsibility to write good stories. Sometimes a story will need an all-male cast, sometimes it will need an all-female cast. Most of the time, however, you need to accurately reflect the society we live in, which was about 50:50 male to female the last time I checked. And this is where I think writers are falling short. I suspect a lot of male writers are doing a lazy practice I call “male by default”. That is, every character is created male unless there’s a reason why any need to be female. Maybe some equally lazy female writers are doing “female by default”. But with the script writing profession dominated by men, it’s male by default that’s the problem.

So this is the sort of problem that the “Bechdel Test” is meant to address. Originally mentioned in a comic strip, an unnamed female character says she only watches films that meet three criteria:

  1. It has at least two female characters.
  2. These female characters talk to each other.
  3. When doing so, they talk about something other than men at least once.

Anyway, what start off as an off-the-cuff remark is now all the rage. Bechdel is a household name, even if you don’t know Alison Bechdel who drew the original cartoon. Virtually any play, film, or book will be scrutinised for the Bechdel Test at some point. There’s even a whole website dedicated to dividing all movies into those Bechdel and non-Bechdel compliant. So popular has it become that it’s pretty much treated as the gold standard for gender diversity in films. And that’s where we hit problems. It’s one thing to use it as a rough guide, but another this to use it as a definitive yardstick. Continue reading

It’s more complicated than class or money, Chris Bryant

Chris Bryant and James Blunt (credits at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Blunt#mediaviewer/File:James-Blunt.jpg and http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chris_Bryant.jpg

COMMENT: Chris Bryant sort of has a point about lack of social diversity in art – but it’s a lot more to do with connections than class.

Well, well, well, it’s all been kicking off today, hasn’t it? Last Friday Chris Bryant spoke out against lack of social diversity in the arts, singling out in particular middle-class ex-public school boys over working-class salt-of-the-earth types. He called for fewer James Blunts and Eddie Redmayes. James Blunt heard about this and wrote a rather sarcastic open letter back. It started off calling him a “classist gimp” but then went on to make some quite valid points about how little help his public school education was in becoming a singer (before signing off as “James Cucking Funt”). Chris Bryant tried to respond with a another letter trying to clarify what he said, but by now everyone was practically forming a circle round the two of them shouting “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

So before this escalates any further, let’s keep this in context. For the record, I fucking hate James Blunt’s songs, especially You’re Beautiful, but I do have a kind of grudging admiration for the second career James Blunt has carved for himself by being, um, blunt. My favourite one-liner was when a random Twitterer wrote “Who is a bigger twat: James Blunt or Robin Thicke?” to which James Blunt replied “Me! Me! Pick me!” As such, James Blunt’s letters should be taken with a pinch of salt, and “You classist gimp” should be treated as equivalent to “Excuse me, but I think you some of your assumptions are a bit unreasonable” from anyone else. Chris Bryant, on the other hand, wasn’t trying to engage in a classist tirade against James Blunt – he was just ill-advised to pick a couple of names out of thin air. Oh the whole, however, I see what Chris Bryant was trying to get at.

I will now try to give Chris Bryant a hand, because I think he’s underestimated how complex this problem is.

Continue reading