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.

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Live reaction to the Sia film

Content warning: contains commentary to depictions of disability that some people may find offensive (duh)

6.00 p.m.: And thank you to everyone follow me except the Sia superfan on Twitter who’s been stalking me, straw-manned me at least twice, and paid no regard to the fact I might know something about this subject.

So, here’s the low-down of what I’ve learned:

  • Sia’s film isn’t quite as bad as I expected, but only because my expectations were rock bottom after her fucking awful trailer.
  • The obvious problem which everybody is rightly calling out is the excessive amount of “cripping up” done to depict a character. I don’t agree that you shouldn’t be allowed to produced something that some people find offensive (if you did no-one could produce anything), but it is good practice to avoid causing offence if it’s not necessary. Sia failed miserably there.
  • The less obvious problem is that the character of Music is relentlessly portrayed as incapable of everything and anything. And yes, there are some people whose conditions are that bad. But Sia said the point of the film was to show autism is a gift. What gift? She might have intended to depict that, but I didn’t pick that up and I don’t see how anyone else could.
  • The other thing that might have saved the film was getting to know Music beyond the disability. But that didn’t happen. The character was barely developed in the second half of the film at all, and that was the biggest missed opportunity to redeem the film.
  • One thing that counts in the film’s favour is Kate Hudson’s portrayal as Zu. If you cut Music out of the film completely – and let’s face it, that depiction isn’t going to be missed by anyone – we could probably have had an okay film about an ex-alcoholic struggling with rehabilitation.
  • To be honest, however, I think the root problem is that Sia is completely out of her depth. You really need to know what you’re doing to pull off something this outlandish, and this is more like a Tom Hooper take on Cats than a David Lynch take on a detective series. Sia may well have intended to put positive features of Music’s character into the script, but that just doesn’t come across at all.
  • The worst problem, however, are the people rallying around her. The film comes uncomfortably close to saying all autistic people are incapable of anything and they’re a burden on society and all carers are martyrs – but the more her fans double down on defending the film, the closer they get to the ideology of Autism Speaks, even though they say they have nothing to do with it. I’m pretty easy going, but for once, this worries me.

So I’m signing off. Thank again for joining me on this marathon. Let me know if you want to buy the film. I paid £8. I’ll burn it on to DVD. And then snap it in half.

Goodnight.

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Don’t be mad at Seyi Omooba. Save your anger for Christian Concern.

COMMENT: The outcome of The Colour Purple is a cause for relief for the arts – but we must not allow the organisation behind this to make it into their victory.

I never seriously expected this court case to go any other way, but I’m thankful Leicester Curve won and Seyi Omooba lost. To an outside observer not familiar with the story, you might be forgiven for thinking for believing this was a case about religious discrimination. If it had been that, I would have been on her side. It was not. This was about the right for religious people do engage in whatever form of discrimination they choose just as long as their preferred brand of bigotry is mandated by their religion. Had she won, the precedent would have been catastrophic, not just for the arts, but everywhere. Thanks goodness she didn’t get her way.

And, inevitably, the arts world is making her into a pariah, not that I blame people for feeling that way too much. I’m staying out of the dogpile because I don’t kick artists when they’re down. Seyi Omooba’s career in the arts is almost certainly finished – who’s going to want to employ someone who pulls that sort of stunt? – but I still find career-gravedancing distasteful. Even if she brought it on herself. Even if there was no option but to end her career this way. They other reason I’m not joining in is that I’m uncomfortable with the arts world’s habit of making pariahs out of individuals. Especially here. Seyi Omooba is, at best, an expendable footsoldier, and at worst, a brainwashed victim. The real enemy is the organisation who put her up to this, Christian Concern, and if we do not realise that now, we will regret it later.

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This Sia film (or: FFS, how many times do I have to say this?)

COMMENT: Yet again, a production about autism is being deservedly panned for crass decisions. And yet again, the dogpilers don’t deserve the moral high ground either.

You bastards. I’m sure you’ve specifically done this to annoy me. I’d barely finished my last piece on disability access and how much I hate grand gestures, especially from people who don’t listen. And now what happens now? A massive bonaza of grand gestures from people who don’t listen, all centred around a garish film trailer. Music is an upcoming film I’ve never heard of, from Sia, a musician-turned-director I’ve never heard of; and it would have quite happily have stayed this way were it not for a shitstorm over the depiction of an autistic character. As always, it is not right to criticise something on the internet without giving people the means to see what it is and makes up their own mind. So I am duty-bound to post this. I am very sorry to inflict this on you.

Sia says this film is about showing autism as a gift, and not a disability. Having watched this twice (I don’t think I can take it a third time. “A musical cinematic experience?” Fuck my life.) I get the impression that Music is a kind-of Blue Cross Week Rain Man. A lot of people on the autistic spectrum – tired of people who think we’re all incapable social misfits with mythical casino superpowers – are a bit narked off by this film. I don’t blame you. And with this has come a lot of people assisting us with our outrage. All in all, this looks like a re-run of All In A Row a year and a half ago, when everyone was expressing outrage over using a puppet on stage to depict an autistic child.

But just hang on a second – it’s all very well piping up every 18 months when someone does something as crass as this happens, but what about the rest of the time? During the furore over All In A Row and the furore over Music, I heard plenty of people proclaim the important of being inclusive to artists with autism; but between these two events, the effort I’ve seen go in roughly amounts to the square root of sod all. It would useful to identify and remove the everyday barriers that stand in the way of artists with autism (or any disability), but I’ve seen to next to no efforts to even ask what the barriers are. So forgive my scepticism to those of you who’ve suddenly rediscovered your dedication to the cause this month.

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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.

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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 over difficult and complex reforms. As a result, superficial changes take precedence over any real attempt to solve the root problems – and this culture of grand gestures is a prime example.

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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.

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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.

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Guest post: Sarah Saeed on Lava Elastic and neurodiversity

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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.

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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