“All in a Row” is a stage show by Alex Oates presented by Paul Virides Productions, Evelyn James Productions and United Theatrical that was released on the 14th of February 2019 that has gained a bit of news attention for its portrayal of an autistic person as a puppet.
Yep – this was always going to be something that would get a fair amount of attention.
In an article in the Evening Standard, they report the response from the National Autistic Society (who are generally pretty good at representing autistic people, so I respect their approach). Jane Harris, the director of external affairs, is quoted as saying…
“About 700,000 people in the UK are autistic and most feel very misunderstood by the public. That’s why we give advice to production companies about ideas and scripts for TV, film and theatre to help them promote accurate images of autistic people.
“The production company behind this play contacted us and we arranged for autistic and non-autistic people to give feedback. We are pleased the production company made two changes in response — one for accuracy and another around representation.
However, while recognising some of the play’s strengths, we decided we could not support the play overall due to its portrayal of autism, particularly the use of a puppet to depict the autistic character alone.”
For a show about autism, not having the support of the National Autistic Society is something to feel pretty bad about.
I want to bring you through some of the factors that are at play around this topic. Sadly, I have not seen the show yet so I may not get things right about it. I have booked to go and see it in the future and will give an updated after having seen it to give my opinion. In this article we are going to focus on the concept behind it and the bits we have seen from official releases.
All in a Row focusses on “the parents and carers of a severely disabled autistic 11-year-old child”. This in itself has some really good things to it. As much as autism is becoming more represented in the media, having new representation means that people talk about it. The more that people talk about autism, the more likely they are to have a good conversation with someone and end up learning more. In this way, discussing this is great. Furthermore, this play has a “severely disabled” character in it, which is rare. From having worked with disabled young people in the past, often this representation is missed and this leads to people not having a perspective of what it means.
In a YouTube video about the show, Hugh Purves (puppeteer) discusses that in media there has been two extremes of portrayal of autism from the extreme of savants like Rainman to scenarios where everything is very bleak. This is fair, looking at how society perceives autism there is this sort of dichotomy that media representation has had a role in. However, I do feel like this has been becoming better recently anyway. During this article I’ll reference back to the stage show of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time”, which I love. This did not feel like it fits into either of these boxes. When you add in current major TV shows that perceive autism, including Netflix’s “Atypical” and ABC’s “The Good Doctor”, these (at least in the second season for Atypical) try to walk the line between these two and are mostly successful at not being polarised in one direction.
This is one of the challenge of portraying autism, as it gets too big for itself. When you are trying to portray an autistic character, you fall into the trap of trying to portray autism as a whole rather than your character. This is immediately poor representation as it misses the point. Autism is not just one thing. While there are diagnostic criteria, individual presentations of autism are hugely varied and a person’s personal experience is more variable. There is the old saying that “when you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism”, which is definitely true. So if you try to make a character to portray autism, then you are immediately in a trap. Instead you should focus on making your character, a good character who happens to be autistic but in their own way. This is something that has been failed to be grasped leading to characters being walking stereotypes presenting with every single diagnostic feature and overall being poor representations of reality.
Back to All in a Row, the show focusses on the parents in this scenario (portrayed by Charlie Brooks, who is a really good choice to represent this topic due to her personal experience, and Simon Lipkin). This is a fair story to tell, and an important one. However, this topic is, in my opinion, more represented than others. The experiences of parents with children who are autistic is discussed in a lot of books and all over the internet (for good reason, as their experiences can be challenging and having connections with others who have experienced similar situations is really important). I think that it’s good to have a stage show discussing this, as I can’t think of any other stage shows going through this perspective, but a part of me just feels like having a focus on the experience of the autistic person would be hugely important for discussing this matter. The experiences of autistic people is much more under represented and so seeing the perspective of the child could have been a really positive thing – However, that may be difficult to do when you don’t have an actor playing the child and instead have a puppet.
So let’s talk about the puppet. Before even looking at the puppet, there is a problem with the idea of portraying an autistic person by anyone who is not autistic if it is possible to do so. I believe that non-autistic actors can do a really good job, but autistic actors can too. Personal experience adds a lot to acting ability and can make a really good performance (for this I’d refer to BBC’s The A Word and Travis Smith’s portrayal of Mark). If possible, when representing a minority group, you should use people from that minority group because this can allow that person to not only express themselves but also to empower themselves and others to discuss their life experiences.
Then we come to the problem with portraying an autistic person as a puppet. Puppetry in itself has been used for a very long time, and so is a well established method of portraying characters. Where my problem comes with it in this context is that the only character who is a puppet (as far as I can tell) is the autistic child. There are a few neurotypical characters and the one who is neurodiverse is not portrayed by a human. They are literally dehumanised. In a world where people are fighting to be accepted as themselves while sadly there is a feeling of separation between autistic people and the wider population, dehumanising autistic people is insensitive at least.
In the statement by the artistic director for the show, Chris Smyrnios, they explain why they did this. They explain that they feel it is important that the character of Laurence was represented in the production (my reaction while reading this was a little bit of shock that there was any consideration of not including him, but that’s another matter) they felt it was inappropriate for any child (regardless of whether they were autistic or not) to play the character due to the themes of the play. Given that they rated the content as for ages 16+ on their main page, I can understand this. Furthermore, they explain that some of the physicality in the role would be unsafe for a child performer.
Now – this is where I’m not sure about this. I did bits of acting in the past, and this involved stage fighting. There are ways to do stage fighting safely (if this is what they are referring to as a “certain physicality”). With the right training, there is probably a way to minimise the risks. But fairly, this is still working with a child and this has a challenge. But what they went for instead was to portray the character with an adult who is controlling a puppet. This makes me think, why not have an adult portraying the character?
One of my favourite shows that I watched when growing up was Blood Brothers. In this, the actors are adults and portray children and adults at different parts of the show. There is a challenge with this in this setting, which is the challenge of representation and trying to avoid stereotypes. But this could have potentially been done well by an autistic adult actor portraying the role.
Dr Frances Ryan reported on this in the Guardian. She reported that a spokesman from the plan said “it was “untenable” to get autistic performers to play the part, and that there are clearly difficulties with casting children – and getting “informed consent from a nonverbal autistic actor aged 11 to play the role”. This seems like an inflammatorily pedantic statement to me, because if they knew a nonverbal autistic actor aged 11 then they would likely have been an actor for a while and communicate it so understood the role enough that you could gain informed consent. Gilick competence would be a possibility in this scenario. They sound like they are being a bit rude and that makes me sad. Attitudes like this make it so that we have problems in portraying people properly. I agree with Dr Ryan’s statement that “theatre should use art to push boundaries” as they have the power to take that step and change things. They could see beyond the challenge and try to make it work. However, in what we have been shown, they did not think much around this.
Finally, we get onto the puppet being used itself. At this time I’d suggest looking at the YouTube video posted in the references, as this will show you what the puppet looks like. I think I was somewhat expecting to see an Avenue Q style, Muppets inspired character when I heard about it. Instead, we are faced with the puppet that the show uses. From what I can tell, the puppet is made with felt and string textiles for the external features. I do not have the skills to make a puppet like this, and so I give praise to the maker for they are talented to have produced anything like this. My issue is that, from the image I have to look at, the puppet’s skin is grey. This just adds to this feeling of dehumanisation, which is highly sad. Surely there must have been a colour to use that would be more like a human? This puppet is trying to be more on the realistic side, and so you would hope that they could match that with the skin tone. To add to this, personally I have to question the child having ginger hair while they parent’s have brown and blonde hair – is this to match the puppeteer so if you can see them behind the puppet that doesn’t detract from the image of the character? I’m not really sure but something about that doesn’t sit well with me. All this being said, I again give complements for how the puppet turns out in terms of movement, as the bits shown are encouraging that they can produce a good range of movements to help portray them as being more like the human actors on the stage. Of course, this wouldn’t be an issue if they were using a human actor to portray the character, but hey ho.
This leaves us with the show itself. Overall, reading into this has made me interested in the show. I’ve booked in to go and see it now so will give an update after I’ve seen it. However, the prospect so far is concerning. However, I hope that it is able to portray its story well – to portray the experiences of people in a tasteful and effective way. If not then it might add to the list of media things that had a good potential, but sadly were not well executed.
All in a Row is being performed at Southwark Playhouse between the 14th of February and the 9th of March 2019 with matinees and evening performances. The running time is 90 minutes and ticks cost £22 (with £18 for concessionary rates). Tickets are available at their website (https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/all-in-a-row/). They have a relaxed performance available to help with accessibility.
- Dex, R. (2019). Critics say new play that uses a puppet to portray an autistic boy ‘dehumanises’ those with the condition. Evening Standard. (URL: https://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/theatre/all-in-a-row-autism-puppet-southwark-playhouse-a4061241.html)
- Ryan, F. (2019). Casting a puppet as an autistic child is a grotesque step backwards. The Guardian. (URL: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/feb/12/casting-puppet-as-autistic-child-step-backwards-new-play-row-other-actors-played-by-humans)
- Smyrnios, C. (Last accessed: 16th Feb 2019). A statement from our Artistic Direction about All in a Row. Southwark Playhouse. (URL: https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/latest-news/all-in-a-row-statement/)
- Southwark Playhouse (Last accessed: 16th Feb 2019). All in a Row. (URL: https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/all-in-a-row/#tab-3-3)
- West End Video (Published: 1st Feb 2019), In rehearsals with the company of “All in a Row”. (URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4SoRCn0vV4). Last accessed: 16th Feb 2019.