BBC Interview with Alex Oates (Writer) and Tom Purcer

Transcription of Interview about All in a Row on the BBC World Service

(Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w172w4ks2chz54c, 17.00)

Dan (Host): All in a Row is a new play about the problems of a family trying to cope with an autistic child. It’s due to open later this week at the Southwark Playhouse in London but it’s run into trouble over the use of a puppet to portray autism. Critics say the play dehumanizes those with the condition and the National Autistic Society is among those critics. It says it can’t support the show. Tom Purser is here, Head of Campaigns at the National Autistic Society, and the writer of All in a Row, Alex Oates. Alex, this is based I think on your experience as a social worker?

Alex: Not as a social worker, as a support worker. Yeah, I was a carer for over 10 years with severely autistic people living with the families and supporting those autistic children.

Dan: And, how does the story unfold? And why the puppet?

Alex: So, the play is set on the night before their son – their beloved son – Laurence is going to be taken into residential care. And it focuses on the adults in the play and talks about how they’re feeling about the fact that their son is being taken into care. It was a difficult decision on how to portray a non-verbal 11 year old with severe autism, and we decided after much thought and consultation that the best way to do it was to use a puppet. We have an inclusive team – that means that we have autistic on the team who have direct responsibility for the portrayal of Laurence through the puppetry. But we decided that it was not practical to have a child actor playing that part, I didn’t want to write them out of the play completely because I feel that disabled people don’t get represented enough and…the implications of using an adult with neurodiversity to play an 11 year old, non-verbal person with severe autism…I just felt it would lack realism.

Dan: And there are practical problems, aren’t there Tom Percer, because if you had child actors you’d have to have three, I think, of them. You can’t put them on the stage night after night. So, what’s wrong with using the puppet?

Tom: Well, there’s lot’s of complexities when you’re making creative decisions about how to portray autism. I think what we can see from the response is that a lot of autistic people haven’t been happy with the decisions made and that’s the reason the National Autistic Society chose not to give its support to this play. But we did give some feedback on the script, and I’m very pleased that the production team did make some changes off the back of what we did say. But it was particularly around the use of the puppet to portray the only autistic character in the play.

Dan: How would you have done it?

Tom: Well, for us, what we do is we use autistic actors to play autistic parts in the films that we’ve made. And we think that’s important. What we would encourage any creative within film, play, whatever it might be, is to do extensive consultation before and throughout any kind of creative process. Because everyone wants to ensure that autism is represented accurately and fairly, that the welfare of anyone involved in that production is considered. And in this instance, obviously the team have made the creative decisions that they have made, and we wouldn’t wish to interfere with those. But at the same time we have to be clear what we can and can’t support.

Dan: Alex?

Alex: I would say to that that we do have autistic people in the team who are directly linked with the puppetry of Laurence. So there are autistic people in that. They don’t have the same level of neurodiversity as the character of Laurence because it would be physically impossible to have a child who is 11 who is suffering from severe autism.

Dan: I mean, he has repetitive behaviour…

Alex: Challenging behaviour…

Dan: He can get violent…

Alex: Yeah, it’s inspired by a lad I worked with who… if anybody is dehumanised, it was him, because he was pushed from residential placement to residential placement 200 miles away from his parents and then eventually expelled from there. And so, you know, people are making the point that we’re dehumanizing him…and, you know, in a way we are. But that wasn’t the primary reason we chose the puppet.

Dan: Tom, are we getting any better as a society, and let’s talk more widely than Britain, in dealing with autism and autistic people?

Tom: So, unfortunately there’s still a huge amount of misunderstandings around autism. Autistic people say they don’t feel that their autism is understood, that they feel judged out in public places in the UK. The National Autistic Society carried out a survey – 28% of autistic people said they’d been asked to leave a public place because of reasons associated with their autism. So there’s still a huge amount that needs to be done to better understand autism, and to get accurate and fair portrayals of autism right across society.

Dan: So, just to ask on Alex’s behalf, could you have found actors – young actors – who could have played this?

Tom: It’s a process that we go through all the time, as I say for our own films we always go to out in public and hold open auditions for actors to come and play autistic parts.

Dan: They don’t have to be autistic then?

Tom: We only use autistic actors to portray autistic people within our films.

Alex: But would you agree that the level of severe autism in this play couldn’t be represented by someone with the same level of disability?

Tom: And I think it’s for anyone involved in the creation of a team to… you have to stand by your creative decisions, obviously. I think that listening to the feedback, perhaps you might have done things differently…

Alex: Well…

Dan: Well, we’ll see and we’re out of time but obviously this is such an important issue, and the play – let’s hope because of the things that need to be learned by most people about autism, that this play gets a wide coverage. I guess it’s had a lot of publicity, whether it’s good or not you’ll have to tell us Alex. Thank you very much indeed, Alex Oates who wrote All in a Row and Tom Purcer from the National Autistic Society. Thank you.

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