While relaxed performances continue to spread around the world, the theatre industry has not yet made significant progress towards autism-friendly practices for artists. The number of autistic performers remains low, despite increasing opportunities for the portrayal of autistic characters on stage and screen. As an example, Cian Binchy‘s 2015 show, The Misfit Analysis, is one of very few performances created by a person with ASD. Cian is represented by Triple ‘A’gency, a dedicated actors’ agency for performers with learning disabilities, having trained on the Performance Making Diploma at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
So what can be done to open up the performing arts as a career path? At this year’s Devoted and Disgruntled, a ‘nationwide conversation about the future of theatre’ run by Improbable, artist Griffyn Gilligan held a session titled ASD In The Room – Making Friendlier Processes For Artists With Autism Spectrum Disorder/Aspergers. The full report of that session is here, but I wanted to draw out a few of the discussion points:
Before an audition/rehearsal/event, send artists:
-directions to the venue
-clear and accurate description of what will happen during the session
-any materials they may want or need to prepare
-accessibility features of the venue
-a list of who they will be meeting
– a contact for communicating about accessibility needs/answering q’s
-description of the room(s) they’ll be working in (size, windows, doors, acoustics, light quality, etc.)
These practices are already common as part of relaxed performances, and many theatres will already have created an accessibility pack for audiences. While it’s obviously a time-consuming process to create a new pack along these lines for every rehearsal studio and meeting room that you use (and some companies will find themselves using different rooms all the time), the upside is that once it’s made, you only have to tweak it for each new round of auditions or rehearsals.
All companies should have a designated support worker who is educated on access and mental health and is Mental Health First Aid trained. This person can liaison with the producer, stage manager, director, and venues, and can handled needs as they arise.
Similarly, this is a one-off cost for companies, and will reap rewards in the long-term. I wouldn’t be surprised if this eventually becomes a requirement for receiving ACE / Creative Scotland / ACNI / ACW funding.
When leaders/directors don’t know how to make accessible space, how do ASD artists have that conversation, especially in an audition setting (where requests might make an actor seem “difficult” or “needy”)?
The social model of disability suggests that disability isn’t a medical impairment or difference intrinsic to a person’s body, but is caused by the way society is set up. Through this lens, it is society’s job to remove those barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people. Openness to the needs of others is therefore key, rather than expecting people with disabilities always to be the ones beginning the conversation. Projects like Ramps on the Moon seek to bring about this form of ‘cultural change… to enable accessibility to become a central part of [companies’] thinking and aesthetics’.
Listen, listen, listen. Listen to the artists. If there is something you can do in a process, make sure you learn what you need to make it possible the next time.
Lastly, listening is a simple but powerful way to bring about change.
As ever, I would love to know your thoughts on this issue, and others to do with relaxed performance. Please leave comments below, or get in touch via the Contact Page.