Leading theatre companies that work with disabled artists, including Graeae and Hijinx, have criticised the decision to use a puppet to portray an autistic child in a new play at London’s Southwark Playhouse.
The comments come as a petition criticising the portrayal as “dehumanising” and calling for the play to be cancelled has reached nearly 9,000 signatures.
Alex Oates’ All in a Row, directed by Dominic Shaw, tells the story of a couple whose child is described as “autistic, non-verbal, and occasionally violent”. It opened on February 14, with press night on February 18.
Ben Pettitt-Wade, who is artistic director at The Stage award-winning company Hijinx, which works with actors with learning disabilities, said: “Without seeing All in a Row, it’s impossible to provide a comment on the production’s merit.
“However, we would mention that we think it’s far from impossible to cast a neurodivergent actor [such as a performer with autism] in a role such as this one. At Hijinx, every one of our productions stars actors who are neurodivergent and/or have learning difficulties.”
The company also tweeted that the use of a puppet appeared to be an “unimaginative artistic decision”, and invited the producers to a meeting to discuss the benefits of casting a performer with autism.
Graeae Theatre Company, which works with D/deaf and disabled artists, tweeted: “This is certainly very disappointing. At Graeae, we are always pushing for fair and authentic representation of D/deaf and disabled people. Producers, artists, writers and casting directors all have responsibility to ensure genuine portrayal on stage and off.”
This is certainly very disappointing. At @Graeae, we are always pushing for fair & authentic representation of D/deaf & disabled people. Producers, artists, writers & casting directors all have responsibility to ensure genuine portrayal on stage & off. #NoExcuses @allinarowplay
— Graeae Theatre Company (@graeae) 11 February 2019
A spokesman told The Stage that the company did not wish to comment further having not yet seen the play.
Learning-disabled theatre company Access All Areas also tweeted that it believed “neurodivergent roles should be played by some of the excellent neurodivergent performers working in the industry”.
A petition started online by a user called Frances D called for the play to be pulled, stating: “Unfortunately, this play is causing distress to many autistic people, including me. Why? The only autistic character is being represented by a puppet. All of the other characters are portrayed by human actors.”
It adds: “Dehumanising depictions of autism hurt all autistic people and affect our daily lives. The common misconceptions that we lack feelings and empathy are profoundly harmful.”
Southwark Playhouse released a statement on February 12 addressing concerns about the play.
It said: “The writer thought it was essential the character of Laurence, the child in the play, was represented in the piece but felt it inappropriate for the creative team to cast a child, autistic or not, in the role.
“This was in the interest of child protection: the themes and some dialogue in the play are of an adult nature – also there was a desire to honestly depict the challenges of caring for someone with Laurence’s particular behaviour and needs, which meant portraying a certain physicality that would be unsafe for a child performer.”