Every day, [X]. One day, [X+1]. Because of that, [X+2]. Because of that, [X+3]. Until finally, [X+4]. That sequence is the most basic rendering of three-act structure.
It’s an immensely satisfying way of telling a story. It rests on the idea that there’s a consensus around causes and effects – that we can all easily see and agree on what makes things happen, and the effects they’re likely to have.
Clearly, this is true only in the most limited sense. For many of us, cause and effect as it’s often presented is obscure or nonsensical. There are a number of good reasons for that, but for now, let’s think about neurodiversity.
To clarify: ‘neurodivergent’ is a way of describing autistic world views, as distinct from ‘neurotypical’, or more common ways of processing the world. We build on this to speak of ‘neurodiversity’, which is an umbrella term for many neuroprocessing differences, from sensory conditions, to dyslexia, to mental health conditions.
How does cause and effect appear if, like me, you don’t perceive three-dimensional space? What information do you miss, and how do you understand events in response?
I frequently struggle to understand the information most people get from facial expressions. This causes a fair amount of anxiety. It can give events an elliptical quality, as if everyone else has been taught the rules of a game with which I’m struggling to catch up.
But there’s a thrilling dramaturgical invitation waiting in the confusion. Creating narrative from sometimes-elliptical signals is a joy. Non-linear theatre is hugely popular, from Punchdrunk’s sellout success and Forest Fringe’s international acclaim to the work of Alice Birch and Alistair McDowall.
Disruptive forms might simply be called ‘modernism’. In every other art form, modernism has been an established convention for 100 years. So why does it still feel radical? And why is it still met with such hostility by so many gatekeepers in theatre, especially as audiences embrace it?
Gender, race, wealth, geography and migration all have a profound impact on neurodiverse experiences, from how and when you’re diagnosed to the treatment you receive. No one is neurodiverse in a vacuum. All this affects the way we tell stories. In a talk at London’s Royal Court this summer, Jasmine Lee-Jones observed that, as ‘diaspora’ means ‘to scatter’, so artists from diasporic backgrounds are often drawn to formally complex work: stories that reflect a history of violent interruptions and scatterings.
The imposition of the three-act structure – the possibility of resolution – on these scatterings is so obviously empty as to be meaningless. In my experience, audiences respond to this seeming complexity with a fervour that speaks to its necessity. Non-linear shows sell out.
Lee-Jones won the Evening Standard award for most promising playwright last week. McDowall and Birch have long-term teaching engagements at the Royal Court, with enormous influence over the future of British playwriting. Many people are hungry for new forms of storytelling, and gatekeepers are beginning to respond.