Playing at Autism
by Rhi Lloyd-Williams
Two years ago, Jo Loyn and I were sitting in my kitchen in Wales, watching the rain tear at the hills in a stereotypically Welsh way, and enjoying a Summery mug of tea, when she asked me if I’d be interested in writing a play for an actor she wanted to work with.
I have to admit that my first thought was a wary one. I’m a poet, not a playwright. I write factual articles about autism, not fanciful theatrical ones. I’m autistic and straightforward, not a flamboyant lovey-darling. But using my autistic hyper-focus, within a week, I had sent her the first copy of The Duck.
I was nervous as I drove the five hours out of the mountains and oaks and onto the concrete and tar, on my way to see if a fledgling play could emerge from the paper. I hadn’t met Lucy Theobald before, and for all I knew she could be just awful.
I needn’t have worried. I watched her elegance and poise develop its own tension and movement and she developed her own stims (a way of giving herself pleasant sensory information). There is a physicality to autism, even in those of us who are adept at hiding it.
I watched Jo pull a performance from the flat pages of my words; playing with form and ideas with such skill and ease, as though they were hidden in the words for her eyes only. I watched Lucy develop the layers of her character under Jo’s direction, and was struck by the similarity with the way I had constructed my own socially acceptable mask.
I was there to ensure that everyone understood why I would do this or that, why this was confusing and that was easy. I felt heard, I felt understood, but nothing could have prepared me for our very first performance when an autistic woman came to me afterwards and said simply, ‘You put me on stage.’ What critic could ever rival that for a review? What really struck me though, was that it wasn’t just autistic people who were connecting to the character, non-autistic people were too.
One of the things about being autistic and not knowing it, is that you grow up alone. You feel like the whole world is in on a joke that you don’t get. You can learn to laugh along, you can learn to pretend to get the joke, but you never get to feel that uncontrollable surge of glee, and instead of living, you are constantly watching for your cues to laugh. This is probably a terrible analogy to use, since another stereotype of autism is that we have no sense of humour when most of us do.
Perhaps theatre and comedy are the purest of connections; people sitting together with no eye contact, not touching, but sharing an experience and responding to it as one. We’re not so different, not when you know what goes on behind the scenes.