An Open Letter to Alex Oates and the Company of All in a Row

The play, set to premiere February 14th at the Southwark Playhouse in London, is drawing the ire of the autistic community. An autistic writer attempts to lay out its problems for the uninitiated.

Image taken from the Southwark Playhouse website.

Before we begin, if you’ve never heard of All in a Row, please take a couple of minutes to watch this, because it’s really not enough to hear about the problem here: you need to see it and judge for yourself.

…okay? Okay.

My name’s Chuck Winters. I’m a 33-year-old American on the autism spectrum and I’ve been laughing at your rehearsal trailer for the past 40-something hours, sharing it with people both on and off the spectrum who have had similar reactions. One of those friends — who happens to be neurotypical — later claimed to have had a nightmare about the Laurence puppet featured in your production.

I’m going to assume that this isn’t the reaction you expected when you uploaded that trailer.

Here’s the thing: I happen to be a writer. You almost certainly haven’t read any of my stories (my only published work is in film criticism; I currently contribute to Cinema From the Spectrum, a small site staffed entirely by autistic writers), but I’ve been at it long enough to at least begin to understand the struggle. I’ve also worked and made acquaintance with plenty of carers throughout my life, and even when I think about my worst experiences with them, including one comically disorganized service coordinator and another who had an annoying habit of talking to me as if I hadn’t hit puberty yet, I’ve yet to meet someone who simply didn’t care or didn’t make an effort to understand us.

All of this is to say that I’m happy to take your production in good faith; I’m willing to accept that you had the best of intentions in writing and producing All in a Row and that you did your homework to the best of your ability. And again, as a writer, the thought of workshopping something for five years only to eat this much shit so close to your first curtain call — especially from a community you thought you had the blessing of — has to be one of the most demoralizing things that could happen to a production, short of the death or arrest of key personnel.

However, an offense is an offense, and all the empathy in the world can’t change the fact that I’m flabbergasted by what little I’ve seen of your production. My empathy does, however, inspire me to sit down and take some time to break down everything that’s bothered me here, in a way that would hopefully not seem clouded by “Twitter outrage.”

Believe it or not, my problems don’t start with the puppet. My ableism radar actually started pinging early in the trailer when it described the story as a portrait of a married couple with an autistic son, set the night before he’s to be committed to a residential home. Right away I get the sense that the son, Laurence, is not seen as a full-fledged person. This is admittedly difficult when you’re trying to cut a two-minute promo video and you need to quickly explain what your play is actually about, and honestly, I think you do a good job of it. In fact, I don’t think this issue is entirely on you.

You’re already aware of how autism has been traditionally handled in media, based on how you cite Rain Man and your desire to move away from that stereotype — which is admirable! But there’s a greater pattern that you seem to be missing here: Traditionally, narratives that deal with autistic people tend to not focus on those people, but rather the people that surround them, particularly family members. And when we do get a narrative that focuses on an autistic person (such as The Good Doctor, which is one of if not the biggest show in our country right now), the characterization tends to lean on some of our more trite stereotypes (savantry, robotic personalities).

Basically, we don’t really get to see ourselves on stage or screen very often, and it’s gotten to the point where even though you’re just one more production on the pile, that already puts you at a big disadvantage with the lot of us. I’m not sure I have my finger as close to the pulse as it may seem in this piece (in fact, full disclosure: I’m also working on an autism narrative that spends a lot of time with the family), but I’m willing to bet that a lot of the anger you’re seeing from the greater #ActuallyAutistic community is rooted in that frustration — and it might help for you guys to keep that in mind going forward.

That said, one thing I will take you to task for is that the trailer seems to emphasize the “challenge” of raising an autistic child. Again, I’m trying to respect that when you only have two minutes, you’re under the gun to press the dramatic conflict of the story; especially given the context of the story you’ve chosen to tell (setting it the eve before Laurence is being moved to a home), you can’t just say everything’s hunky-dory. Still, you need to understand the context; we’ve been told how difficult we can be our whole lives. We’re not dumb, guys. We see the extra paperwork our parents fill out when we’re at school, we hear the discussions people have, and we sure as hell watch movies and TV, read books, and attend plays.

A friend of mine on the spectrum once told me that he was diagnosed at an early age, and because everything he had heard about autism trended toward the negative (which would include, say, feeling like he was a burden on his parents and/or society), he did his level best to hide his diagnosis throughout school and even into adulthood, presumably causing untold psychic trauma. Never forget: People on the spectrum are four times more likely than neurotypical individuals to struggle with depression, and with horseshit like this, it’s little wonder why.

As for the puppet…woof. Guys. I want to be constructive and restrained in my criticism, but fair warning, that’s just not going to happen.

I admit, your company and the people who’ve consulted you, including those within the autistic community, have been living with this for anywhere ranging from months to years, whereas I can only go off two minutes of ad copy. I’m certain there are nuances I’m unaware of that Siân Kidd took into consideration when designing Laurence, and I think I understand one of them. From a pure metanarrative standpoint, one could argue that using a puppet to portray Laurence is ultimately a nod to the idea that society doesn’t see people like Laurence, people like us, as human. Therefore, his presence is a challenge to the audience to look past his awkward nature and see the person that the other characters see (or try to).

It would be an interesting idea, regardless of intent. Unfortunately, it falls apart once you take into account that Laurence is already othered by the nature of his presence, which is: He’s freaking Cousin Skeeter. Nobody would ever mistake him for a human being. Now don’t get me wrong; there’s no getting around the fact that it will always be problematic as hell to cast a character from a traditionally othered group, one stereotyped on having no emotional reasoning skills, as a puppet. Hypothetically, however, if this puppet was more aesthetically pleasing or (relatively) lifelike, I might have been able to cut you a little more slack on those metanarrative grounds (though I can’t speak for the rest of the community).

But let’s get real: When I see your puppet and my first thought is “That thing’s the same color as Michael Meyers’ mask in the new Halloween movie,” something has gone terribly wrong.

In your trailer, lead actress Charlie Brooks talks about how the play “looks at the fact that there’s no perfect answer.” However, seeing Laurence for the first time, a perfect answer immediately presents itself: Throw that goddamned thing in the trash and try again. Regardless of all the little intricacies of character Ms. Kidd had in mind when designing Laurence, you only get one chance to make a first impression. “Child murder” is the level of You-Fucked-Up that Ms. Kidd somehow managed to attain with hers.

So let’s say you, author or key member of the All in a Row company, managed to read this whole thing — in which case, thank you! However justified I feel, I still went pretty hard on you guys, and that can’t have been easy to read. So what can you do about it?

Personally, I think you need to pull back, cancel your opening, and reconsider your strategy here. This wouldn’t be about letting the community “silence” you; instead, you’d be doing this with every intention of coming back to the stage after some time to reset the narrative you’re currently besieged by. In the meantime, go back over your script with the points I’ve raised in mind and really ask yourself if there’s anything you could’ve done better. I’m not saying there is; again, I’ve only seen an ad. But in light of what you’re dealing with, it can’t hurt to put a little more work in and be absolutely sure that you’re not doing any greater harm to the community you claim so much respect for.

(On a separate note, you caught some flack recently for claiming you had company members on the spectrum but not naming them. This I’m actually not bothered by; or rather, I was, but then I remembered that disclosing someone’s medical information without their consent is illegal in the UK, and it’s a little, uh, difficult to go up to those autistic company members and ask “Would you allow us to disclose your disability so people can stop yelling at us on the internet?”) (You didn’t ask, but I learned about this from the curious case of Paul Ryan (not to be confused with the US politician) and Brash Games, which gaming pundit Jim Sterling covered brilliantly in this video.)

I’d also suggest going back to the drawing board with the Laurence puppet — and that’s only if you’re dead set on using a puppet for whatever thematic or metanarrative reasons you can conjure up instead of just hiring an actor (preferably one on the spectrum). The Wachowski Sisters had their reasons for putting white actors in glorified yellowface for Cloud Atlas; didn’t stop members of the Asian film community and their sympathetic peers from getting understandably ripshit pissed at them. Ask yourself, is this really worth the trouble? Are you a hundred and ten percent confident that the message you’ll be putting out there is ultimately a positive and constructive one? Because if this debacle has taught you anything, it should be that no matter how you may see it, you won’t be able to stop us from seeing it our own way. So you better be certain that the full work will exonerate you; regardless of your intent or your past experiences, you’re never going to live it down if it doesn’t. These are the things that make the “difficult” material you’re working with actually difficult.

Finally, you need to rethink your marketing. In the trailer, Ms. Brooks compliments Mr. Oates’ “ability to go from heartbreak to absolute humor” in his writing. This sounds appealing, but the trailer itself, from the reflectively depressing music on down, gives the whole affair the feeling of a melodrama (which, incidentally, makes the absurdity of the Laurence puppet stand out all the more). This feeds into that constant negative reinforcement that autistic people have to deal with on a daily basis: “Life is a struggle, we’re drowning in debt and the kid’s weird behavior is making our neighbors and his teachers look at us funny, but we love each other and that’s enough I guess.”

Why not accentuate the positive? I’m not saying you should go too far in the other direction and suggest wall-to-wall hijinks, but if the show’s even half a comedy, then don’t make it seem so dour. What’s the bond between these people? Show us what makes this such a hard decision. Give us an idea of the joys of life with someone like Laurence as opposed to just assuming that we’ll automatically respect the strength of a parent-child bond. I appreciate that this is a tall order, but as you’re aware, this is difficult territory and it’s what you signed up for.

Having said all that, I can begin to see how tricky it would be to simply pull the play; beyond pride, there might be financial and logistical repercussions to consider, and honestly, I respect that. But if you’re determined to open on the 14th, then I have no quick fixes for you. I can only hope that you understand where our anger and disappointment is coming from and that you learn from it and do better next time.

One last thing—and this is directed exclusively toward Mr. Oates:

My dude. Beyond calling us “challenging,” don’t use the death of an autistic kid to promote your work. We’ve all tweeted dumb shit, especially when we’re feeling the heat, but this is the sort of thing that makes it harder to approach your work in good faith, and easier to just call you an asshole and leave it at that.

Sincerely,
Chuck Winters