October 13, 2015
Months and months ago now, I saw an early preview performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime on Broadway.
There were things I liked a lot about the show (most of the design, most of the acting), and things I didn’t like (the conclusion of a plot line involving abuse by a parent). I found the show not un-problematic, but powerful and well-executed in many ways. I was looking forward to discussing things like how well-rendered Christopher’s internal life and thought and emotional processes were, or whether the sensory intensity of the design was effective in conveying the experience of an autistic person to a largely non-autistic audience.
But I didn’t get to have a lot of those conversations, because most of the autistic community was occupied primarily not with critiquing the show or its protagonist’s portrayal, but with protesting the casting of the actor who portrayed Christopher, Alex Sharp, specifically with the criticism that an openly autistic actor should have been cast to play the role, and that going forward, theatrical productions should commit to having openly autistic actors play autistic characters.
I profoundly disagree with this stance for several reasons.
1. It has every potentiality to hurt and not help the situation.
Almost every argument I have seen for imposing an expectation that autistic characters be played only by autistic performers is equally applicable to argue that only non-autistic or non-disabled actors can play non-autistic or non-disabled characters.
Arguments that having life experience as a disabled person is the only way that an actor could realistically portray disability, or that physical, first-hand experience of autism is necessary to accurately “embody” an autistic character on stage, are perfectly reversible to argue that since people disabled from birth have no life experience of being non-disabled, their ability to represent non-disabled characters is necessarily inferior. Or that since autistic people have no first-hand, innate experience of being non-autistic, then how could they have the capacity to portray non-autistic characters?
If non-autistic actors can’t realistically portray autistic characters because of their lack of life experience, then how can autistic actors realistically portray non-autistic characters, when they don’t have that life experience?
This framing of the issue stands every likelihood of enshrining a bias that autistic actors are only capable of playing autistic roles.
2. It’s not the source of the problem.
The writing is, usually.
Of all the stage and screen portrayals of autistic characters I’ve ever seen, ranging from very bad to so good they took my breath away, and all played by actors who are non-autistic as far as I know, I have practically never thought that the problem was the actor. It’s almost always the writing—the attitude of the writer and of the other characters towards an autistic character. Are they positioned in the narrative as an object or a plot device or as a fully-fledged character central to their own story?
The writers of the Big Bang Theory, for instance, very clearly see Sheldon as an entirely appropriate target for the derision and mockery of the other characters. The screenwriter of Napoleon Dynamite positions Napoleon as an acceptable object of the patronizing amusement of the audience, not of true empathy or identification.
If a playwright is writing an autistic character with the attitude that they don’t need to be as fully developed and central to their own narrative arc as any other character, or based on largely inaccurate common knowledge about autism, then that is the core of the problem and is only going to be able to be partially mitigated by hiring an autistic actor to fight with the writing.
If a playwright and the rest of the creative team of a problematic work is convinced of the rightness of their portrayal because of what they think they know about autism, then putting an autistic actor into that role for the purpose of battling those misperceptions…frankly, that just sounds like an unbearable working environment.
And if actors are relying on media stereotypes or previous stage convention in order to animate their autistic characters, then what you are seeing is bad and lazy acting, not merely a result of the wrong kind of person playing a role. But most actors in my experience care about and want to empathize with their characters.
What’s the supposition about how this would work, anyway? That if productions buy into an expectation that autistic actors play autistic roles, and they can’t find an autistic actor to fill an objectionable role, then the play won’t get done? That won’t happen. Productions get done when their producers care about them getting done and think they will sell tickets. If producers are unable to find an autistic actor willing to play a problematic role, they will find a non-autistic actor who will. There is no shortage there that’s going to keep a production from getting done.
3. It’s ethically dubious at best.
I have yet to figure out, or have anyone explain, how it’s possible to require that autistic characters be played by autistic actors without requiring that an actor disclose their disability in order to be considered for employment. And nothing about that sits well with me. I’m unclear how it would be legal under the ADA, either.
It’s also requiring that an actor out themselves into a professional world in which most people, including most people in positions of hiring power, still hold conventional beliefs about autistic people including that we’re incapable of things like reciprocity, emotional expression, empathy, and seeing things from points of view other than our own. In other words, the core requirements of acting. We don’t get to dictate that somebody take that risk with their career, or that a producer demand it.
I’ve had people ask why someone who didn’t want to out themselves would even answer a casting call…and it’s that acting roles are jobs. For Actors’ Equity members, they are how we earn our health insurance eligibility, pensions, and sometimes a living wage.
I don’t think we get to hold those things hostage to someone being willing or able to take a public stance about their own disability. That’s not an intrinsic requirement of what acting is. I don’t think it’s a good or fair idea to establish a double standard under which the expectation of openness to public scrutiny about one’s personal life, identity, and medical or psychiatric diagnoses is higher for disabled actors than non-disabled actors, or actors playing disabled roles vs. non-disabled roles. That doesn’t sound to me like the fairness or equality I think we’re seeking.
Absolutely none of this is to say that I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to change the situation or that we have to just accept poor representation.
1. Some Equity agreements and codes already require that producers “actively solicit” minority, female, and disabled performers to participate or audition. More should, and maybe all of them should.
2. The responsibilities of producing companies to ensure the rights and accommodations of disabled performers needs to be strongly stated, posted at auditions, included in the information to be posted on call boards, etc…. including that if you disclose a disability or diagnosis to your employer, your privacy will be protected to the greatest extent possible. Our unions need to strongly assure disabled performers that they will back them up in asserting their rights in the workplace, and how.
3. There is a phenomenon in which non-disabled kids get to have hobbies/interests/activities because those things are considered good and constructive for their own sake, but autistic kids get everything good in their lives turned into therapy of some sort. That’s wrong. Theater education is, in and of itself, skill-building in the best ways. Turning something that someone enjoys into just another avenue for therapy, for someone trying to fix you, is a huge turn-off.
We need to keep on combating stereotypes that suggest that autistic people can’t excel in the arts or humanities–that we lack empathy or imagination, for instance, or are mainly good for low-level, ultra-repetitive tech sector jobs.
And for the love of all that is good, stop telling kids that work in the arts isn’t realistic. Parents, teachers, counselors, job coaches–stop it. People work in the arts. If a student is interested in pursuing the performing arts, help them connect with real opportunities for training and experience.
4. Autistic people and allies–attend and critique productions involving autistic characters. Companies should be taken to task for putting bad portrayals on stage, and should know that any time they are talking about autistic people, we are watching and listening.
I want more autistic and disabled actors playing autistic and disabled characters. I want more autistic and disabled actors playing traditionally non-autistic and non-disabled characters. I want autistic actors to be considered equally capable across the board of playing any character. And I want non-autistic actors to gain a deeper and more realistic understanding of autism and disability in their work. I don’t think that declaring that that work should be off-limits to non-autistic actors serves the causes of either empathy or artistry.