All in a Row, an Alex Oates production now showing at Southwark Playhouse, has come under fire for casting a puppet as one of its lead roles, an autistic eleven-year-old boy named Laurence. The catch? The remainder of the cast is comprised exclusively of humans.
The play follows protagonists Tam and Martin in their struggle to care for their beloved son, who is described as “autistic, non-verbal and occasionally violent.” Critics have been swift to condemn Oates’ employment of puppetry to portray Laurence’s character, citing the negation of Laurence’s humanity in casting an inanimate object instead of a ‘real’ child as indicative of a systemic dehumanisation of those with autism. The National Autistic Society has publicly declined to endorse the play, saluting its endeavours to afford autism a platform but disputing its execution.
It is absolutely feasible that critics are misconstruing and muddying Oates’ salient message. Influenced by his own years of employment in a position of care for autistic and disabled young people, the play’s conception comes from an intimate, personal knowledge of the subject and a devotion to opening a neglected discourse about the widely-overlooked issues faced by those with autism. Oates asserts that the puppetry is a ‘rich theatrical tool’ employed to sympathetically represent the loss of autonomy autistic people experience on a daily basis. He justifies his artistic decisions by disclosing that Laurence is based on a young boy he cared for, and that the boy’s family is supportive of his rhetorical implementation. Besides this, the practical difficulties of casting a human are evident: Oates has cited the interest in child protection, due to the adult nature of the themes explored by the playwright.
Yet, the symbolism is unavoidable. The notion of Laurence’s dependence on a puppeteer’s manipulation inadvertently subscribes to reductive notions that autistic people have less of a right to think for themselves and make un-coerced, independent decisions. Even if the puppetry’s intent is not dehumanisation, its properties of seclusion segregate the autistic people Laurence represents not only from their families and society, but from their entire species. Sesame Street recently introduced an autistic puppet into its cast for the first time in its almost 50-year history. ‘Meet Julia’ is a triumph of an episode, used to teach its youthful audience that it is not only okay to be autistic, but that atypical thought patterns and behaviours should be celebrated. The initial interaction with Julia is framed from Big Bird’s perspective, an important tool that allows Alan, the sole human in the segment and Julia’s confidante, to explain autism to both his feathered friend and his audience. Autism is described only in Julia’s terms, an important technique to avoid misleading generalisations: Alan explains, ‘for Julia, [having autism] means she might not answer you right away,’ dispelling Big Bird’s fears that Julia dislikes him. Julia’s alternate way of thinking is not only accepted but applauded, with her neurotypical Muppet cohort hailing her invention of ‘boing tag’ as an improvement from its former uninspiring, boing-less version.
The show’s creation of a puppet with autism is unproblematic because Julia is surrounded by other puppets, too. Whilst it is true that Sesame Street and All in a Row have totally different aims in their respective portrayals of autism, it strikes me that Oates’ portrayal of Laurence, in accentuating his isolation, also forfeits his humanity. Julia’s humanity, on the other hand, is far from negated: her individuality is honoured. In fact, it’s what allows her to be part of the community, because, in Elmo’s words, ‘we’re all different.’
An unquestionably positive consequence of this controversy is that people are talking about autism. The debate has demanded opinion, insisted upon engagement. Now it’s up to you to see the play and decide for yourself.
Illustration: Holly Hollis