When representation isn’t enough: Tom Middleditch looks at the knotty question of diversity in creative teams
When the first edition of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was published in 2003, the blurb specified that Christopher Boone, the story’s protagonist, had an Asperger’s diagnosis. As the Neurodiversity movement picked up steam and political power, people objected to this description. The publishers quietly dropped the blurb and the book’s author, Mark Haddon, disclaimed the idea that Christopher Boone was autistic. Despite this, Curious Incident arguably became the world’s most famous and beloved book about autism.
In 2013, the UK’s National Theatre adapted the book for theatre. The creatives found that blurb put them in a difficult position. The author of the stage adaptation, Simon Stephens, (whom I have met twice), director Marianne Elliot and the rest of the National Theatre promotional team, were reticent to agree with the blurb’s original diagnosis of Christopher as autistic. They describe him instead as “a young man with a unique mind.”
This angle perhaps best served their intentions of creating a performance that stayed true to the book, was a visual spectacle and addressed the critiques against the work. It can even be seen as broadening the pool of audience members who felt they could empathise with Christopher. As a fan of radical empathy, I can certainly get behind that intent.
This year the Melbourne Theatre Company and Arts Centre Melbourne brought the National Theatre production to Australia – birthplace of the concept of Neurodiversity. Melbourne’s season included a relaxed performance followed by a Q&A session. The audience was filled with autistic people and their allies, one of whom is writing for you now.
Arts Centre Melbourne had invited our theatre company A_tistic, along with many of Melbourne’s prominent autistic and neurodivergent creators, to attend the performance and to present at a workshop associated with the Curious Incident season. Watching the Q&A session that followed the relaxed performance, we were struck by the difficult situation faced by the actors playing Christopher.
Sam Newton, one of the Melbourne season’s two Christophers, had a hard job to do in the Q&A session. On the one hand, he fielded several delightful questions about the golden puppy featured in the show. On the other, audience members told him how this show triggered memories of trauma directly related to autism.
He knew he was in a room packed with autistic adults, including artists, ready and willing to express their views about portrayals of their own neurotype. Newton has not, to our knowledge, identified as autistic or otherwise neurodivergent.
Now we come to the problem.
We don’t personally know how Newton felt that day. After all, many autistic people will tell you that a person’s external presentation isn’t a reliable indicator of their internal state. However, we’ve got an inkling that this Q&A would have been a challenge. Even for an openly autistic actor, who might be able to speak from a position of direct experience, it would be tough to sit in front of that room of people and talk confidently about representing them.
A Curious Problem
Increasingly, artists, producers and audiences are recognising that representation in stories matters. There should be more stories about minority and marginalised groups told on our stages, pages and screens. These stories are deeply meaningful to the underrepresented, and engaging to audience members from dominant and majority groups. There’s also been a movement emphasising the importance of representation in casting, i.e. that characters from represented minorities and marginalised groups should be played by actors from those groups (obviously).
Advocates of representation through casting emphasise the importance of respecting marginalised performers’ skills and explicitly offering them opportunities. They also emphasise the effect on the audience, noting the benefits to individual audience members, and to society at large, of visible and authentic portrayals of human experiences. The movement towards representation through casting certainly contributed to the much publicised casting of Mickey Rowe, the first openly autistic actor to play Christopher, in a regional American production of Curious Incident. Rowe himself has written about the necessity for minority representation in a creative team if pernicious steretopyes are to be avoided onscreen.
It makes sense to champion this kind of casting-based representation, and we wholeheartedly applaud it wherever we see it. But it’s also worth considering – does casting an autistic actor as Christopher “solve” the problems we see in this play?
Curious Incident contained sterling performances and grand production design. Every single actor and creative brought their A-game to this show and audiences continue to flock to it, six years after the London premiere. And yet, in our view the adapted Curious Incident is the story of a teenage boy, who (spoiler warning!):
- Is coerced and gaslit into accepting unsupervised contact with an abusive, unpredictable father who has recently murdered an innocent dog.
- Has no meaningful choice but to live with a mother who abandoned him (due to her feelings about his perceived disability), who sent him multiple letters admitting this and identifying him as the cause of her embarrassment and unhappiness.
- Attends a supposed specialist school that appears to have made negligible efforts to help him manage his challenges or expand his independence.
- Ends with these two emotionally blackmailing Christopher, and the audience, into accepting these two back into his life, with a gold puppy.
In short, the greatest source of Christopher’s discomfort is the inadequacy of people and processes intended to support him – not his actual autism.
For example, Christopher has sensory sensitivities. Loud, cacophonous sounds cause him pain and lead him to be overwhelmed. But in the world of the play, no one has ever thought to offer him even the most obvious tool – a pair of noise cancelling headphones. This affordable, accessible, assistive technology – used by many real, actually autistic people – would allow him to navigate the play-world with less pain and stress. Instead, his sound sensitivity is portrayed as one of many significant barriers to him ever living a free, independent life. This oversight is symptomatic of the play’s whole approach to Christopher, because even though his circumstances are just as disabling as his neurology, they could be changed. However, nobody tries to do this, and the play suggests this is the best Christopher can ever expect.
So to me, Curious Incident’s political and philosophical problems are innate to it as a story, and representative casting cannot really address that. It also can’t change the fact that, tellingly, one BBC poll voted Curious Incident’s ending as one of the top five happy endings in literature. Remember: the “happy” ending involves Christopher asking whether his recent efforts – solving a mystery, braving his worst fears – mean he can “do anything”, and getting no answer at all. That’s grim on its face, yet audiences apparently interpret it as an autistic person’s happy ending.
Though we reckon Newton did an excellent job, a production of Curious Incident featuring an autistic actor might result in a more “authentic” portrayal of autism. But that’s not really the issue at play here. We say that the solution to the problem of neurodiverse visibility goes beyond representation through casting: to move forward, we need representation through creative leadership.
Why diverse creative leadership?
Artistic projects about a particular group of people which are created and led by members of that group produce nuanced, gripping, multitudinous and pioneering art. These creators work from a position of comfort and comprehension of their content. They are attentive to existing representative stories and unlikely to accidentally repeat tired old tropes. When it comes to representations of autism, for example, autistic creators don’t need to deconstruct as much social baggage as allistic (non-autistic) writers. It’s a lengthy and challenging process unpacking bias around autism when creating stories, especially for those who don’t live it.
This perspective and comfort allows minority creators to move beyond the clichés that preoccupy creators from dominant groups making art about the under-represented. As Mickey Rowe says, if a “creative team does not have leadership from within the community itself, it will inevitably misrepresent it”. Creators telling stories about their own experiences are also less likely to pat themselves on the back for validating marginalised people’s basic humanity. Above all, they avoid stories that present marginalised people’s suffering as tragedy porn for the enjoyment of the non-marginal audience.
They don’t tell accidental horror stories, which seem beautiful to their creators while being terrifying to their subjects. They don’t unintentionally produce misrepresentations or caricatures, which are so pervasive in fictional portrayals of autism that there’s a whole podcast (St. Elsewhere – give it a listen!) dedicated to them. They don’t erase realities that would be deeply meaningful to the represented group, such as knowing that Christopher, despite his surrounding, with empowerment through support, can do anything.
Consider Rainman’s Raymond Babbitt: the various individuals he is based on were real people, all of whom lived and thrived in mainstream communities. Only one, a dear friend of the original screenwriter, was forced to live in an institution for people with disabilities for much of his life, and described said former institution as a hellhole. This echoed the attitude of many disabled self-advocates of the time, who fought passionately for autonomy through de-institutionalisation.
Despite this, creators and consulting experts proclaimed the only dramatically satisfying ending for the film was for Hoffman’s character to return to an institution. Their reasoning, that this ending would be more realistic for the film’s audience, was cold comfort indeed.
Ultimately, despite the writer’s misgivings, the original script was altered to reflect these prevailing medical beliefs. This influenced audiences’ understanding of autistic people’s capacity for autonomy. It’s hard to imagine an autistic director or producer making that decision, just as it’s hard to imagine an autistic storyteller forgetting the existence of noise-cancelling headphones from the world of Curious Incident.
An outside creator can consciously avoid these kinds of harmful erasures of reality, but they will then also feel stifled by the responsibility of creating an accurate portrayal. That kind of reverence and fear heavily restricts creativity. Artists from within a represented group are more likely to be attuned to nuance and dissent within their communities, but also more likely to feel confident in drawing on their own understanding in order to take risks. When you’re not terrified of getting it wrong, you can play more freely with genre, story, theme and form. You make the kind of work you’ve always wanted to see, work that goes beyond “My People 101”. You can liberate your audiences from the deeply uncomfortable experience of watching cloyingly earnest work that makes them feel worthy, noble, and bored out of their minds.
Our own experience supports this. A_tistic is a theatre group comprised of Neurodiverse and otherwise-allied artists. We create work exploring neurodiverse experience from a core philosophical belief about what comprises autistic and other neuro-divergent existence.
For us, this means making work about the tension between self-acceptance and the expectations of others (and ourselves). It’s also meant making fairy tales, science fiction, cosmic whales, wild, joyous stimmy dance parties, and game shows where the contestants compete to name their own feelings.
For other marginalised creators, it’s resulted in profoundly original work that deeply moves its represented audiences and gives outsiders new insights. Merely glance at the critical and box office reactions to Get Out! or Black Panther for thunderous proof. You can even look closer to home to the continued critical and popular success of Back to Back theatre, who has been touring work internationally for decades.
We believe that autistic and allistic collaboration is meaningful and productive. A_tistic has developed workshops and tools designed to ensure that non-autistic creatives can collaborate with the company from a more informed position, avoiding 101-level mistakes. We believe other creative teams can develop their own meaningful models of collaboration. But if productions don’t prioritise this kind of collaboration by actively welcoming and solicitating input, many actors feel dissention isn’t worth the risk.
The actor can’t do it all
It’s worth considering that representative casting can’t accomplish the same things as a representative production team. Aside from unusually democratic development paradigms like devised theatre, actors are rarely empowered to provide meaningful input into a piece’s structure or themes. Ultimately, the writer, director and producers call the shots.
Acting is insecure work. Artists often need to make huge compromises in terms of the material they’ll take on to survive. It takes power to turn down a role, let alone demand that it be altered to better reflect reality That’s a kind of clout most early-career actors don’t have. It’s an especially unreasonable ask for actors from groups that have been taught it’s their job to comply with the expectations of others.
A significant part of the autistic experience is being repeatedly told that if you disagree with someone, or are disturbed by something that they consider normal, you’re the one in the wrong. Autistic people have often been socialised into choosing compliance and amiability rather than asserting their discomforts or their boundaries. A lifetime of that kind of socialisation is not worth overcoming simply to negotiate a change in a script.
Actors want to have a hand in creating more meaningful representation. For this, they must be recognised and treated as key members of a creative team. This process must be fostered by the creative leaders of a production. When they can do this, the results are undeniable. Deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, in describing her pride in her work on A Quiet Place, notes that she played a significant consultative role throughout the production, and that director John Krasinski actively solicited her views in forming his creative vision. This model is not some far flung concept: it is being used right now, in major productions, and the evidence points that this is only going to become more and more the norm
That leaves non-minority actors in a difficult position when it comes to their own wellbeing. When an actor is cast in the name of minority representation, they can find themselves unwillingly portraying a stereotype. They can get stuck as the public face of an ideological position they may object to but lack the power to change. Actors’ peers and community may blame them for choices they never had a hand in making. Meanwhile, production teams putting them in these positions often reap the benefits of being able to say they’ve done their due diligence. After all, they’ve been attentive to representation through casting, haven’t they? It’s a no-win victory for diversity.
And this is all before we consider the specific needs of autistic actors, who may require alterations to the spaces or methods used in auditioning, rehearsal or performance. They may rationally fear that even expressing these needs could disqualify them from roles in which they get to tell stories about themselves.
Is this actually worth pursuing?
At this point, I wish to put my money, or more accurately the content, where our mouth is. I am advocating for autistic individuals to constitute the teams behind productions, and as a Neurodiverse theatre maker, here are a few ideas towards how one might approach Curious Incident. I am not saying these ideas, separate from execution, would create a show of parallel acclaim to the National Theatre production, nor that they would solve the political problems they aim to highlight. I present them merely from the creative exploration impulse of finding things that make me, and audiences, go “ooh, that’s intriguing…”
First, we could engage with the casting, and change the gender of Christopher from male to female. Diagnosis rates for autism are highly imbalanced, favouring boys over girls, even though the evidence suggests that the percentage of autistic women should be as high as the boys. Casting a female Christopher not only creates a new role for an autistic woman, but creates a role that defies autism gender expectations of presentation, interests, and capacities as human beings.
On the heavier side, the topic of familial abuse in the play seems to not hit as hard as the reality of its severity indicates it should. If you take a young woman on the spectrum and put her through the same series of events, it would be much more difficult for any director to end the play on a high note. That “happiness” would require a woman to be subjugated to the wills of her abusers, and her capacity to live a meaningful life left in doubt.
Second, we might engage in the staging of the work by approaching it from the angle of genre play. A fascinating aspect of the play is that it seems to switch genre in the interval. The first half is a detective mystery, the second a coming of age story where the protagonist doesn’t really come of age by their own standards. A new light is shed on this second act by leaning hard into the tropes that highlight the terrible nature of its eventual conclusion, such as those of horror.
On its face, this act focuses on a boy escaping an abuser through a personal hell to arrive at a secondary abuser who then conditions him to accept his first abuser. Presenting this as horror allows for a more appropriate form of catharsis in an audience. It makes the mathematics questions all the more precious, as it’s the only thing keeping him happy in an untainted way. It also provides a stronger call to action for an audience to not accept a society that can allow such relationships to happen in the first place.
Finally, we could approach the script itself. We’d completely redesign the text of the show by deconstructing the Client/Carer dynamic. To reconstruct it, we’d break down the original script to identify the authorial divide between Siobhan and Christopher.
At a metatextual level, the carer is forcing the client to present themselves in a manner they don’t want. What if instead we flipped it, so that Christopher was personally compelled to present his work as a play. Perhaps it could be an older Christopher, reflecting on this time in his life and what he has learned since then, which would lead him to a fresh appraisal of the events that occurred at that point in his life. Autistic children become autistic adults, as wise and experienced and flawed as any adult you know.
We could learn a lot from a 40-something successful Christopher, listening to him talk about how he got where he is and what was keeping him from it before. Presenting the drama absolutely on his own terms would make his relationship with Siobhan all the more compelling. What if he came back and asked Siobhan to help him stage his play again? Has his attitude towards metaphor changed? Does she regret anything she did when he was younger? What are his parents up to? Did the puppy live a long and happy life? That is a story we want to tell, and we think audiences would enjoy it.
The shape of things to come.
When a production is led by creatives with lived experience, it results in more confident performers who don’t feel terrified of, or haunted by, misrepresentation. It often results in productions adapted to reflect their needs. It allows marginalised actors to see a future for themselves as leaders, instead of merely tolerated token faces. It leads to stories that are surprising and meaningful for audiences, and that actors can be proud of. We get the opportunity to smash tropes and false archetypes. We get to see actual happy endings out there for minority characters, instead of the horror-mistaken-for-happiness that is the conclusion of Curious Incident. Because these horrors are not being left alone by those they affect anymore.
In 2017, The Shape of Water released to global critical acclaim and financial success. It would go on to be nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, and then win four of them, Including Best Picture and Best Director for Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro has always told stories of monsters and the Other, but this time a different discourse took the centre stage on release of the film.
Across the internet, advocates debated the effect and worth of the film as a disability narrative. Without spoilers, some posited this film fell prey to the same disability tropes as all those before it, made more painful by the new aspects it brought to the story. Other still argued that it was a problematic story about those who lead problematic lives, and by being so full of conflict, demonstrated the efforts some people have to go to in order to find any semblance of peace with themselves. These debates continue to flare up across the internet.
Whatever the conclusion of this discourse ends up being – and it is very likely it will not conclude, and simply evolve with the next movie to address it – one aspect we wish to highlight is that none of these narratives has been dismissed by the creators. These visions and empathies with the world of the film have been allowed to take centre stage and drive the cultural moment of this work. Such a thing was unimaginable when Curious Incident first appeared. Now it seems reasonable for the piece to rise to the voices of its Neurodiverse critics and become something grander from it.
We believe not only that it still can, but it may hold this position itself. Curious Incident is framed by Christopher’s teacher, a more sympathetic character than most adults in the story, persuading Christopher to adapt his private journal into a play (though since Christopher repeatedly tells his teacher he doesn’t want to, and never actually consents to it, perhaps “persuading” is too gentle). Toward the play’s end, after Christopher has survived significant hardship, and many of his most vulnerable moments have been laid bare for the audience, he aces his mathematics A-levels. During its re-enactment, he reads out his favourite maths question – and is interrupted by his teacher:
Siobhan: You don’t have to tell us.
Siobhan: You don’t have to tell us how you solved it.
Christopher: But it’s my favourite question.
Siobhan: Yes but it’s not very interesting.
Christopher: I think it is.
Siobhan: Christopher people won’t want to hear about the answer to a maths question in a play. Look why don’t you tell it after the curtain call? When you’ve finished you can do a bow and then people who want to can go home and if anybody wants to find out how you solved the maths question then they can stay and you can tell them at the end. OK?
Christopher is not, for most of the play, the architect of his own story – and he is told that if he was, what he has to say would be tangential and boring. And yet after the final curtain call as the audience begins to trickle out, the play ends with Christopher, freed from the shackles of “his” story. He can finally dramatically explore exactly what he wants to: how he solved a maths problem. And it’s fantastic! The actor is visibly animated and joyous, the character revels in his mastery, his delivery of the mathematical proof is uplifting, humorous, and makes the audience feel clever for following along, and the staging is riotously colourful and engaging.
But Christopher must wait until the conclusion of the play proper to present this joyous experience, because his teacher has decided that his preoccupations are boring. He has received the message that an allistic authority figure is in the best position to decide how to filter and present his life.
The members of A_tistic have varying perspectives on this second ending. It may be Christopher’s triumphant last word; a reorientation of the production and a celebration of his autistic joy; or it may relegate his perspective to a cutesy, tokenistic afterthought. But all of us agree: we want to know what kind of play Christopher would have made if he’d been in charge of telling his own story.
Tom Middleditch is a Writer/Director/Philosopher/Actor/Autism Consultant. He is the Artistic Director of A_tistic, a theatre company comprised of a core team of autistic theatre makers, including himself. His writing credits include Pinocchio Restrung (2016) and Alexithymia (2017). He works with artists and producers to create Relaxed performances, and instill the values of Neurodiversity. He is a writer in residence with Lonely Company for 2018. He has worked as a dramaturg with St Martins Youth Theatre and Back to Back Theatre, and was invited to present, along with the A_tistic team, as part of the Deep Dive, for the extended program of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. He spends his time trying to figure out one word to describe what he does that doesn’t sound too ridiculous.
This article could not have been written without the thorough research and input of Hannah Aroni.
 “Happy Endings”. Reading Today. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association. 23(5): 4. April–May 2006.
 Neurotribes p. 392.
 Neurotribes pp. 407-8.