Words Elijah Arief
In a world of rigid social structures and unspoken rules, where certain cues and the ‘right way to behave’ reign supreme, theatre is often a place where that world ceases to exist. The world of theatre is often a place for total liberation and complete freedom of expression, and that can be an amazing confidence builder for those who feel the pressure of strict social conformity from the larger society.
Neurodivergence is defined as a variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other such functions. And to be nuerodivergent means that your brain most likely operates differently from your peers. Such conditions include but are not limited to Autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, Dyspraxia & Dyslexia and Borderline Personality Disorder. Navigating life with a nuerodivergent condition can often be stressful and upsetting, the society we are currently living in is only just starting to understand these conditions and our health system is not equipped to help those who need extra support. And with 1 in 7 people, (that’s 15% of the population) who have a nuerodivergent condition, it is for the best that society begins to recognise and give support to those who require it. Having a nuerodivergent condition myself, I am aware of how important it is for me to have a creative outlet to pour my emotions and frustrations into, and to have a space where I can just be me without any masks or pretence. After a day of moulding myself into a neurotypical box that is often overwhelming and exhausting, it’s essential that I have a creative downtime in which I can just be. For many people with a neurodivergent condition, that creative space is theatre.
Many nuerodivergent people within theatre are often keen to express how liberating working in theatre is. Theatre knows no boundaries and it doesn’t require a strict social code of conduct in order to be successful. Often it encourages and welcomes a wide variety of creative processes and artistic ideas and should be a place of liberated artistic expression. Of course, that’s a very idealistic world view on how the Arts should operate, and whilst there is truth in stating this, it’s important to address the fact that there are still improvements to be made. Dyspraxia is a condition which affects roughly 10% of the population, with 2% being severely affected. It’s a condition which affects coordination, organisation and impairs movement control, and many artists have commented on how much of a struggle it is to put together a well organised physical theatre piece when your body just doesn’t move that way. Thus, one artist in particular commented on how he made his performances Dyspraxic, and said how he adapted his clumsiness and awkwardness into his performances. I believe that this is the right way forward, the expectation on nuerodivergent individuals shouldn’t be to conform to a neurotypical standard, rather the artist should have personal artistic freedom regarding how they should adapt their work to suit the needs of their condition. Thankfully, working in theatre can give performers that sense of individuality and can ultimately help aid somebody’s creative process. I interviewed Sarah Johnson, Artistic Director of The Bathory Project and Performer about her experiences working in theatre with neurodivergency.
How has navigating theatre been for you as a nuerodivergent person?
Ok that’s quite a big question, and one that will get you a very wide variety of answers. I’ve been negotiating theatre spaces for my whole life, but whilst completely unaware of my nuerodivergent condition. I was put into dance classes at the age of three and a half and would stand at the back of my sister’s class and copy what they were all doing, so I have been expressive my entire life, which led me eventually to theatre. There are so many things I love about it, both in terms of the practical and physical spaces. The practice of creating work is so exciting. Whether it be working out what a Shakespearean scene would look like in modern clothes or speech, to creating new work from scratch, the simple act of ‘make believe’ is thrilling. Everyday asking “what if?” “what would?” or “How could I?” is exhilarating. But theatre spaces themselves are also amazing. I love being in a space in the hour or so before everyone else arrives and just existing in the quiet before everyone rushes in to create a brand-new world every night. As a late diagnosed person, I am still untangling my life experiences from the expectations of the neurotypical world. I’ve worked on stage, and off stage in a variety of roles but also as a producer and a creator. I guess it’s the unspoken rules that catch me every time. I guess the tricky and non-satisfying answers is that I have never known what it is like to enter a theatre space as a non nuerodivergent person, so I don’t fully know the challenges I faced, because I had been there for so very long before knowing about my divergence. I just thought that the things I got wrong such as social cues or peoples lack of tolerance for things I found fascinating or essential were just normal and that somehow, I was in the wrong.
Can you think of anytime where your nuerodivergency as aided you?
My first major training was in dance and I developed a knack for improvisation. The free flow of movement in the moment, in response to the stimulation of music and ideas that music has inspired is a core part of my creativity. I might not dance anymore, but I still have that internal response and when it leads to the flow state, where everything in the universe aligns and you feel as if you are hardwired into the universe, it’s amazing. That instinctive flow state moved with me from dance to singing and eventually to devised theatre. Because neurodiversity allows me to connect so intensely and completely with the outside world, I am hugely vulnerable to anxiety and fears about getting things wrong. I spent most of/ my life stressed and anxious about getting things right, about giving my best every time and excoriating myself whenever I failed to reach that perfection. It had the knock-on effect of making my text based acting awful. When you have gotten ‘it wrong’ in the eyes of neurotypical folks in your life time and time again, it takes a toll and you find yourself focused on that and not the thing that makes you interesting, creative, different or amazing and thus fail to make your performance as amazing as it can be.
How can theatre spaces make themselves more accessible for nuerodivergent people?
I am still uncovering who I am and what I need, but I guess the main one is more openness around neurodiversity and what it can look like and a preparedness to do what is possible within the limitations of the time and place to accept the divergence and accommodate it. Because neurodiversity is so, well, diverse. It covers Autism and ADHD, Bi-Polar Disorder, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia and Dyscalculia and Borderline Personality Disorder. These conversations need to occur when they are needed. However, that is also balanced by the fact that we don’t have easy access to funding and endless time to find the best way forward. It is something that I believe is crippling our theatre industries. However, it is important to remember that there are far more divergent people in theatre than one might realise. In part because those of us who can, become ‘adaptive superheroes’ a phrase my dear friend and colleague Sarah Saeed of Lava Elastic coined. Because we never know what unspoken rule, we might break next, we are constantly poised to find a solution to every problem. Big or small, ours or someone else’s and thus we don’t get seen for our deficits, just our amazing ability to cope and get by, but that cope is limited, and the cost of that adaptation is very high indeed.