Doctor Who, Ducks and Tempests: staging autism differently

by Nickie Shaughnessy, Principal Investigator

In an email from Damian Milton, responding to the recent Inside Out conference, he commented ‘The project (and the event) seem to be at the centre of something that has been building for a while – e.g. autistic arts events and festivals. It could all have quite some impact.’


I wrestle with the term ‘impact’, as academics are now required to measure it, a difficult task as it is something that is felt. The use of the term here, however, is recognition of the potential of the arts as an agent for social change. The power of performance to make an impact through its potential to enhance or even transform the way we understand and experience ourselves and the world has been evident in three very different autistic theatre experiences, variously connected to the Playing A/Part project. The most recent was the sharing of ‘This Island’s Mine’ at Limpsfield Grange School, a participatory and promenade piece, loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  The form of performance for this event challenged the divisions between audience and performer as we moved together in an improvised boat on a journey to Prospero’s island. The audience were the headteacher, a pastoral care worker, autistic artists joining the project and an unexpected guest visiting the school residences. From the dancing with spirits that opened the piece, through a storm and spells sequence (plastic cloths waved over the audience and percussion) and a voyage from the school gym to the labyrinth outside (a place of enchantment and transformation) we moved together as a group.


We returned, led by the student playing Prospero (her chosen pseudonym is Emma) to the darkened gym and Prospero’s mysterious cave, beautifully illuminated through technical wizardry, the girls’ voices magically triggered by an interactive map.  Shakespeare blended with the students own words: memories, poetry, imaginings, movement and laughter. Emma had started the term with a serious intervention, questioning whether our intentions were creative or therapeutic. Her critique of the play was part of her performance, particularly the absence of strong women. She talked about a ‘kick ass’ Miranda and sketched a costume for her, combining a dress with boots. In performance Emma’s Prospero was a serious and forceful presence, draped in a long dark cloak (her design) and always standing apart from the other characters, overseeing their activities.  She identified with Prospero as someone with a morality she respected: justice, control, freedom, forgiveness and difference were themes of this piece, connecting powerfully to the experiences of this community of autistic girls. After the sharing had ended, Emma returned to the practitioner team to deliver a moving thank you, ending with the statement that what the girls knew as ‘Creative Club’ was, on the whole, ‘ok’. Many of us were visibly moved by her journey from scepticism to creative expression.


There is a long tradition of performance art engaging with the identities and experiences of marginalised and disenfranchised groups. It is a medium that works affectively, as it is live, in the moment, experiential and physical; it creates ‘felt’ meanings, from goose bumps to skipped heart beats, using vocabularies and strategies that don’t depend on words alone. We laugh, cry and gasp as performance moves us from what is sometimes referred to as hot versus cold cognition, those significant moments when we see something we will never forget and which changes our perception. It is possible to leave the theatre, feeling like a different person. So, when language itself has been identified as oppressive, theatre and performance offer alternative strategies for staging difference, challenging the mainstream and creating insights into alternative perspectives and ways of being in the world.  If the mainstream is south, the direction of travel is a turn to the alternative north.


This is a powerful theme in the work of Kate Fox,  an artist who blends performance poetry and comedy in shows that are a unique blend of stand-up, live art and autobiographical performance, drawing on her personal experience of being a northerner, a woman and, most recently as being identified as autistic. As such, she is a member of the Playing A/Part Steering Group, one of several autistic professional artists who offer positive role models for the student participants. Kate’s most recent show, ‘Bigger on the Inside’ takes its cue from Doctor Who as she travels through time and planets in a multi-media, cross-cultural tour de force.  Performed as a work in progress at the Autism Arts Festival (University of Kent, April 2019), its themes have reverberated through the work this term and the performance poetry she delivered as our conference finale: difference, stigma, injustice and power. Her empowering ‘coming out’ show is a gesturing towards Emma/Prospero to join her in the transformational world of performance, a platform for promoting new voices, new languages and new forms.


Kate Fox’s north is in the same hemisphere as the neurodivergent minor, defined by  Erin Manning as a ‘minor gesture’ in her book of this title. ‘Autistic perception’ is central to Manning’s cross disciplinary account which calls for better understanding of neurodiversity and its importance for knowledge creation, politics and culture. The book argues that ‘to embrace the minor gesture’s power to fashion relations, its capacity to open new modes of experience and manners of expression, is to challenge the ways in which the neurotypical image of the human devalues alternative ways of being moved by and moving through the world.’ When we think of the minor, we generally do so in relation to the major, often in hierarchical terms, whereby the major is more dominant. In music, the minor is sometimes considered a more negative tonality than the major, although many may prefer it.  In Manning’s book, however, the minor is centre stage, a radical repositioning; the minor, she argues, is only minor ‘insofar as it opens the way, insofar as it creates the conditions for a different ecology of time, space and politics.’ This gesturing undermines the dominance of the major, redefining art, thought and knowledge through the potential power and force of the minor. The affect of the Minor Gesture is described by one reviewer (Karen Simecek) as ‘something that helps people to see themselves as part of something bigger’, resonating with the title of Kate Fox’s show.


‘Bigger on the Inside’ is a hugely significant minor gesture as Fox gives voice to an alternative autistic experience. Like so many other women (and men) she identifies with the lost generation of late diagnosed autists whose internalisation of their experience of feeling different is an autistic minor subordinated to the stereotypical dominant major. For this group, autistic identities can be celebrated as ‘discoveries’ rather than a medicalised diagnosis, positively embraced as an explanation of the differences and difficulties they have experienced and often hidden, leading to mental health problems such as depression, eating disorders, ADHD and other co-occurring conditions. Autistic women don’t ‘look’ like the media representations of autism and when Kate Fox walks on stage her poise, presence and exuberant appearance seem at odds with the diagnosis she refers to early in the show. Her signature costume (brightly coloured dress with bold themed pattern, planets or foxes, co-ordinated tights and vivacious purple highlights) are in tune with our student’s vision of a ‘kick ass’ Miranda.


The Doctor is in some ways Kate’s Prospero, as someone whose difference she identifies with as a loner, a person with a different sense of time and place and who is both real and imagined. When we think of the Doctor Who programme we think of aliens, other planets, imaginary worlds, being out of time and in the wrong place, all of which are also associated with representations of autism. This is also true to Kate Fox’s experience as a northerner, a stand-up poet, an autoethnographer (with a PhD): ‘just by doing what I do, I’m incongruous.’ This is ‘out of the box’ creative practice, a performance of creative contradictions that work on a profound level, challenging us to think seriously, feel deeply and laugh, sometimes without really understanding why (until afterwards as this show stays with you for a long time after the event). Comedy, politics, philosophy and live art are blended in ways that are sophisticated without being pretentious, but deeply affecting.  There are multiple personas at play as Kate draws on her shrewd observations of human behaviour (some autistic women are highly skilled at this); she does something, then makes a comment, then draws attention to our response (an adept improviser and something of a mind reader, yes, really). We were told this was a work in progress at the Autism Arts Festival but I wondered if that was part of the joke as it seemed so polished and complete. The references to a future performance in another time creating another layer of self-reference in a performance that was/is about memory, recall and time. ‘In the actual show…this will happen…’ we are told, inviting the audience to engage in imaginary time travel, thinking into the future of the show they are seeing in the moment and imagining a future in which the show you are seeing now is in the past. It’s delightfully complex and a rich creative feast.


The show as a whole is bigger on the inside as we leave with so much more than when we came in and venture to some darker places we didn’t expect to be taken to. The piece is multi-layered, complexly structured and profound as appropriate to an autistic creative mind. It’s also a roller coaster of emotion and a unique and rich tapestry of forms. It weaves poetry, documentary, performance ethnography, philosophy and politics with the solo traditions of stand-up and live art as the connecting experiential thread; a rich marriage between form and content with a rawness and integrity that is gut wrenching.


Autism is Kate Fox’s ‘true north’. The North is a central trope, the ‘other’ to the dominant South, and a minor gesture that can disturb and disrupt the Southern major. The casting of a northerner (rather than southerner), Chris Ecclestone for the 2005 revival of Doctor Who is a starting point in an intertextual medley of references, significance and realities. ‘Lots of planets have a North’ but we’re also aware that some might not; difference and diversity are played on and played with. The programme is centre stage as an intense interest (or fascination) that is acknowledged as an autistic trait. The regeneration of Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor is powerfully articulated in relation to the neurodiversion of diagnosis and the journey towards rebuilding identity that the newly discovered autist experiences:


Right now, I’m a stranger to myself. There’s echoes of who I was and a sort of call towards who I am and I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts, shape myself towards them.


In Kate Fox’s show, there will be audience members who belong to the lost generation of autistic women identifying and hence discovering themselves in her account. She acknowledges the role of theatrical mirrors in her own journey towards diagnosis after seeing performances by the live artist Annette Foster (Autism Arts Festival , 2017) and The Duck, a one woman play by Rhiannon Lloyd-Williams (founder of Autact Theatre) which was  also performed at the Inside Out conference. Indeed, in an after show Q & A, in which Kate Fox interviewed Rhi about the play, she began with an acknowledgement that seeing Autact’s The Duck for the second time, she realised that it was part of her autistic identity, contributing to Kate’s evolving understanding of who she was in her diagnostic journey.


The ‘Autism’ word is significant by its absence in The Duck. The regenerative trope is diagnosis as a Duck, a creature associated with transformation and whose webbed feet and surface flapping are a mask for what lies beneath. Ducks belong to the cosmopolitan Anitidea species, a community adept, at environmental adaptations. They have a particularly complex migration system based on ecology and survival; there is a north for Ducks, but this doesn’t necessarily entail flying south for winter.  Ducks and swans are powerful metaphors for autistic women, as encapsulated by a keynote speaker at the Inside Out add conference , Catriona Stewart, founder of the Scottish Women’s Autism Network (SWAN). Their website explains the significance of the acronym: ‘Females on the spectrum have been described as being like swans – appearing to glide across the surface of life but paddling furiously under the surface just to keep afloat!’ A further example is Tanya Melnykzuk’s ‘ugly duckling’ diagnostic parody which is in tune with the themes of Autact ‘s production.  There’s a brilliant table turning moment at the end of The Duck when the performer (Lucy Theobald) turns to the audience of assumed normals to diagnose them with neurotypicality, condescendingly assuring them that help and support is available for their condition.


In all these performances we see the force of these new autistic voices, a powerful minor gesture, a tempest that is gathering force and a following, moving towards its true north:  ‘here come the girls’.