I Read The Script For #Puppetgate and It’s Worse Than We Thought.12 min read

Editor’s Note: This article con­tains depic­tions of extreme ableism which may be upset­ting for autistic people and their loved ones.  It also con­tains adult lan­guage and sub­ject matter.  Reader dis­cre­tion is advised.

If you were on #actu­allyautistic Twitter at all in February-March, you’re prob­ably already familiar with All In A Row, the small London play that set the autism world on fire by rep­re­senting an autistic child with a ter­ri­fying crotch-goblin of a puppet.

all in a row banner

Whether you are new to #pup­pet­gate or not, hold on to your seat because you are going to be gob­s­macked when I tell you about what actu­ally hap­pens in the script of the play.

While the hul­la­baloo was ini­tially over the taste­less choice to have a night­marish puppet play an autistic char­acter, it turns out that was just the tip of the crap­berg.

But before we begin, let me quickly sum­ma­rize #pup­pet­gate to those who are new to this whole fiasco.

#Puppetgate — what it is and why its a thing.

When the Southwark Playhouse in London announced a one act play by a rel­a­tively unknown play­wright, they didn’t dream that it would quickly make inter­na­tional news.

But they prob­ably should have been wor­ried when the National Autistic Society reviewed the script and refused to endorse the play.

The pro­duc­tion com­pany behind this play con­tacted us and we arranged for autistic and non-autistic people to give feed­back. We are pleased the pro­duc­tion com­pany made two changes in response — one for accu­racy and another around rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

However, while recog­nising some of the play’s strengths, we decided we could not sup­port the play overall due to its por­trayal of autism, par­tic­u­larly the use of a puppet to depict the autistic char­acter alone.

-Jane Harris, Director of External Affairs, National Autistic Society

The play­wright and his sup­porters, how­ever, were con­fi­dent that this mas­sive autism orga­ni­za­tion just didn’t under­stand their vision.

wtf
wtf

Did I men­tion the puppet looks like this?

Puppet has grey skin, a small head, and sprouts from the puppeteer's wait. The puppeteer's legs serve as the puppet's legs. The puppet is looming threateningly close to the actor playing Laurence's father.

So when the pro­mo­tional video aired, the ini­tial reac­tion from everyone was “DEAR GOD WHAT IS THAT THING?!”

and

“WHY DOES IT HAVE HUMAN LEGS AND WHY IS IT GREY AND WHY IS IT SPROUTING FROM THE PUPPETEER’S GROIN!?”

and

“WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO REPRESENT AN HISTORICALLY MARGINALIZED AND DEHUMANIZED GROUP WITH AN INANIMATE OBJECT!?”

I'm pretty sure the first rule of disability representation is "don't use a lifeless nightmarish puppet to represent a disabled person."

The puppet was so ghastly, and the lan­guage of the pro­mo­tion video and blurb were so ableist, that the tweets quickly went viral.

The cast and crew found them­selves in a mael­strom of angry autistic people, so they responded with a bunch of defenses that failed to reas­sure any­body.

nottodaysatan

Every autistic person who had expe­ri­ence with carers was now feeling less com­fort­able with the play than before.

The puppet designer, Sian Kidd, was also a carer, appar­ently.

When people checked her insta­gram they found her ini­tial design for the puppet which was even worse than the final ver­sion.

Puppet has grey skin, black pits for eyes, and black hair. It looks like a zombie.

Why is the kid grey??

greyface

Autistic people: You made a char­ac­ter’s skin tone match your set?

Anyway. You get the idea. People weren’t pleased.

Part of it was the puppet itself being used to rep­re­sent autistic people who are so often muz­zled and have con­trol of their lives taken away from them.

But I think that if the puppet had been nicely designed there wouldn’t have been such an outcry. After all, Julia on Sesame Street is a puppet, but she is cute, anti-stereotype, and just one of many mup­pets on the show.

Picture of Julia next to a photo of Mari Kondo saying "this one sparks joy" and a picture of Laurence the nightmare puppet next to a photo of Mari Kondo saying "this does not spark joy"

But Laurence the Non Verbal Autistic Boy was so unat­trac­tive that everyone had to show their friends, and he went viral instantly.

Wait Until You See It

All of the argu­ments kept coming down to “wait until you see the play.”effoff

The play­wright, the director, and everyone else kept urging the autistic com­mu­nity to keep their pants on and actu­ally see what the play is like, and I was inclined to agree.

Why judge the play by its puppet?

I love the­atre and have been in many plays myself. I have seen how plays have tackled dif­fi­cult topics or sub­jects and pulled it off aston­ish­ingly well.

I thought, well, maybe the pup­pet’s grey and mis­er­able appear­ance is the­matic. Maybe the play presents the child as a puppet at the mercy of larger forces.

Little did I know what kind of truths awaited me…

The Reviews Roll In

At first, things looked good. The All in a Row Twitter account made sure to retweet every rave.

The Guardian gave it 4 stars, calling it

“A lively, com­pas­sionate, and darkly humorous show with the unmis­take­able ring of truth.”

The Guardian

Another review read:

This was a pow­erful and emo­tive show, one which needs to be seen before it can truly be judged. Having seen this play I’ve learnt more about autism in 24 hours than I have in the last 10 years. ”

-Playhouse Pickings

Then Shaun May, an autistic the­atre pro­fessor at the University of Kent and author of “The Philosophy of Comedy on Stage and Screen” wrote a review. His main points were:

  1. The play was clearly geared to a neu­rotyp­ical crowd. There were no accom­mo­da­tions avail­able for autistic audi­ence mem­bers such as social sto­ries, ear defenders, con­tent warn­ings, etc.
  2. The sta­tionary expres­sion on the pup­pet’s face pro­moted the feeling that there was “nobody home”.
  3. All of the human char­ac­ters are ter­rible people who com­pared the autistic child to a dog. The father has been crap­ping on his wife’s pil­lows and blaming the kid. The script is full of common autism tropes and mis­con­cep­tions which aren’t cor­rected in any way.

The autistic com­mu­nity took this in, and then col­lec­tively said, “HE CRAPPED ON HIS WIFE’S PILLOW? WHAT THE HELL IS THIS PLAY?”

Once again any attempt by the autistic com­mu­nity to cri­tique the play was coun­tered by “Well… have you seen it?”

I would have gone to see it for myself, but I can’t afford to fly myself from Canada to London to see an ableist tire-fire of a play. So I was delighted when they decided to try and calm the autistic com­mu­nity by having a recorded Q&A with an inde­pen­dent arbitor, where autistic people who couldn’t attend could submit ques­tions to the play­wright, cast and crew.

Tonight I'm chairing n open forum with allinaowplay's creators I want to ensure all have an opportunity to raise questions, concerns and have them heard. Not attending? You can submit questions here.

I did submit a ques­tion. I said that I wasn’t con­cerned by the puppet so much as how it rep­re­sented autistic chil­dren on the stage. Was the puppet gen­uinely treated like a human child in all respects? Or did it sit like a prop in the corner while the par­ents said hideous ableist stuff right in front of their eleven year old?

(Spoiler: It turns out they say hideous ableist stuff in front of their eleven year old.)

Good news: my ques­tion was addressed! I was men­tioned by name!

Bad news: my ques­tion wasn’t answered. Instead the cast started arguing over whether people who hadn’t seen the show should get to ask ques­tions at all.

After that, I decided to buy the damn script and read it for myself.

The script arrived and Oh. My. Dog.

It’s worse than we ever dreamed pos­sible.

I can see why they didn’t answer my ques­tion, because the fact is that throughout the entire play, Laurence is con­sis­tently spoken of in the third person even when he is right in front of them.

Laurence is on stage for vir­tu­ally the entire play. He is there when his carer assures the par­ents that he would never have called social ser­vices on them because he wouldn’t want to lose his job.

He is on stage when the same carer com­pares him to a puppy and the­o­rizes that all dis­abled people are ani­mals wrongly rein­car­nated into human bodies.

Laurence’s father tells the carer, “Never say that in public.”  But no one is con­cerned by the fact that it was said in front of Laurence.

Then again, the father doesn’t mind talking about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs bukkake (don’t Google that word) in front of his son, either. Or the pos­si­bility of his son being “sec­tioned and chem­i­cally lobot­o­mized” in the near future.

The father is amused when his wife finds a turd on her pillow, blames the child and calls him “you little mon­ster”.

And the father is the one who adores Laurence the most, saying repeat­edly that he wants his son to stay home with them and not be sent away.

The mother, it is revealed, called social ser­vices on her­self. She reveals this in front of the child, too. When the father admits to the pillow pooping, everyone is dis­gusted but no one sug­gests that he owes Laurence a big apology.

The mother, who is thirty-six, also sex­u­ally assaults the twenty year old carer when her hus­band is off get­ting high. Yes, that is also done in front of the child.

It is quite clear that no one in this play thinks that Laurence can under­stand what anyone is saying about him.

If any­thing the mother won­ders whether her son is even capable of rec­og­nizing humans at all.

And yet there is no reason why Laurence wouldn’t under­stand every­thing said around him. Besides the fact that we know that autistic people under­stand even when they cannot comply or respond cor­rectly, on the rare occa­sion that he is addressed directly he does respond cor­rectly.

When told “Get a plate,” he gets a plate. When told, “too loud,” he turns his iPad down. When told that he can have more pizza when the timer goes off, he set­tles down to watch Finding Nemo until the timer goes off.

And we know from lis­tening to autistic people that autistic people do under­stand what goes on around them even when it looks like they do not or they aren’t paying atten­tion.

But this play never acknowl­edges or men­tions this fact.

This play repeat­edly presents forcible restraint– the kind where a person is pinned face down on the ground, the kind of restraint that has killed autistic chil­dren and even grown adults– as the only way to stop a child from biting someone during a melt­down.

This play repeat­edly presents melt­downs as unavoid­able.

This play repeat­edly models adults dis­cussing autistic chil­dren as though the chil­dren were not right there, lis­tening, and never sug­gests that this might be inap­pro­priate.

This play presents autism as a relationship-breaker and autistic chil­dren as uncon­trol­lable and obliv­ious, and it claims that forcible restraint is the only real option to dealing with vio­lent behav­iour.

This is the play that made someone with no con­nec­tion to autism feel that they had “learnt more about autism in the last 24 hours than in the last 10 years.”

This is the play that has people saying things like this:

We didn't feel that @Autism understood the differences between the play on the page and the actual staged production we were creating.

…I’ll just leave this shot of the script to end off, okay?

You and me both, Tamora.

If you want to read my entire live-tweet blow-by-blow of the play you can find it on Twitter here, but I rec­om­mend taking a Gravol (anti-nausea med­i­cine for the Americans reading) first.

9 Comments

  1. This entire play is a god­damn dump­ster fire. Boils my blood and makes me want to rail out against anyone who sup­ports this play.

    1. J.T… I don’t know you, but I hope to hear more from you! Makes me rage, too!

  2. I wish everyone in the world would read your entire live-tweet.

  3. This is bloody sick­ening! Dear Lord! I avoided the whole thing a few months ago because I just couldn’t take it in. Now that I’ve read it, and I see that non-autistic people are feeling “edu­cated” by this play, I’m even more creeped out than I ini­tially thought I would be. This is dev­as­tating to the autistic com­mu­nity, and that’s putting it mildly. We have to do some­thing (more some­things).

  4. Crap like that is one of the rea­sons that working for accep­tance is such an uphill battle. Knowing that the audi­ence actu­ally thinks it’s being edu­cated about autism is… Well, there are just no ade­quate words.

  5. This angers and depresses me more than I can say.

  6. Dear Christ. I knew about all of the hor­rible stuff about the play before­hand, but reading this and parts of the script…God, this is absolutely sick­ening. I’m not even a pro­fes­sional writer, but even I can see all the appalling flaws this has. I can write a better story than this, and with better autism rep­re­sen­ta­tion! Seriously, what in the world were the pro­ducers of this play thinking? Hell, why were they even both­ering with asking for feed­back from autistic people when it was clear from the very begin­ning they weren’t going to actu­ally address any of it and just green­light this piece of shit? Autistics deserve better than this. It’s 2019, for fuck’s sake. We should be way past this by now. Also, why even write any of these char­ac­ters as jerks who poop on each oth­er’s pil­lows, scream at each other, talk about their kid like he’s some sub­human eldritch abom­i­na­tion with no brain, and make the whole thing into point­less tragedy porn? Oh wait, pos­sible Autism Speaks level pro­pa­ganda, that’s what.

    If you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go update my Pokemon fan fic, which I can con­fi­dently say has way better autism rep­re­sen­ta­tion than this…I can’t even call it a piece of shit because that’s an insult to shit!

    1. Author

      I fully sup­port autistic pokemon fic

  7. I’ve worked in prisons, jails, and psych wards. There are par­ents in real life like those in the play. The puppet sounds like a child with some brain damage and long term parental neglect.

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