This is the internet weblog of Bix Frankonis.

How A Theatrical Puppet Killed Irony

This week has not, in general, been going well for the All in a Row team, with a producer complaining that they had a roll-out planned for Laurence but a “leak” ruined everything, the play’s official account complaining that it’s just that critics don’t understand theater, and the artist who conceived of the original incarnation of Laurence spotted laughing at him being referred to as “a sad little modern chimney sweep”.

As the first week of #PuppetGate comes to a close, playwright Alex Oates appeared on the BBC’s World Update program (starting at 16m:57s) to discuss the controversy surrounding the play’s use of a puppet to portray its only actually autistic character, and now the cracks really are beginning to show.

So, the play is set on the night before their son, their beloved son Laurence, is going to be taken into residential care. It focuses on the adults in the play, and talks about how they’re feeling about the fact that their son is being taken into care. It was a difficult decision on how to portray a nonverbal eleven-year-old with severe autism, and we decided after much thought and consultation that the best way to do it was to use a puppet. […] We decided that it was not practical having a child actor playing that part. I didn’t want to write them out of the play completely because I feel like disabled people don’t get represented enough, and the implicitons of using an adult with neurodiversity to play an eleven-year-old nonverbal person with severe autism, I just felt it would lack realism.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’m going to skip that this is yet another story being told from the perspective of the parents of an autistic person as if that isn’t in fact already the dominant story being told to the general public about autism, and I’m going to skip his use of the weird “adult with neurodiversity” phrasing as if “diversity” is a thing any single person can have, and instead I’m going to pull out the part about representation.

In the selfsame sentence Oates manages both to defend the use of an inanimate puppet as being about disabled representation while also dismissing using an actually disabled actor instead as not realistic.

Claiming critics don’t understand theater while also claiming willing suspension of disbelief is a thing for puppets but not for age-shifted actors? I’m not especially convinced that any sort of planned “roll-out” for Laurence by this particular team would have gone any better for them than this unplanned one.

If you haven’t been keeping up with some of the most interesting thoughts about #PuppetGate, see this Erin Ekins thread about trauma, this Emily Page Ballou thread about puppetry including a comparison to Julia from Sesame Street, and this David Hartley post about representation of neurodiversity.