“Theatre is such an emotionally visceral experience, an all-encompassing experience, that [it] helps people to understand actually what it’s like for people on the autism spectrum and what people on the autism spectrum are experiencing each day,” says Julian Jaensch, director of Adelaide theatre ensemble Company AT.
“Information from textbooks… is a very didactic way to understand something that’s so broad and diverse as autism.
“I think there’s a saying, ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism’. So everyone is different and has different needs.”
As someone who learned he was on the autism spectrum only in his mid-20s, Jaensch knows how isolating a diagnosis later in life can be. He hopes that by sharing autistic experiences through theatre, audience members of all ages will walk away with a deeper understanding of what it’s like to live on the spectrum.
Playing as part of the Adelaide Festival Centre’s DreamBIG Children’s Festival – which encompasses a range of theatre, art and cultural events for children and young people – Impersonal Space follows a nine-year-old girl called Nameless whose autism diagnosis takes her, and her family, on a journey of discovery and acceptance.
When Nameless learns she is autistic, she also discovers that Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein may have been on the spectrum. The two scientists then become her imaginary friends, playing an important role in helping her deal with the changes in her life.
The fact that the protagonist is called Nameless not only allows the character to represent an entire community, it also speaks to the collaborative nature of the production process. Written by Emily Steel, Impersonal Space draws from the cast members’ experiences as people on the autism spectrum.
“When they [the cast] were developing the character, two of them said they didn’t want Nameless to have a name because that takes away from her being autistic,” Jaensch says.
“Nameless is very smart academically, but she is also quite isolated. She doesn’t have any friends at school, and she’s a very picky eater – she only eats hot chips.”
She also has stims (short for self-stimulatory behaviour involving the repetition of physical movements, sounds or words).
“Everyone stims, but a neurotypical person might stim by tapping their foot or twirling their hair,” Jaensch says. “Someone who’s autistic might clap their hands, which is what she does… She is prone to having meltdowns as well and she gets bullied at school; she’s also very about justice.”
Originally performed in 2017 with 13 cast members, the play will be presented with just six actors playing all the roles for its DreamBIG Festival season at Norwood’s Odeon Theatre from May 23 until May 25.
Jaensch says the play’s reduced cast is one of a number of changes, which will hopefully allow it to hit the road as a touring production in 2020. The set is minimal, relying heavily on imagery with only a few screens and blocks representing different locations.
“The play is very imagistic, with the ensemble creating a lot of images so people can see inside the autistic mind,” says Jaensch.
“I think what I’d like the audience to take away is that… in a family, yes, it’s an experience everyone is having, but the person who’s experiencing autism is probably doing it the toughest.”
Tutti Arts and Company AT are presenting Impersonal Space at the Odeon Theatre, Norwood, for the DreamBIG Children’s Festival from May 23-25. The festival runs from May 22 until June 1, with the full program available here.