Accepted Paper:

Making Meaning in an Autistic Theatre Company  


Michael Allen (University of Adelaide)

Paper short abstract:

Ethnographic research on an all-autistic theatre company reveals how structural dynamics of performance suspends social power relationships for autistic actors.

Paper long abstract:

This fieldwork was conducted as part of Masters research degree, investigating the question of how can a person of the Autism spectrum be considered a stage actor?

My research started from the premise that actors are highly trained in non-verbal communication and theatre as a creative process of interpreting and imagining social relationships. I countered this premise with the assumed definition of autism being someone who struggles with these concepts, indeed they are often used as the defining markers of the diagnosis.

This being the case and after seeing a local all-autistic theatre company perform, I engaged in ethnographic fieldwork with the company. Ultimately I devised a play (including performance) of the analysis which formed part of the final thesis. This creative process was not only reflective of the participants in the research, but by performing in it they maintained ownership of the research and the production creates a feedback loop of representation and dissemination.

Ultimately I conclude that the social and physical structuralism of the theatre performance event create an opportunity for suspended everyday relationships. Because the subjects and performers of the drama are generally marginalised they have less social status with doctors and society generally. When these people are given the authority to speak onstage, their audience must listen. For many participants this inversion of status can only exist onstage. In turn they feel they can communicate on their own terms and have autonomy of defining their own identity. This observation bore out in the feedback from audiences.

Panel P059
"Culture in Action": Between Performance and Ethnography