A new play, “All in a Row,” is set to open in London at Southwark Playhouse from Feb. 14 to March 9. It follows a couple who has a child on the autism spectrum, Laurence. While all of the other play’s character’s are acted by humans, Laurence will be portrayed by a puppet, an artistic decision that prompted outrage in the autism community.
“All in a Row” features protagonist Laurence, an autistic student, the night before he is transferred to a residential school as mandated by social services. The 90-minute play, which was written by a former caregiver for autistic people, Alex Oates, will primarily focus on the perspective of Laurence’s parents.
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After releasing a promo for “All in a Row” on Feb. 4, it was the play’s use of a puppet to portray Laurence that gained attention.
Autism advocates quickly called out the creative team of “All in a Row,” expressing why the decision to portray an autistic character with a puppet is problematic and how it harms the autism community.
The autism community further expressed their outrage online using the hashtag #PuppetGate.
The official “All in a Row” Twitter account responded to many of the criticisms aimed at the production and urged people not to make judgments before the play runs. It said the show isn’t really about Laurence. It’s about his parents.
“Like any couple, Tamora and Martin have big hopes and dreams. But when your child is autistic, nonverbal and occasionally violent, ambitions can quickly become a pipe dream,” the “All in a Row” website reads. “On the night before social services finally intervenes, who is the victim here? Who was the traitor? And who do you blame when you can no longer cope?”
Producers said they sought out autistic perspectives during the play’s creation. In a series of tweets, they said the team consulted 40 to 50 autistic people as well as parents, activists and professionals. They did make some adjustments to the play’s script and Laurence’s characterization based on feedback. Two members of the production team are autistic, according to tweets, and many consultants hired during production were on the spectrum.
The show’s creators and actors defended the puppet casting choice in a promo video. Dominic Shaw, the play’s director, called the use of a puppet “a gift to this production.”
“It made perfect sense to me because Laurence does some shocking things physically. He bites people and he has very challenging behavior,” Shaw said. “We can do that with a puppet because it is slightly removed from it being real.”
“Having a puppet onstage telling a story like that of Laurence is, I think, one of the more honest ways that we could portray the story of Laurence without falling into the traps of stereotypes,” said Hugh Purves, the puppeteer who plays the character. “This play tells a truthful story about parents and a carer and a child with severe autism.”
That’s not how the autism community sees it, however.
“The dominant discourse on autism is monopolized by non-autistic people who cast themselves as victims, and who need a silent autistic person to use as a ventriloquist puppet & cross to bear,” Dr. Elena Âû Chandler wrote on Twitter. “This play literally reduces the autistic person to a prop.”
The Mighty reached out to the creators of “All in a Row,” who declined to comment.