The National Theatre of Scotland recently staged a version of The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida. Naoki has profound autism and learned to communicate primarily using an alphabet grid and began to write poems and short stories. At the age of thirteen he wrote The Reason I Jump, has now been published in more than thirty languages. The book describes Naoki’s lived experience of having autism, as well as interweaving pieces of his creative writing.
Graham Eatough, who adapted, (along with Dramaturg Clare Duffy), and directed this piece, worked intermittently over two years with a group of performers who identify as being on the autistic spectrum. Each person was interviewed about their experiences, which was then cleverly stitched together with Naoki’s words to form the text of the show. As one of the themes of the book was nature, Graham chose to place the performance outside in the wildness of the Children’s Wood, Glasgow.
As Assistant Director, I had a specific focus. Despite being advised by a major autism charity that involving a performer with more profound autism, or who is non-verbal, would not be appropriate, Graham felt strongly that by only working with highly articulate performers who are ‘high functioning’, the lived experience of the author was not being represented on stage. From working on the film Frame, I felt that not only was it possible to involve a performer with this level of needs, but it was politically important: To not, would give a clear message that individuals with more severe needs are not relevant or worth being listened to.
Over the next few weeks I visited schools in the Glasgow and Edinburgh, to find pupils to collaborate with. I was delighted to work again with Jethro, from St Crispin’s school, who had been a central part of the Frame film. Jethro is a highly creative teenager, who does not communicate through verbal language. The final image of the show was cherry blossom falling from trees. Jethro loves to stand in high places and rip up bits of paper, scattering them in the wind. It felt totally natural to integrate this into the final masque sequence. A wooden ladder was built for this moment and Jethro’s job was to sit under s tree, or roam the site, ripping pink rice paper, often leaving a scattering wherever we went, in preparation for that final moment. What I found satisfying was that an act that seemed minor and understated throughout, held the highest status in the emotional climax of the piece.
Each young performer I worked with communicated in a different way. It was the most fascinating creative brief to find what their version of a monologue would be, to make the their ‘voice’ heard in the piece.
Cara, a pupil of Isobel Mair school communicates in public using a PEC folder, which involves pointing at small pictures. We devised a visual script together so the audience listened to her as she pointed to a series of images. I enjoyed subverting the practical nature of this form. We made a script that felt poetic and at points, even brought some audience members to tears . Cara highlighted to me, and many who met her in the audience, the power and complexity of silence, and stillness. Not always needing to speak to be heard.
Coery, a fourteen year old pupil of Abercorn School, came into the process exuding confidence and energy. Coery communicates in public through an ipad. He is highly articulate (and hilarious!) I loved watching the audience’s reactions as Coery began to speak to them through his ipad, and how this went from apprehension, to connection with him. Coery wrote some brilliant text that cut to the heart of the show. In the programme he wrote:
“I am glad I get to show people what autism really is and how it affects me and others. My brain is just wired up differently. I’m really happy I got this great opportunity to star in a production and show others how my autism makes me unique. ”
Throughout the show’s run, I never got bored of watching Coery and the other performers meet countless groups of different people. In particular, families who have a child with autism seemed to thrive on the opportunity to see their experiences authentically represented on stage. This led to many countless moments of connection. Coery, as with many others in the show is someone who is highly creative and charismatic, but who until this point had never been given the opportunity to publicly show who he is and what he is about. This is where the power of this performance lay.
This process was inspring and often uncomfortable. The word ‘voyeurism’ came up a lot, particularly in conversations about performers with more severe needs. Also it was challenging to find forms for each person that felt both deeply integrated in the piece and authentic to who they were. As an artist it pushed me to be more creative and be more open and playful with form, while being respectful to each person I worked with. Without Graham’s trust, integrity and fearlessness it simply wouldn’t have worked. This show went a small way to show what people with autism are capable of if you give them the space to be heard, and actually listen to them, on stage and during the creative process.