I hope you’ve been keeping well and healthy. This is the third and final part of my series on Autistic coding on stage. I’m moving house this week, so everything is a bit intense at the moment, hence the late publication of this blog. I’ll return to the subject of moving house and the stress around preparing for it next Sunday, if I have the time. I will also be preparing a neurodiversity training for a global publishing firm, to be delivered later this month as well as still applying for as many jobs as I can to pay the rent in our new home (the more training work I get, the more time I have to invest in making high quality content for free, so if you like what I do, get in touch!).
If you haven’t read parts one and two, please find them here:
Before that though, here is the last part of my discussion of autistic coding¹ on stage. I will be discussing bullying, exclusion, racism, suicide and self-harm, as well as spoiling everything I talk about, specifically Dear Evan Hansen and Spring Awakening. And I mean spoiling in both meanings. I’ll be ruining the show for you. Be warned.
In 2018, I was exhausted during a summer of non-stop work. I wanted to listen to some music that would make me miserable. I decided on Left Behind, from Spring Awakening. I had watched my friend direct the show when I visited Brighton in autumn 2012, when I was already on benzos. I fell in love with the show’s music and I listened to the songs a lot over the next year. I even wrote a paper about the original play for my MA in 2013, though the benzos prevented me from doing as good a job as I wanted to. When I watched Jonathan Groff’s performance², I didn’t get the shot of misery I craved, but I fell down a very autistic rabbit hole. I remembered the show and how much I would have liked to direct it, six years older, wiser and less of a prick. I watched the 2006 Broadway version online and kept going deeper into the musical theatre I’d dismissed years earlier.
Then I saw the 2015 Deaf West production online.³ One thing that fascinated me was how well the “voices” worked, onstage, with the deaf and signing actors. When I saw Michael Arden, the director of the 2015 production, after The View UpStairs, I thanked him for making amazing disabled theatre. I now know that Deaf West has been making musical theatre accessible for deaf audiences for a very long time, but the show is incredible (I’m not going to give you the links, because I don’t want them to be taken down, for obvious reasons. Look them up).
Could I do something in a similar vein around autism? I had been interested in making autistic theatre since I started being OK with being autistic and now I’d quit stand-up comedy, I could use what I’d learned to make something worthwhile. I worked at an English language school, so the next week, I proposed to direct the show, whilst translating the ASL to BSL with the help of my friend, a professional BSL translator. The proposal didn’t make it through the first meeting and soon after I started work in the NHS as a second job, which took up my time outside of teaching.
A character who fascinated me was Moritz Stiefel, who is autistically coded and commits suicide at the beginning of act 2. His movement is jerky in both versions, his nervous tetchiness and obsessive thinking is even in the stage directions of the original play. Even his word use is stilted, he doesn’t quite know what to do with his body. He falls asleep in class – having taught 14 and 15 year-olds, I know how difficult sleep is, even for neurotypical teenagers. As an actor, I knew I could play him; though, at 30, I was far too old to do so. The Deaf West production has him played by Daniel Durant. I initially though him too physically attractive to pull off the character but the way he is humiliated for being deaf (and the subtle reference to the Milan Conference of 1880), without textual reference to his deafness, specifies the character enough to make what happens in act 2 work. Or maybe I was just bitter; Durant is amazing.
This version has no space for making Moritz not just deaf but also neurodivergent. If it does, I couldn’t read him as such, since I can’t read the combination of deaf and ND well, though that one is totally on me if Durant plays him with ND coding. The original 2006 version, though, more clearly painted him as such, including a fluffed-up pompadour of a haircut, referencing how high-strung Moritz is supposed to be. When he sings, he desperately clings on to the mic stand, too frightened not to let go. Of course, the play being set in 1890s Germany, there can be no reference to neurodiversity in the text. The main motivation for Moritz’ self-destruction is not getting into the restrictive higher years, even as he passed the exam to do so. His father needed him to pass, but when he didn’t make it, he only saw death as a possibility. It said a lot about how social expectations of neurodiverse students come face-to-face with institutional rejection.
Is this the superior version? I wouldn’t say so, since the version also contains a lot of troubling jokes about two of the male characters falling in love with each other. Moritz’ death is clearly painted as a failure of the educational system and the supposed adults in the room. The play, especially the Deaf West version, shows not just the struggles of the characters, but its institutional obstacles, too, and two of the main characters succumb to its restrictions, with the third barely escaping his own suicide. Is Spring Awakening good on autism? It depends what perspective you take, but beyond wider intersectional tacks, on disability and queerness, the Deaf West version doesn’t really go into it. The original was a bit more problematic, but at least has him be on stage, in his own body, and fail in the historical context that he failed.
Then, of course, there’s Dear Evan Hansen.
Evan Hansen, especially as played by Ben Platt, is a seventeen-year old boy with anxiety and depression who lacks friends and doesn’t feel seen, his crippling social anxiety compounded by shyness. His physicality is highly autistically coded, his body language expressing fear and low status. I’m including two reviews of the show on Medium.com.
The first, from Ellis Talbot, focuses on its homophobia and the show’s beliefs on mental illness:
The second, by Ryan Theodosia, focuses more on autistic represention: https://medium.com/swlh/reflections-on-dear-evan-hansen-and-poor-representation-1eb430cf0da3
I agree with both of their perspectives, but I want to take Evan’s perspective here and dig in to his motivations in the show, referring back to my previous blogs about radicalisation, mental health and this series’ main point: dignity.
Characters on stage are allocated dignity by their creators and the audience, based on tropes, narrative cues, physical characteristics and vocal inflection. Most theatre doesn’t deal in subtlety, especially not musical theatre, especially not commercial musical theatre. Ableist tropes already present in society will be highlighted and escalated for the purposes of narrative movement. Therefore, characters are like masks, the autistically-coded character specifically. He is always a he, he’s always white and even though he is queered, he’s always straight and cis. This already leaves out most of our community.
Dear Evan Hansen is a deeply problematic piece of theatre that does more harm than good, because of a series of phenomenal songs. These songs are so good that it allows us to think the show is a masterpiece, when it truly isn’t. It falls into the trap of trying to ‘present’ mental illness, without actually engaging with what that mental illness actually is. The show’s songs are so strong – in particular Waving Through a Window and For Forever for Evan, Requiem for the Murphy family, – Of course Sincerely, Me is a piece of homophobic trash. The point of this play is to give voice to someone who does not have one: an autistically coded-character who is desperate for friends and is willing to do anything to achieve dignity – like I did at drama school. He then dives in, puts on the mask and finds himself first a hero, then a villain.
One of the composers, Benj Pasek says: “Evan is confronted with an opportunity to hide from himself and he takes it. […] It leads him to a place where he has to find his most authentic self and be ok with who he is.” That’s the root of the problem, what I call the authenticity-fallacy: if you are your authentic self, you will magically be accepted and everything will be fine. Yet proclaiming that to a young person who is unwell and neurodivergent is blaming them for their own suffering. Because the problem is not inherently with Evan, it’s with a world in which he believes that he deserves dignity but isn’t getting it. Simply blaming Evan doesn’t work. Assuming that a year later he magically recovers from depression and anxiety doesn’t either. It’s cruel and it’s actually hugely detrimental to the wellbeing of autistic people. If they are shy, that must be because they don’t love themselves enough. So just love yourself, even though the world around you is very clear that it doesn’t love you in return.
In this video, Seth Rudetsky brilliantly analyses Waving Through a Window on a musical level: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SlPZLDC_ZB8. Still, he is able to define Evan in one word: shy. As stated before, shyness is not a trope. It is not a commedia mask. It is not a fundamental character trait, but a form of self-protection. The idea of a shy character wanting to engage with the world and only being able to do that by lying and taking advantage of the death of another character is hugely troubling.
Most people’s favourite song is ‘You Will Be Found’, which I’ve always thought of a bit turgid, but the break after Zoe’s chorus is undeniably rousing. The show aims straight for the gut, hits hard and the audience is on board, regardless of what the show actually believes. Like I say to my partner trying to read philosophy, you need a lot of critical muscle to withstand rhetorically potent guff.
The reviewers point out that the play actually roundly condemns Evan’s actions. But Jared, his friend and accomplice, is worse. He’s certainly more homophobic and benefits financially from Evan’s lies. His verse in ‘Good for You’ shocked me, “sorry, you’re upset with Evan? You’re the one actually benefiting financially from the death of a boy you didn’t even know or cared about!” Jared is coded as a nerd with bad intentions – another trope that the autistic community faces a lot. Yet the play lets Jared off the hook completely. If Evan lies, then anyone who benefits from that lie should not be punished, but the liar should.
The reviewers make the point about consent and Evan entrapment of Zoe, this is true and I agree with it. Still, there is a point to be made about non-verbal expressions of consent and that autistic people need to have sex education based on explicit verbal consent. I do not mean that autistic men who abuse their power should get an easy ride – the wider cultural implications that women’s bodies are there for the taking sublimates itself in the radicalisation of white cishet autistic boys and men. The points about homophobia are utterly valid. It’s hypocritical to the extreme to tell people who suffer that they’re “not alone” – especially queer people – and then still have a full song written on the joke that two boys writing to each other is inherently gay and ridiculous (‘Sincerely, Me’). But the hypocrisy doesn’t stop there.
The most interesting character on stage is actually Alana, who is similarly coded autistic, especially in her behaviour. She’s a goody-two-shoes who wants desperately to do what’s right and prevent further suffering. The assertion that she isn’t seen in act 2 is intended to be pointed, making the audience feel guilty. But this is weak and manipulative of the show; the audience aren’t interested in her, because the show isn’t. Presenting her as a PC obsessive ‘angry black woman’ is brutally racist and racialises her otherness, then neatly disposes of her.
The main problem I have with Dear Evan Hansen is that it presents a false dichotomy. Any trouble we have as marginalised people is because we have to change our attitudes. If we take medication to cope, we need to stop. If we are anxious, we just have to show our authentic selves – the very selves that make us marginalised in the first place.
I’m sorry guys, but we do. It’s not ok that everyone can’t be themselves and yes we need to change to a world that is less cruel to neurodivergent and disabled people for existing. But that doesn’t resolve the basic problem: we still live in that world. Why should it be marginalised people themselves whose bodies have to be on the line in the fight for equality? Why can’t it be those who benefit from being neurotypical, or straight, ablebodied or white for that matter? It’s unfair to blame the victim.
If we accept the show’s narrative, Evan would not magically recover a year after the Connor project fails. He would be even worse, having been shown that even if he masks and pretends to be someone he isn’t, the world will reject him just as hard. He might climb right back up that tree again, or fall down an online rabbit hole.
Real villains aren’t born, they are created. But by presenting Evan as either pitiable or evil, the show falls into the exact same dehumanising dichotomy that autistic people have to fight on a daily basis. We are human, we deserve dignity. If a boy is desperate enough to lean in to what society deems valuable, then maybe it’s the rest of us that need to change, not him.
Musical theatre is a blunt instrument with the strength to change the conversation around queerness, disability, neurodivergence and autism. But these shows don’t, or not completely. We have to change the narrative to one that actually shows autistic lives, written, staged and performed by autistic people, autistically. The first battle that needs to be fought is that we need to be seen, not through a neurotypical lens, but through our own.
When I was in drama school, I had to do song interpretation. I didn’t know the difference between what makes a performance “good” and “bad”, as I was so often told that the way I interpreted them was wrong. Besides, if we’re all singing the same notes, what’s the difference? Listeners, though, simply know the way that art is either good or bad, just as music is interpreted “well” or “badly” – through their gut. When I was 22, I was at Sussex university and took part in a Q&A with an artist who made props for the theatre. After everyone had left, I asked her how she knew whether an artistic decision was the right one. She said: “Just trust your gut.” It was an act of kindness. But I knew that wouldn’t cover it: “I don’t have a gut,” I said, “Well, beyond the literal.” “What do you mean?” I said that I just didn’t have a thing that told me what I should or shouldn’t do, it was all cognitive. She apologised and said she couldn’t help me. I was stuck.
Yet, since I started writing Teeming, I’ve relearned to listen to my own sense of what I should and shouldn’t do artistically – primarily because this project is all about autistic brains, representing the world in autistic language – time, space and causality represented in a way that feels true to me without the need to acknowledges potential neurotypical readers. But being an autistic artist in a neurotypical cultural scene, desperately unaware about its own biases, is brutal. Most of us drop off the radar after years or even decades of failed attempts at self-sufficiency.
Let’s change all that.
Thank you for being patient with me throughout this series, I hope I made some sense. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me. I’d love to share my ideas with others working in the field. In the meantime, this is an amazing article about the strengths of people with anxiety, OCD and specifically Complex PTSD (with which I was diagnosed in January):
I’m moving house tomorrow. I’ve got packing to do, plus jobs to find and a novel to finish!
¹If you’ve forgotten about what coding means, watch this video by the amazing Carolyn Petit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-5jnTv-OMg&feature=emb_title Autistic coding is when a character has autistic traits, without the narrative or its creators acknowledging it.
² Find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ile3Znm7ZYM
³ This version of Touch Me gives an example of what the show is like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSpv3-_4OBs