Ahead of previews this Thursday, autistic actor and playwright JJ Green (Perspective, National Theatre) speaks to Liam O’Dell about his new play A-Typical Rainbow, autism representation in theatre and how lockdown may have made people more empathetic.
It was at 25 that autistic actor JJ Green “cracked”. After being exposed to the horrors of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) – a harmful ‘therapy’ which looks to “decrease” undesired traits in autistic children and adults, but has instead been found to increase symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – and being unable to advocate for his access needs, he decided to tell the truth.
“I knew that I was autistic at the age of five,” Green explains, “but I was encouraged heavily by doctors, therapists et cetera that openly saying you were autistic or identifying in that way is deadly to your career, it’s deadly to your personal life, and if we put you through this sort of therapy, you will not appear autistic and therefore your life will be so much better.”
Now 27, he sits opposite me in a leather office chair in a small room in central London. Rehearsals for his debut play A-Typical Rainbow – in which he stars as the main character of Boy – continue just a few rooms away from us.
“And that’s kind of what inspired [the play],” he continues. “I was keeping secrets from the world which were rotting me from the inside out, because I was that frightened about how the world would perceive me. And I think that part of one of the inspirations of writing it was a giant middle finger to feeling that way, and I hope no other autistic people have to feel that way.
“But I’m sure that there are autistic people in this country that are going through exactly that right now, because they consider that ‘if anybody found out this dirty little secret about me, then I’m going to have this reputation’,” he adds. “And for me it’s a lot about, ‘no, there’s nothing wrong with being autistic’.”
“But I’m sure that there are autistic people in this country that are going through exactly that right now, because they consider that ‘if anybody found out this dirty little secret about me, then I’m going to have this reputation’. And for me it’s a lot about, ‘no, there’s nothing wrong with being autistic’.”
It was the middle of the UK’s first coronavirus lockdown when it happened, says Green, because nobody could get at him. “I used that as an opportunity to be like, ‘I have struggled for so long and now look, I can see you all struggling so maybe you’ll be able to relate a little bit more.’”
Lockdown was, for Green, a “safety net” in that regard, but it also unearthed something fascinating. “Not the staying inside, that was incredibly difficult”, he says, “but seeing people’s difficulty when it came to communication, when it came to routine, when it came to taking things literally…
“‘Oh, we’ll be out of lockdown in two weeks,’ ‘oh, we’re not’, and then meltdown ensues,” continues Green. “I thought that was fascinating as an autistic person, because I was like, ‘now you get it. That’s daily. That’s hourly.’
“So that really inspired a lot of thinking about maybe people might get this a little bit more now, maybe they’ll be able to empathise a little bit more and relate to that.”
Green stresses the play isn’t heavy all the way through, though. A lot of it is “hilariously funny” and “inspiring in the right way”.
“Inspiring” being a tricky word within discussions about disability. The late disabled activist Stella Young criticised what she referred to as “inspiration porn” in a TEDx talk back in 2014, and the disabled community has often rallied against media narratives painting their conditions as something to pity, or be inspired by.
“I think I’ve tried to be as honest as I possibly can,” replies Green when I ask him how he’s struck the right tone with A-Typical Rainbow. “I’ve tried to identify there are things that autistic individuals can do that neurotypical people can’t do, but we’re not going to superheroism that. But there are also difficulties, and we’re going to portray those difficulties. I’m going to give you my experiences as an autistic person exactly as they happened, exactly as they are, so that it cannot be contested as to ‘this is inspiration porn’ for want of a better word, or ‘this is pity’.”
It’s new ground, he says, with autism representation being “nowhere in theatre right now” in comparison to wider portrayals of neurodivergence. “I don’t know of any play that is openly saying: this is about autism and this character is autistic,” explains Green. “I can’t think of any play that has happened where they have gone with that as the approach.
“I don’t know of any play that is openly saying: this is about autism and this character is autistic. I can’t think of any play that has happened where they have gone with that as the approach.”
“I’m just not sure that we’ve ever had a story that’s gone, ‘this is what it’s like to be autistic and this is what autistic people can go through,’” he goes on to add, “or ‘this is what it’s like, this is what autistic joy looks like’.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had that. There was one that I thought we had that in, but we don’t have that, apparently.
“So I’m going to take that credit and be like, ‘okay then, we’re doing it for the first time’.”
I press him on which play he’s referring to. “I think you know,” he laughs. It isn’t spoken, but I do. It isn’t ever mentioned in the play, but the National Theatre’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has long been understood to be portraying the “autistic experience”. The book by Mark Haddon, upon which it’s based, doesn’t confirm the main character of Christopher is autistic, either.
But Green acknowledges that good representation isn’t easy. “Because everyone’s different,” he says. “You’re not going to be able to give good representation to everyone, and I think that’s really important to remember that in this play, I give the perspective obviously of an autistic individual, but I have to give the perspectives of the mother and the father because autistic people are constantly surrounded by people who are not autistic.
He continues: “The difference here is, their opinion and their position was written by someone who was. So we’re changing that from what it would usually be, which is the autistic person’s character’s opinion is written by a neurotypical person, I am writing in the opinions of the neurotypical people here.”
It lends itself well to comedy, too. “One of my favourite things that we’re doing is subverting the jokes,” says Green. “He’s putting the jokes onto the neurotypical people, he’s observing their society and commenting on their society – as If it’s comical, as if it’s weird, as if it’s different.
“I’m really enjoying playing with that idea of, ‘this is the world spun upside down’,” he adds, “and that’s kind of what we’re going for. I don’t know [whether] it’s been done before. I don’t really think that it has. It’s very observational of society.”
And for neurotypical people, Green hopes A-Typical Rainbow will serve as an “authentic education”.
“Hopefully there’s a level of relatability,” he tells me. “I hope that with the conversations that are going on around neurodivergence, there’s a level of interest. I’d like people to take away, ‘that was funny’, ‘that was sad’ in places, ‘that was empowering’ in places and ‘I’ve learned something about that’.
“And for the autistic community, I really hope that parts of it are like a call to battle, [with] this, ‘look at this awful thing that’s happening that doesn’t seem to be on any neurotypical people’s radar, why is this happening still to this day’, but also, ‘yeah, I relate to that. That’s funny, that’s how I see the world, that’s how I experience love, that’s something I can feel like I’m part of.’”
A-Typical Rainbow plays at the Turbine Theatre in London from 30 June to 7 August. Relaxed and captioned performances take place on 20 and 28 July respectively.
Rehearsal Images: Pamela Raith.