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The Amateur Botanist Talks Merrily Into the Night: Some Notes on Neurodivergent Performance (and How to Make It)

I’d like to say a few words in support of a neurodivergent way of creating and experiencing theatre and performance.

I’ve loved theatre as long as I’ve loved anything, but it has been harder to live in that world for the past five or six years. About two years ago, I came to realize that I’m neurodivergent, an ADHDer who’s also somewhere on the spectrum. A lot about my life has changed since learning that fact—entirely and enthusiastically for the better—and it feels like time to look at what theatre might look like if it was more apt, welcoming, care-rooted, and honestly pleasurable for me and people like me.

There has been a ton of work done over the past decade in increasing accessibility for neurodivergent and sensory-sensitive young people. These accommodations, which almost always take the form of alterations in lighting and volume for a single performance of an otherwise neurotypical-oriented (and usually -created) show, are indeed valuable and should be continued. But they’re not enough, or even right for everybody; keeping the house lights on during a performance is actually the opposite of what I’d ever want.

The question at hand is, how might neurodivergent adults like to experience theatre? It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a bit now, especially as a maker myself.

Three performers in chicken suits during a performance.

Richard Lowdon, Claire Marshall, and Jerry Killick in in Forced Entertainment’s Real Magic, devised and performed by the cast. Directed by Tim Etchells. Created with input from Robin Arthur and Cathy Nader. Lighting design by Jim Harrison. Design by Richard Lowdon. Photo by Hugo Glendinning.


When we’re talking about theatre, the dock from which we depart, we’re usually talking about plays and musicals. Most of the time, plays exclude other forms (if they incorporate music or dance, it’s commonly diegetic, or at least not abundant enough to alter its categorization too much—the “play with music”). Companies tend to produce only one sort of performance.


I’m bored by ordinary play structure, and I think a lot of neurodivergent theatre lovers and makers are as well. Most plays really are structurally and formally similar. Whenever I’ve tried to write “a play,” what I end up with has felt really dull and inimical to the raw, radiant spark of the live moment. Though many neurodivergent people feel most comfortable (or at least least distressed) when they know precisely what to expect of any situation, the problem is that the thing that the word “play” represents is so boring and incompatible with how our brains work that we’re not even showing up. We aren’t built to understand “the play” as a stimulating, coherent enterprise; it will always be inadequate compared to what could occur on a stage, but all too frequently doesn’t.


Of course, the very wide category of the “play” really isn’t so homogenous as all that. And even as a neurodivergent person, there are plenty of plays that I love, plays like Love! Valour! Compassion! and John and Seventy Scenes of Halloween, and of course I love musicals. But the works of performance that have really lit me up, treated me to the most electrifying nights in the theatre, have also been works that take some of the largest steps away from being “merely” plays. I’m talking about shows like Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun, the Debate Society’s Blood Play, Charles Mee’s bobrauschenbergamerica, Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge, Reza Abdoh’s The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice, Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, Spalding Gray’s monologues, and work made by performance groups like Forced Entertainment, Elevator Repair Service, and The Wooster Group.


Leaving the notion of the “play” wobbly for a minute, I’d like to think of the intentionally live moment as the smallest essential element of what theatre is and why it’s valuable—because that’s the thing I still haven’t been able to shuck, why I can’t quit the whole fabulous invalid—and then build an architecture that takes into account the way that the neurodivergent mind works and what we, I, crave.


Shades of Konstantin Gavrilovich pinwheeling around the stage: “we need new forms, new forms”—but we do, mary!


ADHDers have wacky relationships with time. It’s an ADHD truism that there are only two times: now and not-now. Many of us are time-blind and struggle with the flow of elapsed time into action. We often experience episodes of hyperfocus, when it is (not just feels) impossible to pull ourselves away from a task, whether that be a chore or a digression or an improvisation (or, when lightning strikes, work). We make to-do lists and save things for later, but there’s only the present moment for getting anything done or for recharging once we’ve done it.

Theatre has been sorely lacking in options and opportunities for pieces that are nonfictional not because their narrative and content are “true,” but because they choose to throw in their lot formally with what nonfiction affords.


The thing about performance is that it also, by definition, exists now, live, in the present moment. If it’s recorded, it’s not live. When we see performance, we are watching art get made, and participating in it through our palpable attention. This is unique to performance.

There’s an ADHD phenomenon called body-doubling, where just having somebody else in the room with us gets our otherwise indolent motor purring, and we can suddenly focus and get our work done. It’s wild that it works, but it does. I love making and watching theatre because you’re never in the room alone.


The slice of time that we call a performance is, I think, of especial value to people with ADHD. It provides a comfortable enrobement into a linear experience of time, where all we need to do is arrive, sit in the dark, and let the thing happen. No flipping around, scrubbing, changing the channel, or toggling between tabs. Sensory immersion, in the dark, is so attractive to my kind of neurodivergent person. It’s like a temporal-visual Temple Grandin squeeze machine. The dark irises in on the stage, and I just have to take it all in, and what happens next could be anything.


So what’s the form? If not a play, then what? I’d like to propose the live theatrical essay as the fundamental form of neurodivergent performance.

The essay, and nonfiction generally, occurs to me as the most open and valuable and fascinating mode that exists. In many narrative forms, but particularly theatre, works that occupy the binary position of “fiction” tend to be king, regarded as the default, in contrast to those in the “nonfiction” position. Think of the novel over the book-length essay; the feature film over the documentary; nearly every play ever over, what, The Laramie Project and Mike Birbiglia? (No shade to either! It’s just all either verbatim theatre or one-person shows.) Theatre has been sorely lacking in options and opportunities for pieces that are nonfictional not because their narrative and content are “true,” but because they choose to throw in their lot formally with what nonfiction affords.

A performer holds a birdcage while a performer beside him dances and a third performer stands further back and sings.

Thomas Graves, Lana Lesley, and Shawn Sides in the Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun by Kirk Lynn at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Directed by Shawn Sides. Scenic design by Leilah Stewart. Lighting design by Brian Scott. Sound design by Graham Reynolds. Properties design by Doc Manning. Production management and technical direction by Madge Darlington. Dramaturgy by Adrien-Alice Hansel. Photo by Kathi Kacinski.


I’ve known for years now that I’m nonfictionally-oriented: I almost never read novels or watch episodic television series. If I finish and love a novel, it’s either a short ride in a fast machine (like The Crying of Lot 49) or something fizzy and delectably postmodern, particularly, of course, formally (Donald Barthelme, George Saunders, Renata Adler). My near-total disinterest in fiction-as-default-setting feels similar to the alienation I feel from neurotypicality. I think it’s because I’m too fascinated by how many interesting things there are in the world, and how they’re put together and connect to each other, to bother that much with a long commitment to merely story. Like David Shields writes in Reality Hunger, rhapsodizing the sharp sharded glimmer of collage: “I like work that’s focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about as opposed to work that assumes what the writer cares about will magically creep through the cracks of narrative.” In communication as in art, we like things direct: tell us what you mean, what you really want to say.


My favorite thing about being neurodivergent is the special interests. We all have them; many Autistic folks have one all-consuming interest while ADHDers can discover and abandon interests and hobbies on an almost-monthly basis. Indulging the fecundity of my special interests has given me a terrific amount of pleasure throughout my life, not least since I’ve fully leaned into a ton of deeply specific ones that joined the party coincident with my diagnosis.

A screencap of a presentation slide with a list of miscellaneous topics that extends beyond and gets cut off by the frame.

An incomplete list of Rob's special interests.


I’m not telling you here what neurodivergent theatre can or should be about, really, because a valuable and stimulating evening of theatre for a neurodivergent person could be about anything. We are deeply fascinated, knowledge-seeking people. What I’m paying attention to here are forms and containers on the level of an overall project itself (how you conceive of it and what you give yourself permission to do with it), as well as its syntax and language, its architectonics, its performers’ behavior, its approach to the duration of time the experience occupies. This is all, also, inextricable from the audience’s experience of the thing.


One strong impetus for developing this theory of performance has been to engineer a way to get more of that stuff I love into the theatre I make (because, if it hasn’t been clear, the task I’m setting for myself is to create the work I’ve been looking for all this time: to create a genre/form).

A common feature of neurodivergent communication is info-dumping: we would really love to tell you all about our special interests, for as long as you’re content to listen.  Mere info-dumping in a conversational context does not a theatrical apparatus make, of course, which is why the essay form is particularly amenable to the work of wrighting one’s specialty into something more than merely information.

Not that I’m biased, but I think that neurodivergent minds are among the most fascinating, and I’d love to see more work that allows them full run of the road. What if instead of saying—“oh, well, I can’t put that in”—radical permission; it all goes in? (NB to potential collaborators, though: good, respectful editors are always valuable.) 

Neurodivergent performance essays are not string quartets; they’re symphonies of a thousand performed by a single unit, a soloist or ensemble.


In order to do that, and to open these pieces up from being merely text (as essays almost always are, on the page), it’s necessary to engineer neurodivergent performance as a hybrid spectacle. I’ve always had a rough time writing essays strictly meant to be read, but the form opens up when I get to toggle between methods for delivering material. It’s almost vaudeville, what I’m talking about here. Use everything you’ve got to offer, all in the same live work: play guitars and sing, stage dance numbers, shoot live film, improvise, chop onions, play games, build and destroy scenery—hybridity, hybridity, hybridity. Hybridize the text, even: toggle between monologue, dialogue, voiceover, projected text, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cue cards, ASL, etc., etc. I think text roots it all: I love dance, but I need some text to make an evening of performance cohere.


Our brains move fast and crave kicky sputtery stimuli. Not for no reason: link it (the kicky sputter, the flash and tickle) to the piece. What I’m saying is, take it as a given, take every opportunity to play that essay like an orchestra, employing every section you’ve got available to you. Neurodivergent performance essays are not string quartets; they’re symphonies of a thousand performed by a single unit, a soloist or ensemble.

A perfomer dressed as a lily speaks emotionally while other performers look on.

Davina Cohen, Taylor Mac, and Matthew Milo Sergi in The Lily’s Revenge at the American Repertory Theatre. Written and conceived by Taylor Mac. Directed by Shira Milikowsky. Composed by Rachelle Garner. Dramaturgy by Nina Mankin. Scenic design by Sarah Brown. Costume design by Sarah Clubbage. Lighting design by Jeff Adelberg. Sound design by Clive Goodwin. Movement direction by Yo-el Cassell and Art Glenn-Johnason. Photo by Gretjen Helene


On that note, let’s talk about stimming and unmasking.

The stim is a verbal, physical, facial, or behavioral gesture or fidget that neurodivergent folks of all ages benignly express, either to self-regulate or to augment a situation that isn’t providing enough dopamine (or would be even more delicious with a little more in the mix). Echolalia, flapping your limbs (I mock playing chords on a piano, or bouncing a ball), repeating phrases or words that feel good in your voice box, fiddling with a pen or guitar capo or darning needle, or pressing the texture of something like a black walnut into the meat of your palm—these are our stims.

Our stim level is concomitant with our degree of unmasking. Growing up neurodivergent, most of us were impelled to imitate neurotypical behavior, or at least to tamp down the more detectably neurodivergent (read “odd”) aspects of our presence in order to be less of an affront to the neurotypical adults and kids around us. Those habits of masking have followed most of us into adulthood, and in shedding them lies liberation and beauty and freedom, in our life as in our creative work. (For two fantastic examples of unmasking and stimming in a performance context, see PJ Harvey’s 1992 video for “Man-Size,” and Björk performing “Jóga” in 1997.)

I don’t see any reason why we should suppress stims or mask up in the theatre we make. Employ kinesthetic stim as a basis for dance, both improvised and choreographed, including as an accompaniment to text in ways not usually thought of as explicit or discrete “dance.” Employ auditory stim as a basis for text (again, both improvised and written, abstract and concrete, musical and non-).


The fourth wall is a mask, too.


Think about minimalism and maximalism.

I don’t think there’s a strong neurodivergent drive toward absolute minimalism, at least not without some content-dictated reason; stark minimalism is far too austere for the duration of an entire piece but finds function as a waystation or interlude amidst otherwise cacophonous work. (The tranquility of ambient music is very appealing to me, but usually I either preface or follow it with something raucous.)

Be wary, too, of total maximalism: not because it’s not a virtue (it very much is), but because the tip toward total chaos that adds up to less than the sum of its parts is a danger. Sexy, wizard-like control of chaotic variables is very attractive. Embody the itchiness of toggling between modes, realms, timbres, and dynamics, and then the satisfaction at containing the multiplicity. I long for the therapeutic experience of encountering something focused, clear, direct, and, finally, demonstrative of glorious effort. I long for the proof of the complete made experience, coming together live in front of us in the audience, and along with us. Brian Eno: “The interesting place is not chaos, and it’s not total coherence. It’s somewhere on the cusp of those two.”

Produce maps for your audience to review before the lights dim, but build benevolent surprises into the work that follows. Overall, take care of people.


My ADHD brain wants surprise, wants the unexpected, wants delight. Again, formal surprise over plot twists: bring out a saxophone-playing bear or give me a twelve-minute lecture on the Brassica genus.

It’s also true that ADHDers and Autistics do better when we know exactly what to expect from a given situation. Not contradiction: as you’re building, follow Taylor Mac’s maxim that “surprise opens you up, while shock shuts you down.” Produce maps for your audience to review before the lights dim, but build benevolent surprises into the work that follows. Overall, take care of people.


Skip over the part where you make work in order to educate a neurotypical audience about being neurodivergent. Skip over even the work that is 51 percent or more in content about what it’s like to be neurodivergent. Take it as a given that your neurodivergence gives you magnificent assets to understand form in a unique way.

A man and a woman sit on either side of a candle on a dimly lit stage.

Will Brill and Marin Ireland in Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, translated by Paul Schmidt. Directed by Jack Serio. Scenic design by Walt Spangler. Costume design by Ricky Reynoso. Lighting design by Stacy Derosier. Sound design by Christopher Darbassie. Props design by Carrie Mossman. Photo by Emilio Madrid.


One of Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards—a method he invented with artist Peter Schmidt in 1974 in order to facilitate motion against creative logjams through gnomic randomness—instructs the artist to “define an area as ‘safe’ and use it as an anchor.” Neurodivergent folks know exhaustion, and know meltdown, and know forms and shapes and models as disabling more than they are liberating. A safe anchor is a corner of the room where we’re most aligned as makers, fully unmasked, not self-canceling, no verklemptitude, tranquil and thrumming and perpetually generative.

My anchor is something Astrov says in the middle of the third act of Uncle Vanya. You know Astrov: beaten-down country doctor, oblivious crush-object, ecologically-minded hunk. He’s an amateur botanist (like me: “amateur” because amative), and he really loves forests, which is something he doesn’t suppose many other people really get. Somewhere in the middle of the night, amidst all the romantic intrigue, he sighs and tells Yelena about how

I have my own desk here in the house…when I’m worn out, in a complete stupor, I drop everything and escape here and amuse myself with this map for an hour or two… Ivan Petrovich and Sofya Aleksandrovna click away on the abacus, and I sit by them at my desk and daub away – and I’m warm and at peace, and the cricket chirps.

It’s parallel play, it’s body-doubling, it’s hyperfocusing: it’s beautiful. Most else about Uncle Vanya melts away, honestly. I’ve always valorized the content human working away pleasurably at their desk and then sharing what brings them so much joy and makes life worth living.


The essay you’ve just read took me over a year to write. Part of the reason for that was because I’ve been finding the way, precisely, to make any work for the theatre at all. I have been building a completely new dock; no work has been created yet that fits all of these parameters that has been fully, finally generated in performance by a neurodivergent body and brain. I thought I would never make anything for the theatre again, but now I know that I will, and it will look something like this.

I hope you’ll make it with me, or come see it. We can’t do it alone.

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Thank you for this fabulous essay! I LOVE it! As an AuDHD playwright who is almost never ever produced in spite of having written many plays, including nonfiction ones! and plays that use :) to indicate when characters are masking or smiling so hard their face might break... and plays that are always breaking the 4th wall and doing things that most US theatres just don't seem to want to take any sort of chance on, I appreciate all of what you've said here. Especially about the possibilities of time! Apparently my sense of time is different from NT ideas of time, but I think we can all agree that by the end of any show/event on stage/whatever we call it we are all closer to death. So backwards, forwards, inside out, we're still moving closer to death and whatever has happened must have value or we never want to go back to the theatre again. I look forward to the day when many neurodivergent minds are given the chance (because it's truly a gatekeeping issue) to create theatre in all the possible and glorious ways! 

Glad to see this essay get HowlRound-level visibility. As a neurodivergent director & dramaturg, I find that many institutions are much more strict about their aesthetic parameters than they think they are. Many artistic choices that come specifically from a neurodivergent experience are dismissed because they exist outside neurotypical experience and therefore "wrong." Rather than allow an audience to decide for themselves, these impulses are censored in anticipation of an audience rejecting them. It's unfortunate. 

However, I've seen extraordinary innovation towards neurodivergent-enticing experiences in international work for young audiences. Some of that, in my opinion, is due to their creator's freedom from curriculum-bound expectations from their target audience which limits so much work for young people in the US. However, the most significant factor is perhaps the creator's neuroplasticity and willingness to play. Not "play" as the US thinks of it, as a realm solely for children, but as a state of being in a state of wonder, experimentation, and free from self-censoring. Within that sense of play is an extremely high level of respect for the intelligence of their anticipated audience. At the performances I've witnessed, the adults have been just a rapt at the young people in the audience. Perhaps theatre for "grown-ups" might build upon what these talented creators have discoverd.