Casting a Non-Autistic Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on Broadway

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway has been a tremendous success. Seven Olivier Awards is an impressive haul. There are good reasons for this, and all involved rightly deserve applause for their work.

This is a play about an autistic fifteen-year old. The original novel was written by a non-autistic, and the stage adaptation was completed by a non-autistic. The director isn’t autistic either. That’s fine—people write and direct works outside their immediate personal lived experience all the time. This is fiction, not an instructional video we’re dealing with. The objective is to reveal and explore possibilities and truths.

 

actor on stage surrounded by paper
Alex Sharp as Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

The lead actor, Alex Sharp, is not autistic either. Even that is not a major problem, though I can feel many others from the autistic community flinch at those words. Alex is a professional actor, and a fine one at that, whose job is to play the part of individuals with life experiences outside his own, and he is doing a good job.

It may fairly be asked, then, why so many within the autistic community feel deep unease at the prospect of a non-autistic playing an autistic role. Some hold the opinion that not using an autistic actor is in some way not fair; others suggest that this play is an opportunity to make a statement of some sort about autistic capabilities or autistic rights. However this is a play, not propaganda. What matters is touching some truth, revealing that truth to the audience, and giving them something that enriches their understanding of the human experience in all its diversity.

The consensus opinion, though, seems to be a feeling that it is not proper in some way for the part to be played by a non-autistic. That seems to touch on a desire for not just authenticity, but a deeper truth. Let’s turn that into a question.

Is it appropriate for a non-autistic to play the part of an autistic?

A parallel which has been suggested more than once, and which puts this question somewhat into perspective, is this: Is it appropriate for a white actor to wear black-face makeup to play a black character?

Is it appropriate for a non-autistic to play the part of an autistic?

In both cases there are life experiences that make an actually autistic and an actually black actor better suited to playing the role in question. More than that, though, there is the simple issue of credibility. We expect a black character to be played by a black actor. We do not expect an autistic character to be played by an autistic actor, however, and we should be asking why. There is no doubt that this situation hasn’t arisen often so we should not be surprised that there is no clear precedent to refer to, but the question remains.

Another question which has been asked: Can an autistic act? The flippant response is that we have to act every day, just to get by in a world designed for other people. A better answer may be that some autistics can act, just as some neurotypical people can act. Most cannot, much as most neurotypicals cannot. Daryl Hannah is probably the best-known example of an autistic actor, but there is also Lizzy Clarke who is believed to be the first autistic to play an autistic character, in the BBC’s dramatization of Dustbin Baby.

Let’s ask some more questions. What is the play about? Playwright Simon Stephens has described the play as a way of revealing the thoughts and memories of Christopher as he retells his story. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a play about Christopher’s mind, not about Christopher. This is important.

Simon Stephens has spoken of the distinction he sees between writer and playwright. He notes—correctly—that a playwright should speak of having wrought a play. He emphasises the shaping and crafting—the giving of form to the process by which characters move through experiences and events, striving towards their objective. By doing so he has defined a fundamental difference in how he, as a wright, and the novel’s author Mark Haddon, as a writer, think about and experience the story. It is the same story, presented differently, and that directly shapes the experience for the audience. This, too, is important.

What Christopher experiences is dependent on how his brain works, and his brain is wired differently than most peoples’ brains. In fact, his whole nervous system is different. The mix of different nerve types, the strength of the signal they send to his brain, and how those signals interact is different. That, essentially, is what being autistic is all about. The “autistic experience” is something distinct, it is something which at a very fundamental level, is indescribably Other.

How do you give someone a sense of the spiraling silent spark and crackle of thoughts as they flit around each other—or the intensity of joy or distress their dance brings, or the overwhelming seismic internal roiling caused by a bustling city street?

How do you explain the difference between the feeling of nauseating yellow light and waxy-textured blue light on skin? Or how they change subtly at night compared to the daytime? What words should be used to describe feeling the electromagnetic field of fluorescent light (“awful” is a good start) as opposed to that of a TV on standby? How do you give someone a sense of the spiraling silent spark and crackle of thoughts as they flit around each other—or the intensity of joy or distress their dance brings, or the overwhelming seismic internal roiling caused by a bustling city street? Certainly anyone can read those words and imagine what that may be like, but there is no shared frame of reference here—those words may be evocative, but they fall far short of the actuality.

Simon Stephens has created an exceptional play. The big box works wonderfully. But there is a neurotypical actor playing the part of an autistic, and that autistic is the central character. If the actor, his movement, his expressions, his words, and tone were not significant to the process of telling this tale of one autistic’s experience, we could dispense with him altogether and let the screens do their thing. Clearly that will not work: we need that actor. We also need that actor to be “true.”

It is my considered opinion, from an autistic perspective, that that trueness cannot be achieved by anyone who has not directly experienced it. Simon Stephens’ playwright mind was necessary to create this play in a way a novelist (or a wheelwright) could not. Similarly, it takes an autistic mind to truly represent an autistic character in a way a neurotypical mind simply cannot. That autistic mind is central to the play.

Some people will read this and have lingering doubts. That doubt is exactly my point. There is no shared frame of reference. From an autistic viewpoint this is not in doubt. I am asking people  to take a step into the unknown, just as Christopher did. 

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Would an autistic person have a problem performing in a play with the sound and lighting effects that are part of "Curious Incident"?

This is a very timely discussion for Access all Areas.We are a theatre company that support artists with learning disabilities to create their own theatre and performances. www.accessallareastheatre.org. We are based in east London and our Performance Making Diploma in partnership with the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama won the Guardian University Awards 2015 for best student diversity programme in the UK. One of our graduates, Cian Binchy, a performer with autism has created his ownone man show and is taking it to Edinburgh Festival this August. See here; https://www.pleasance.co.uk... . Cian is the consultant behind the Curious Incident UK original version and worked alongside Simon Stephens on the development of the characterisation of Christopher. This ws a great opportunity for Cian but now he is centre stage telling how autism is in his own words. You all really should try and see it and stay in touch with us via our mailing list or #misfitanalysis . We are also holding discussions on this theme in Edinburgh in August and also in London in 2016.

I'm really interested in this discussion but confused as to why it does not include any performance critique. What does Sharp not get? What is it about the way he tells the story - the choices he makes - that doesn't work?

I can't believe the question is even being asked. We areb truly living in an age of PC obsessed frenzy. Soon, they'll come for you too.

I had an intense, dramatic pause at the parallel between black face minstrelsy and non-autistic actors playing autistic characters in this article. I struggled with this comparison because it felt like a drive-by argument. I think the history of minstrelsy and its impact on American theatre AND culture is too complex for a quick reference in an article advocating casting autistic actors to play autistic characters.

With that being said, I think the heart of this article is the lack of representation for autistic theatre artists, which is part of a larger conversation about debunking cultural misconceptions of people with mental health issues and/or disabilities.

It is illegal to ask for disability information in the hiring process. This is to PROTECT people with disabilities. If they'd asked actors if they were on the spectrum or not during the audition process, they'd be breaking the law in a huge way. We should be glad that things work this way; otherwise, autistic actors (and autistic people in every industry) would be routinely subject to employment discrimination.

I am over disability drag. As much as we need increased visibility having it enacted in an abelist frame is highly problematic. Othello was progressive for it's time as is this play.

I am currently casting a short film in NYC and am looking for an autistic teen-aged boy (about 14, or a little older who can look young). The film is one in a series of three short films about different family dynamics- told through the perspective of a babysitter. If anyone knows any autistic teen actors who would be interested in auditioning please email me at OPKtheseries@gmail.com I'd love to send more info to potential actors. Thanks a lot and I look forward to hearing from you! -Emma and the OPK Team

This is very interesting, and brings to light something I wouldn't have thought much about. (big but coming) BUT -- I think comparing this to white people donning black face makes the argument a little less valid... This is more similar to an argument being made that a black American man shouldn't play an African man. Or a Japanese woman shouldn't play a Chinese woman. To me, it seems SO very specific. But I can't put my finger on why I want to let this one slide.I do hope they made the effort to call in autistic actors for the role. I don't know. I'm really torn on this one.

I wonder if by implication this is saying that autistic actors should ONLY play autistic characters – obviously THAT isn't the case. The cited most-famous-autistic-actor Daryl Hannah has certainly played many neurotypical roles in her career (when she was playing a human being). If we're saying that actors should only assay roles with which they have personal experience, then autistic actors shouldn't be given the opportunity to play the roles of people who aren't autistic.

There is an issue that is being avoided. Autism impairs the responsiveness that is a key skill in acting because it lessens the ability to read others. So the comparison to blackface is not valid. A better comparison would be to an amputee wanting to dance classical ballet. The condition itself prevents the aspiring artist from achieving their ambition.

While this role represents an autistic person, the skills needed rest on the performer's experience. Are there any autistic performers with the experience and training to play this role? How could they acquire this experience to play this one role when their condition makes acting itself so difficult?

Not every artistic discipline is open to everyone. We all have things that limit our abilities in various areas. Our neurological make up is as much a factor as any other.

I am so sorry, miamifella, but i strongly have to disagree with you.

I am a young actor (26), 5’5”, 130, look like I am 15, and have Autism SpectrumDisorder. www.mickeyrowe.me/pictures

By casting an actor who has experienced what it is like to liveon the spectrum, the quality of the conversation you can have in the room, withaudience members, donors, and even the press is completely different. If youhave the resource available it would be a great one to use.

And here is a link to some very physical movement in the style of the Broadwayproduction of “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time”. I’despecially love if you had the time to watch this video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zv...

My combination of autism and being legally blind makes it so I think morevisually, spatially, and with larger physical gestures among other things, asseen in the video.

I'm an autistic actress (I am in the UK and my diagnosis is Aspergers Syndrome, which is what the character Christopher presents as) and have to say that miamifella is showing ignorance here when he says "How could they acquire this experience to play this one role when their condition makes acting itself so difficult?"Autistic people are all different. You don't get to put us all in one category and say: "they are too disabled to act". There is no innate reason why autistic persons who choose to pursue a career in acting cannot train, and act in just as wide a range of roles as any other person. I have spent my whole 38 years on this planet observing and copying the behaviour of others in order to "fit in" with them - how could I fail to develop a talent for acting as a result? I only need a few very simple accommodations to succeed. Mostly these accommodations are about using specifics when instructing me, breaking complex routines down into small chunks, giving me time to process (I'm not talking about huge amounts of time by the way, usually just a few minutes), and not shouting at me! These are not unreasonable "asks", are they?It's only the attitudes of the ill-informed deciding *for* me that I *can't* do certain things, and refusing to make accommodations for me, that hold me back, not my condition! Addressing the original article I think we have to be careful if we are going to say that non-autistics are not well-placed to play autistic characters. Wouldn't that make it too easy for others to turn it on its head and say say that, in which case, autistic people are incapable of playing non-autistic characters? That really *would* limit the careers of autistic actors!

Moreover, the autistic character in "Curious Incident..." is fifteen years old. Is it also proposed that we further limit the casting of the character to a fifteen-year-old autistic actor? Then if the play should merit an extended run, do we re-cast the role on the day of the currently-cast, fifteen-year-old-autistic-actor's sixteenth birthday? How far do we drill down into the potential absurdities of this well-intentioned but misdirected idea?

So then THE MIRACLE WORKER can only be performed with people who are blind and deaf (as Helen) and somewhat blind (as Annie), THE ELEPHANT MAN can only be performed by men with severe physical deformities, SIDE SHOW can only be performed by co-joined twins, CUCKOO'S NEST can only be played by people with severe emotional disorders, and so on? What about THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING -- can it be played by someone who hasn't been shattered by the deaths of her husband and family? Maybe we're just mocking *those* people by casting someone who has an imaginative but not real actual grasp on that specific loss. What about Julianne Moore's Oscar turn in still alice? A form of bigotry????? I mean, really! Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impedes communication and social interaction. So I would say that, no, an autistic person would not be the first person I would cast in this play, because i need to communicate a story vis a vis this lead actor, and I need to make sure they can communicate that story. I don't think that casting is an ethical failing, I think it is practical and right. If there's a genius autistic actor then please, by all means go for it, but at some point one needs to draw a line in the sand with the PC.

Does this article presume that all autistic people/teens experience their view of life the same? Do we need to find an actor who experiences his autism the same way Christopher did? I am very much in favor of diverse casting (and writing and directing), but it is possible to take the idea too far. Does what the non-autistic actor learns about autism preparing for the role have a (small) benefit as well.

Isn't the point of acting to find our own truth in playing someone with experiences outside of our own?

The example of black face used in this article is in no way comparable because you're talking about a visual physical characteristic and not an internal mental and emotional one.

When casting Laura, from Glass Menagerie, should we only cast an actress who is so nervous in front of people that she throws up when asked to be in front of people, or would we expect an actress to be able to imagine how that might feel? When casting Getting Out, should we only look for actresses who've spent time in jail? When casting Rabbit Hole should we only cast from parents who've lost children? When casting Romeo and Juliette should we look only for actors who have committed suicide?...oh, wait...

Clearly actors use their own experiences to imagine what the experiences of a character would be like, so I ask, as a person on the autism spectrum, why would this be any different?

This isn't about an "experience". This is about a people who are systemically excluded through lack of accessibility and others speaking for them. People who were born a certain way, with a disability, and will always be that way from the moment their born until the day they die. This is literally what ablism is.

Would you play a black character in a play if the role was offered to you? Would you play an asian character in a play if it was offered to you? I would hope the answer would be no, as it should be here to. There is nothing more offensive than a hearing actor putting on a deaf accent to play deaf. How is this any different theatre geek. This is not an experience that you theoretically could experience at some point in your life. This is a people, a people who are perfectly capable of speaking for and representing themselves. http://www.theatlantic.com/...

I'm not sure if this reply was meant for me, as you posted the same one below, but I am going to respond anyway and say that your continued comparison of race to autism makes no sense whatsoever.

I'm actually a director, not an actor, but if I was an actor, I would of course not play a character of a different race (I don't know why you assume above that I'm not black or Asian), because it would be incorrect in the same way that it would be incorrect to cast someone who is 5' 2" as a character who is supposed to be tall. It would not be because it would be impossible for me to have an understanding of the experience of being a different race.

You have the right to your opinion Anna but I strongly disagree. And in this instance it is the autistics who get to decide how they choose to be represented and they have overwhelmingly spoken and their opinion is unanimous.

No responding to the article in the atlantic "Disability Is Not Just a Metaphor: The entertainment industry loves disabled characters—but not disabled actors."? I'd also love your opinion on ablism in the United States.

I guess you weren't reading my my post closely enough to see that I am also a person on the autism spectrum, so their opinion is clearly not unanimous.

You are of course entitled to your opinion as well, but I think we're having two different conversations. For me, this isn't about ablism or racism or any other "ism". This is about the way we create theater.

As theater makers of all types, we are constantly creating characters and worlds that are unlike our own. We use our personal experiences and circumstances to try to better understand people and places that are not our own and then we use our art to portray those experiences to the public. We are constantly trying to step into the shoes of people who are "other" and find our own personal truth in it. That's the beauty of what we do! We find a way to connect to a character using some tiny relatable thing from our own life and we hope that the audience does the same. Why should this be any different when it comes to all of the many "isms"? Why, when some current social buzzword comes into play, does that change everything about our art?

As far as to the article you posted, I did read it and found it very interesting. My response to it is that, in the case of actors with minor disabilities, I would hope that they be free to play whatever roles they want and not just those of characters with their same disability. And in the case of people with more severe disabilities, the kind that would leave them unable to speak (either literally or figuratively) for themselves, perhaps as artists, if we are able to portray them with honesty that comes from finding a way to relate personally to them through a character, we are actually using our art to do some good in the world.

Based on your conclusion it seems you fail to understand theatre and the art of performance on a fundamental level. How on earth can you argue that an actor who has not directly experienced the experiences of the play is incapable of playing them? That is acting! Onstage I have played murderers, people of various sexuality and social backgrounds, uber rich playboys, and people with jobs varying from painter to scientist. I dont have personal experience of living these lives. The job of an actor is to find the essence of it and bring truth to it. Your conclusion in this essay means you must think only gay actors can bring truth to a gay character, that only lawyers can play lawyers, only poor people can play the poor. This mode of thinking is utterly reductive and ignores the very essence of acting itself.

This isn't about an "experience". This is about a people who are systemically excluded through lack of accessibility and others speaking for them. People who were born a certain way, and will always be that way from the moment their born until the day they die.

Would you play a black character in a play if the role was offered to you? Would you play an asian character in a play if it was offered to you? I would hope the answer would be no, as it should be here to. There is nothing more offensive than a hearing actor putting on a deaf accent to play deaf. How is this any different theatre geek. This is not an experience that you theoretically could experience at some point in your life. This is a people, a people who are perfectly capable of speaking for and representing themselves.

Comparing what I'm saying to blackface or yellowface is outrageous. The color of ones skin is a physical trait. Therefore no, actors should not play characters of other races. As I said in my above post, there are many things I have played that I have not personally experienced. And yet this is what actors do everyday. This is a play, it is not political. It is not about representation. I am gay, but one of my favorite performances last year was Mark Ruffalo in "The Normal Heart". He is straight, has not and cannot experience the "gay experience" and yet he brought brilliant truth to it. Could a gay actor also have done so? Absolutely. But he was the one chosen for the part in that particular iteration. Could an autistic actor play Christopher in "Curious Incident"? Absolutely. But Alex Sharp was the one chosen and hes doing a remarkable job and will likely win the Tony. Do you have some insider scoop on the casting process? Do you even know if any autistic actors auditioned? Without knowing such things it is unfair and frankly ridiculous for anyone to be claiming discrimination here.

You write: "Simon Stephens’ playwright mind was necessary to create this play in a way a novelist (or a wheelwright) could not. Similarly, it takes an autistic mind to truly represent an autistic character in a way a neurotypical mind simply cannot. That autistic mind is central to the play."Great essay btw! Compelling argument.I'm just wondering why don't you make the same argument regarding the playwright, the novelist, the director, etc. Can a non-autistic writer "truly" represent an autistic mind? Shouldn't we look for plays/novels written by autistic writers?? There is a long history of white male (British) writers appropriating the stories of people of other ethnic background... the discussion can be extended to other issues of "otherness"...

EQUITY OPEN CASTING CALL:"A Fictional New Play"Characters:HAROLD - 35, Black, Construction Worker Bring Equity cardTOSHIKO - 45, Japanese, Big Band Leader Bring Equity cardWILLIAM - 60, Navaho, Public Defender Bring Equity card, documentation proving tribal membership as NavahoANNE - 50, Lesbian, English Teacher Bring Equity card, documentation establishing sexual orientationCHRISTOPHER - 25, PPD-NOS autistic, Graduate student Bring Equity card, medical records, physician's affidavit specifying actor's position on the autism spectrum

I think it would be sufficient if they simply reached out to some autistic groups, lgbtq groups, native american groups, and Japanese groups before the show recruiting people to auditions and then put some practices in place to assure their auditions were accessible to the autistic. If someone were to produce your fictional play they would obviously be interested in the issue of diversity and that would be something they were excited to undertake. If they weren't interested in diversity your "fictional new play" probably wouldn't be the play to produce.

Nice try, but no. There is right and there is wrong and the arc of the moral universe Is long but It bends toward justice. If you are not at a point yet where you can see what is right or wrong (Indiana law makers are sure having a hard time with that right now) then at least have the courage to use your real name when posting.

Carolyn, I do not deliberately disguise my real name. I signed up to HowlRound long ago with a UserName that applies to several other Disqus forums. Allow me to introduce myself: Hi. My name is Bill Damkoehler. I'm a semi-retired actor now living in the San Diego area. My post referring to the "Fictional New Play" is meant as satire, in hopes that it would illustrate the practical difficulties inherent in casting the professional production of a play only with actors bearing the specific traits of the characters they are meant to portray. Should only a gay actor play a gay character? Should a gay actor be allowed to play a straight character? Can a Korean actor play a Japanese character? Does a casting director know the difference between a Sycuan Kumeyaay Indian and a Manzanita Kumeyaay Indian? Does it matter? Can a PPD-NOS autistic actor play a character with Aspergers? Or a neurotypical character? What prevents a hungry actor from representing herself as autistic at the casting call, even if she isn't? Theater isn't propaganda, it's art. And my gut feeling is that the producers of "Curious Incident..." are less interested in "profiting greatly from the disabilities of others" than they are in making art for everyone.

Honestly, this is just the same as white people playing Native Americans in countless roles in the past, which was appearing to be corrected recently. As pointed elsewhere it's actually co-opting other's struggles for privileged people, showing how "versatile" an actor they are, which is a tragedy when it can be used to elevate those within it through far more accurate representation by and from, and a form of oppression, in a sense. It's not terribly hard to find an actor who is not deep within the spectrum. There have been plenty of actors with Asperger's who can function quite well within a production, who may not be particularly as "charming" as a neurotypical actor off-stage among the crew, but that has zero relationship with the delivery on stage, and it is truly that discrimination that is being perpetuated right there BY the choice. I'm not saying the actor chosen is remotely bad, but there's a particular level of acting where many get, where choice among them all is done through connections or just how one "clicks" with the director, which someone with Autism is almost consistently selected against (there are long-term employment issues for 80% of people), and that happened right here. So, this becomes an actually player in the oppression of the group privileged people are co-opting for themselves. How about that? Proud of themselves?

A very interesting essay. I should like to ask a question of Stivvanos, and I promise there is no agenda behind it. We can all agree that Mr. Sharp is a fine actor; did you, upon seeing the show, find it an unconvincing depiction of the autistic experience nonetheless? Much of the speculation in the comments seems to do with whether the neurotypical ACTOR is capable of accessing the autistic experience. But surely the success or failure of a show's project has to do with the AUDIENCE's reception of it. Did you, as an autistic audience member, feel the show failed? And if so, could you articulate how and why? -- Alexander Offord

Or to rephrase the question: I can understand how a neurotypical mind would be incapable of communicating "the difference between the feeling of nauseating yellow light and waxy-textured blue light on skin" - but an autistic actor, though she might better understand these sensations, is surely constrained to the same means of expressions as the neurotypical one, no? How does the autistic actor communicate these more understandably than a neurotypical actor, in your view?

Its 4:30am here so I'm going to have to drop a short answer on you!"How does the autistic actor communicate these more understandably than a neurotypical actor, in your view?"There's an answer to that which leads directly to the response "but that's not acting, its just playing yourself!". That is a pitfall which I'm conscious of. These are a small sample of little things, and phrased in a way that absolutely cannot express the actual feeling. "Waxy-textured blue light" - until recently I have described that as "greasy" rather than "waxy". Its something that I experience which is far from universal among autistics. There's no language for this - there is an emotional aspect to the feeling also which I will not even try to find words to approximate. Again, just one example. Sit 100 autistics down for an afternoon and work with them to compile lists of sensory, emotional, intellectual idiosyncracies and you will get a vast range. Allow them read and discuss their lists with each other and they will discover things about themselves which they had never consciously focused on, will get alternative words for their experiences. All of it will be about approximations simply because nobody has a language for this stuff really, and the variation of experience is very broad.And here's a very real issue... without some sort of usable language in common use, discussions like that are journeys of exploration among autistics. When you recognise an idea or sensation, when a word or phrase rings true its like finding a little treasure poking from the sod while wandering a hillside.How, then, do you communicate thus stuff when there is little hope that the person you speak to (in this case a non-autistic actor) will actually get any of it? And if they do get some of it, will they reflect that in a way the audience can also get?And yes you can ust respond by asking, If it is so hard to explain how is an autistic going to communicate things like that to the audience. The answer is "not perfectly, just better"

To pick up on the "constrained by the same means of expression" question specifically... no. Different means of expression. That is a pre-existing issue, that non-autistics tend to have difficulties even being aware that whole channels of communication even exist - and that works both ways. Does that present a barrier in terms of the audience even knowing certain communication is goingon? Not necessarily. The autistic is aware of it... if that autistic is an actor seeking to make a largely non-autistic audience register (among others things) these communications, reactions to environmental stimuli etc, their job isto find a means to do so - exaggerate certain movements, try using body position relative to other cast members... whatever. And that is a dialogue between actor and director. But for that to come about the actor needs to be autistic in the first place.

I think you are missing the point. I always find it interesting when people start out with "I promise there is no agenda" or "I promise I am not discriminating" or "I promise I am not racist but. . ."

I should like to ask you a question of your opinion on ablism in America? I saw the show, and while the design and direction are brilliant the casting definitely failed.

Due respect, I think you're the one missing the point. The essay is not at all about whether or not there is a POLITICAL imperative to cast an autistic actor. Ablism, at least in the version of the text on my screen, is an adjacent issue, but not an apposite one. To quote from the article: "If the actor, his movement, his expressions, his words, and tone were not significant to the process of telling this tale of one autistic’s experience, we could dispense with him altogether and let the screens do their thing. Clearly that will not work: we need that actor. We also need that actor to be “true.”...It is my considered opinion, from an autistic perspective, that that trueness cannot be achieved by anyone who has not directly experienced it. That is an AESTHETIC criticism of a casting choice. It might have political implications, but I'm not sure it's helpful - or interesting - to reduce it purely to politics. As to the innuendos you make, I really, really don't have an agenda - I haven't seen the show, and probably won't (since I live outside the country). I just find the author's arguments interesting and would like to see them developed (q.v. my comment below.)

Justin - F as a grade for that answer.

until you answer with specifics the WHY it failed, you have not answered at all.

Tell us WHY it failed. Be specific.

And saying yet again like a broken record that the actor is not personally autistic is NOT enough.

Do a full critique of how he failed to represent the "being" of autism.

Hi Alexander. Some quick answers:Yes Alex Sharp is a good actor. No issues there.Unconvincing? Yes, and in indefinable ways. I tried. Each actor is different, each brings new things. I can only say that part of what an autistic actor can bring is new aspects, shades, subtleties of autisticness, all of which adds to the representation. What any one individual autistic actor might bring...? Who can say? Put an autistic in there and find out!The audience reception is relevant, yes. But they come with assumptions and see through lenses coloured by past experience. Are they getting a "true" picture? Are they expecting to? Should they expect to?I think its fair to say that most non-autistics have quite a limited experience with autistics. I think it is also fair to say that most of the audience have some expectation that they are going to in a sense learn about the autistic mind. That is probably going to be an inevitable and unavoidable aspect. This is something humans do - we build our understanding based on multiple experiences. When those experiences are few in number, each incident gains significance in building that internal understanding. Nobody wants or expects this play to become or be understood as a universal absolute depiction of "the autistic mind" as if that were a single homogenous type... but let's at least allow every opportunity for those aspects that *are* depicted every chance to be more truly autistic.Can a non-autistic actor play an autistic character. Sure. Using research and consultation? Sure.Can an autistic actor do that job? Sure... based on years of lived experience to add subtleties and nuances to the part that even they may never be aware of. Every actor brings a little of themself to every role they play. That is part of the delight in seeing ten different people play King Lear for example, similar to the pleasure of listening to ten different pianists play Chopin's Nocturnes. Its not just the thing in itself, beautiful as it may be, but the thing as presented in this instance in this place by this person to these people... In the case of 'Curious Incident' there is an opportunity to add something that adds depth of autisticness. I think that is something we should be reaching for rather than questioning.

If you were to audition thousands of boys to play the role of Christopher and you want the best actor to represent this version of the play the best, you are going to choose them regardless of gender , of sexuality, of race or of anything other than their personal representation of the character being true to the production that the director wants. If there happened to be an autistic young man who fit the role or image of Christopher and could do the role 8 shows a week, AND they were the best person for this role, then they are the person that the director is going to cast. If there isn't, they are going to find the closest possible solution, which Alex Sharp is. He is using his talent to present what able bodied people can understand to be the autistic experience on stage, without actually being autistic. Is it racist to write a play only about a certain group people? Is it sexist to write a play only about women? These new plays need to come to light in some shape or form and when we start to put them into boxes of who these characters are and forcing ourselves to find these real people in the world, then we are cutting down the world of actors that could represent these characters. It's about mutual understanding, not about exclusion. If an autistic actor had been able to do the role, they might do it. Maybe this play will get another life on some stage where that can happen. When going into these commercial productions all of this is taken into consideration. This all boils down to the producer's and director's vision of the show, and if the actors that they see can handle it. You do not just hand out roles to people because they deserve them because of their life experience. It happens, but that is when it shouldn't. It takes craft and talent to create these productions, to get these plays onstage. If we adhered to every rule, there wouldn't be such a vast array of theater. I'm not condoning black face or yellow face or anyone imitating other races or sexes, but so often do we forget that theater is meant to be a mimicry of life on stage. Seeing a reflection in the water, not a mirror. A version of life on stage or screen. And that's the beauty of it. Not everything has to be a perfect representation of life itself, but this show has brought so much awareness to what does exist in our world. Hasn't it done more good than harm?

Anonymous: For autistics, having non-autistics speak for them, represent them, assume their voice, make decisions for them, overrule them... that is a big part of *our* history of oppression.

If they want to just audition everyone while being sensitive to the SUBJECT of their show, autism, the disability that they are profiting so well off of, then how many of these autistic actors did the producers actually recruit to auditions for this show? (Because most autistic actors won't have agents due to the small talk, shmoozing, who you know part that autistics may be lacking in) And what systems did they put in place during these auditions to make up for the "small talk, wooing off stage" part that autistic may be lacking in?

You say "I'm not condoning black face or yellow face". . . ??? Excuse me? I can't even.

They aren't profiting over autism, they are profiting over a story, and the popularity of a very accclaimed novel which was brilliantly brought to theatrical life. Just because someone is autistic doesn't mean people are going to rush in line to buy tickets. The fact is autism is a thing in the world, it doesn't only belong to autistic people, we encounter it and we have a right to depict, as artists, what we see and what impacts us.

Ah... "More good than harm" I think betrays your point, coming close to "It's a good enough semblance - they won't mind". :-)

Aside from that, though your point is a strong one. The best available actor to do the job. The crucial point though in this play, and it is unusual in this, is that it is designed to reflect and reveal the workings of an autistic mind. This isn't about an autistic person who encounters experiences, their autistic nature being just a bit of flavour in the mix... it is *about* that autistic nature.I've seen arguments for example making a comparison with Claire Daines playing Temple Grandin. That comparison is one I'd encourage actually, as it makes my point - that was much more about a person who is autistic (because of their autistic mind)... this is about an autistic mind.It is also worth considering the audience here. This is an immersive experience, an intense one a lot of the time. It DOES succeed in many, many ways, and I would not condemn Alex's work - he does a fine job... The question is rather, Could an autistic do a *better* job? I would argue the answer to that is Yes. Avery has highlighted some reasons why the audition process is potentially problematic for many autistics, and that's also an aspect that should not be ignored - there are all manner of valid perspectives on this.More than anything, though, what matters is that people DO discuss this, DO think about it deeply, DO feel conflicted, DO consider whether their opinion is based on quick assumptions. I am doing that constantly here, and have done so for weeks. I think that is healthy, from an individual point of view, but also very healthy for a community to do.

I guess the question really is WHICH autistic actor is going to do better than Alex? Name three actors you would propose for the role, actor you feel were robbed. If not three than two, or even one. It is really hard to direct a play, it is really hard to cast a play, it is really hard to have to put up with the meshugas of broadway producers and do something that has integrity and worthwhile. To make this rhetorical point -- "some autistic actor would be amazing in this, if only everyone would do outreach and look for that hypothetical autistic person" -- at the exclusion of all the many exigencies and concrete ball busting realities of putting on a play, is to me, very nice but also somewhat pointless. You say that with "research" a non-autistic actor can do the part. I'm assuming Alex did the research. He went to Juilliard. Do you think he just got on stage and started acting with no research? You didn't like his acting and his portrayal, fine. But who is this magical autistic actor who's going to trump what he did? It's hard finding ANY actor his age who can do what he's doing in this play and carry a broadway show.

Thank you Jasper for this and other comments here. Sometimes the 'pragmatic reality' of putting on a show is bypassed with some ideal mountaintop vision. I'm reading ALL these posts and find this community conversation fascinating, insightful, mind expanding, and yes - frustrating as well. I appreciate the prejudice and lack of foresight that might occur for 'fair casting opportunities' for those with disabilities, and the mind sets that may often limit awareness of the capabilities such individuals possess. But the parade of PC that is receiving increasing air time in various forms of communication [and rightly so] can easily lead to shades of bombastic righteousness. By the way I saw the show [actually want to go back for a 2nd viewing] and my issue with the show [it is quite amazing - also amazing that a play has been running this long on Broadway, thought those days were long gone] was that the direction of it was SO theatrically outrageous, inventive, and exceptional, that it took center stage from the story itself. Bottom line for me with this thread, that thread being that because of the nature of internal, physiological nature of autism that an optimal performance to reveal that reality could only be handled by a talented actor with autism - well I'm unconvinced.

While I understand your point, I think your conclusion undermines the power of our art. You begin by acknowledging that the entire conceit of acting is to "play the part of individuals with life experiences outside [our] own," yet then note that no one but an autistic person could play the part "truthfully." I reject that entirely.

Your example of blackface is a false equivalence. The reason a white actor should never use black face isn't because they could NEVER understand the black experience – that in itself is a rather bleak worldview – but because black face is embedded in a history of oppression. To use black face, then, is to support that history of minstrelsy and a host of other horrible practices. THAT is the issue with black face, NOT the impossibility of understanding the black experience.

Can an actor not portray Hamlet if their father is still alive? To play Richard III, how many people should the actor kill to get into character? Our art is entirely about the ability to forge connections with people that are different than ourselves, and through the connection come to realize how similar we really are. If we make the claim that certain types of people are so radically different than others that no one can understand them well enough to portray them, are we not furthering the rhetoric of Otherness? Is this argument, as presented in the article, not as Othering as anything out there?

The lack of roles for autistic actors is an issue in itself, as well-noted by Avery Jaeger. However, why reinforce the notion that autistic actors are specifically to be cast for autistic roles? Autistic actors are more than capable of playing neurotypical people, so why is the inverse not true?

Hi Zachary,

Thanks for your considered thoughts on this.

The argument is not that an autistic *must* play an autistic character, just that, with levels of understanding as they are, an autistic is far, far better placed to do the job.

You make a comparison with Hamlet (a parallel that had come to my mind also). There is a major crucial difference though - almost everyone has some experience, even if indirectly, with the pain of losing a close family member. They see this portrayed on news bulletins, they discuss it with friends who have lost someone close, they observe it and its effects as played out in literature, cinema and on stage countless times.

By comparison, the autistic experience is something no non-autistic can experience - it is not just something one may not have yet experienced. Further, while loss of a family member (or the rage, guilt, satisfaction, loss of control, etc that surrounds the process of committing murder) is about emotions and thinking that is driven to extremes... they are pre-existing emotions and thoughts that are affected.

The business of Othering is one thing - accepting certain things truly *are* other in some fundamental ways is another - and that distinction is central here I think.

Final thought: You comment "The reason a white actor should never use black face isn't because they could NEVER understand the black experience". Part of the argument here is exactly that (though more a case of "can" than "should"). You mention a history of oppression, and minstrelsy as a part of that. For autistics, having non-autistics speak for them, represent them, assume their voice, make decisions for them, overrule them... that is a big part of *our* history of oppression.

I value the article and I certainly value the point of view. I have long worked with students with autism since my childhood, and I suppose I simply object to the notion that there is something about the autistic experience that cannot be "understood" by neurotypicals. I think that, in itself, is partaking in a process of Othering, as well-intentioned as it may be. Your distinction between recognizing difference and Othering is useful, but the argument you propose above is problematic. To say "this group of people is so radically different that they can never be understood" shuts down conversation and further alienates the group.

If there were issues with how Mr. Sharp went about trying to understand the autistic experience, those should be brought to the forefront, and it's a conversation I'd love to hear. However, to say that Mr. Sharp doesn't understand the "autistic experience" implies that the experience of autism is monolithic, something I think we can all agree is not the case.

I do not think that those with autism are so substantially different that there are not ways for an actor to enter that world if they are open to it - similar openings as you pointed out for an actor playing Hamlet surely exist. These opening are the beginnings of a conversation about our similarities – rather than our differences – and if we shut the conversation down before it begins we miss an opportunity to better understand a community that has historically been silenced. In my working with students with autism I've recognized that it is indeed possible to enter their world if you're willing to do the work and be open to it. Whether that happened in this production, I can't say. I will say, however, that it IS possible.

PS: I certainly agree with this sentiment - "The argument is not that an autistic *must* play an autistic character, just that, with levels of understanding as they are, an autistic is far, far better placed to do the job." I just disagree with the notion that a non-autistic portrayal of autism can never be "true."

Thank you again for a thought-provoking article.

I'm having this discussion across multiple platforms in parallel - it is fascinating to see the multiplicity of opinions come through.One observation which has been rising to the fore is that this play is a sort of special case in that it attempts to reveal an autistic mind as the autistic person recounts a series of events / acts through them. I have to applaud those responsible for even attempting this, regardless of the neurology of the principal character. The character Christopher as seen in the play, we could fairly say, is Christopher's internal self-image acting out thoughts, feelings, observations, memories of these events, and not Christopher himself. That, as I understand it, is essentially what Simon Stephens was attempting here.

Now... this is where *everyone* steps into the unknown! Can anyone claim authority to judge the validity of an actor's representation of their character's internal self-representation, that character being themself a work of fiction? If that took two reads to get the drift... yeah. There are multiple layers of complexity, fiction and interpretation in there. Mr Stephens could come on here tomorrow and outright state that what we see on stage is *exactly* what goes on in the head of this exact (fictional) character. I won't argue that - this is his character (and Mark Haddon's before that). Arguing the toss about something that is both an unknown and a fiction is... :-/However... that helps refine down to central issues here perhaps.First, there is the audience. What do they come to see? A stimulating evening's entertainment? If so, they will get that. If they come for an insight into how an autistic's mind works or to gain a deeper appreciation of... oh hang on! A deeper appreciation of *what makes it exceptional or different*. Hmm... Isn't that actually a large part of what the play attempts? Now, here's the thing - and for sure it is going to be a matter of opinion (as comments here have already shown) - are they being short-changed in a sense? I feel they are. That's no reflection on Alex's work. What are they missing? You know, I honestly cannot say. Put an autistic actor in there and see what happens. The result will be different. Switch for another autistic and the result will again be different. None of that makes any of those peoples' work "wrong" or "invalid", but in the case of the autistics I believe it *does* allow for an opportunity to give the audience something more rather than something less.The best way to prove me wrong is to get an autistic in there! ;-)

So, the political issue is important, certainly, and needs to be discussed and worked on and fixed, so that subaltern actors can get more work. That's a fairness issue, and it is currently broken.

The artistic argument, however, is problematic for me. If a non-autistic actor cannot understand what it is like to be autistic, and an autistic actor does, then what is the point of producing the play in the first place? All potential audience members are either autistic, in which case they don't need to see it because they already (by the arguments above) know what the play has to say, or they aren't, in which case, there is no way for the play to communicate it to them.

That seems wrong somehow.

There ARE hundreds of professional actors who are autistic, and though this doesn't effect them on stage, as they use "scripting" in their daily lives, makes auditions and the connections and wooing people off stage, small talk, part near to impossible. The "Curious" producers have taken one of the only opportunities these actors may get from them. How many of these autistic actors did the producers actually recruit to auditions for this show? And what systems did they put in place during these auditions to make up for the "small talk, wooing off stage" part that autistic may be lacking in?

I have seen the production. Alexander is a good actor. And because he is a good actor, he will have no shortage of parts that are for him. Think about how the autistic’s and people of color feel, when every role is for white neurotypical men, giving white neurotypical men all the experience to get better.

While I'm sure they had autistic "coaches" or something, these autistics were probably only hired for a month or two, while able bodied non-disabled people profited greatly off of our disabilities in the long term.

If you were a Broadway actor, very privileged, had the opportunity to travel the world visiting nearly every continent before attending one of the most expensive private universities in the world, and everyone listened to you and respected you when you spoke, would you not choose to use your voice and power as an ally?

If you were cast to play an African American or Asian character in a show, like in the Mikado for instance, would you accept? Would you say no? I think that whatever decision you made, you would be responsible for, not only the producers. You have the power to say yes or no to anything, at any time.