What is Spectrum theatre?

“Spectrum Theatre” is a term we devised to encapsulate a lot of what we’re trying to do with our work, and the theatrical techniques and ideas we use to do it.

Spectrum Theatre is the theatrical mode or practice of making a theatrical space autistic. It is a form of theatre that borrows from, remixes, imposes and reflects upon autistic experiences. Spectrum Theatre can involve elements like extreme inputs, split focus, ambiguity and uncertainty. Spectrum Theatre often speaks its own language and expects the audience to decipher it, in the same way that autistic people are expected to decipher the neurotypical world.

What does it mean to be a “Neurodiverse-run group”? does it have something to do with neurodiversity?

A person is neurodivergent if their brain works in ways that differ significantly from dominant societal standards of “normal”. In contrast, a person is neurotypical if their brain works in ways that largely fall within dominant societal standards of normalcy. Autism is only one kind of neurodivergence.

A group is neurodiverse if it’s made up of people who have different neurocognitive styles of processing things. That might mean a group containing both neurotypical people and neurodivergent people, or it might mean a group containing people who are neurodivergent in different ways. A_tistic is neurodiverse-run because we are run by both autistic people and non-autistic (allistic) people.

Terminology around neurotypes and neurodiversity can be slightly confusing at first; this excellent guide can help. The linked guide can also teach you more about the neurodiversity paradigm, and the history and ethos of the Neurodiversity Movement. A_tistic supports the Neurodiversity Movement, and we aim to further spread and develop it through our art.

Why do you tell stories instead of just doing activism?

We believe in activism in a variety of forms, but we also believe there are some things only stories can do. It’s easy to switch off your curiosity in the face of a slogan or an essay or a twitter argument, and it’s easy to feel guilt and boredom in the face of a campaign. We tell stories because stories can surprise people, can explore nuance, and can reach inside people and change them, because stories and tropes make the world bigger and different. Stories give people the words to recognise and describe their own experiences or see others more clearly – and we’ve been approached by audience members who understood their own lives better because they saw themselves in the stories we’ve told. Stories can demonstrate beauty or illuminate horror. Stories can help us envision new and better ways of living.

Some autistic people use echolalia – repetition of sounds, words or phrases – to communicate what they’re thinking or feeling, or to play with language. Every new word or phrase we hear is a new opportunity to communicate more and greater meaning. New stories give people new words, phrases, characters, scenarios and plots, new ideas they can apply to their own lives. With new stories come an expansion of what it is possible to think or say or understand. Storytelling is a utopian exercise.

why do you make theatre specifically?

First off, theatre has been good to us. Theatre is a wonderful vehicle to explore social ciphers, and some of us have used drama as a safe place to learn how to socially express ourselves and be understood. In theatrical settings you can experiment with new forms of expression, break out of safe social loops, and get quick feedback about how your performances are received. Many of us believe that all external expression is a kind of theatrical performance. In theatre and in storytelling, we can experiment safely and try on new ideas, personas, realities and ways of relating.

Theatre is also experiential in a way nearly no other form of storytelling is – which makes it perfect for exploring autistic experience. When you go to the theatre, you enter someone else’s world and vision for an hour or two. Live performance is a site of active negotiation and collaboration between actors and audience, rather than something static you can consume at a remove. To watch a live performance is to watch something that feels real, immediate and possible, which makes it harder to abstract or dismiss. When someone comes to see a piece of Spectrum Theatre, they’re entering a performance space created and controlled by neurodivergent artists and they’re engaging on those artists’ terms. That’s a pretty complete reversal of what it’s like in the wider world, where neurotypical people usually set the norms and the rules.

Theatre also asks you to make an investment of time, energy and consideration (even when it’s made more accessible via relaxed performance principles). To be part of a theatre audience is to really listen to someone else’s perspective, to give it time and space to wash over you.

That said, we think every storytelling medium offers different and exciting possibilities, and we’d love to experiment with them all someday. If you want to offer us an opportunity to make a blockbuster film, we want to hear from you!

Why are most of A_tistic’s arts core autistic?

We believe in the principle of “nothing about us without us”. We reckon that artistic projects about a particular group of people which are created and led by members of that group produce nuanced, truthful art. These creators work from a position of comfort and comprehension of their content. They are attentive to existing representative stories, and therefore unlikely to accidentally repeat tired old tropes or misleading clichés. They’re less likely to pat themselves on the back for stories validating their own basic humanity. They’re less likely to just … get things wildly wrong.

When it comes to representations of autism, as autistic creators, we don’t need to deconstruct as much social baggage as allistic (non-autistic) writers, so we can move right into the good stuff. When you’re not terrified of getting it wrong, you can play more freely with genre, story, theme and form. We get to make work that goes far beyond “Autism 101”. Importantly, we can liberate our audiences from the deeply uncomfortable experience of watching cloyingly earnest work that makes them feel worthy, noble, and bored out of their minds.

Why aren’t all members of A_tistic’s arts core autistic?

We believe autistic leadership is important in projects about autism, but we also consider our work to be about the interplay of different people and different brains. That means collaboration with allistic folks can be valuable. We also work with casts and crews of lots of different neurotypes, with lots of different experiences.

Also, we like each other a lot, and we like working together, and some of us happen to be allistic.