How 2016 is set to be a breakthrough year for actors with autism on stage and screen

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Jules Robertson is revealing how he broke Twitter. “The reaction has been really good, really positive. I get the best lines as well — I steal the show every time. I broke Twitter! I’ll be doing plays at the National soon. No, no I’m just joking.”

The actor, who has Asperger’s syndrome, is talking about making his debut last month on Holby City, which led to an emotional outpouring of support on social media from the autistic and learning difficulty community.

Much like the recent debates around race, gender equality and transgender representation in the arts, it feels like an important moment for disability representation in the UK to have a recurring character with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) on a mainstream soap, and more importantly played by an actor who has Asperger’s.

Robertson, 24, and son of author Kathy Lette and renowned human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, is one of a cohort of actors who have graduated with a Performance Making Diploma for Adults with Learning Disabilities from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, which is now in its third year.

His fellow alumnus Cian Binchy, whose one-man show The Misfit Analysis is showing at the Vault Festival in the tunnels beneath Waterloo station this week, is delighted to see autism portrayed more authentically on screen. He pulls a pained expression when I ask about how often actors are rewarded with plaudits when they play disabled characters.

“Basically, I have seen many actors in my time play autism that don’t have autism or are supposedly neurotypical [without learning conditions], and I think sometimes they do it very well, very believably, but it’s much more authentic if the actor is on the spectrum.

“I am somebody who knows how it feels to have autism, and to have Asperger’s to be more precise. And when you see me performing, what you see is pretty much real and I am somebody who is actually going through a struggle, which I hate to call it.”

Both Binchy and Robertson are practically evangelical about the course, which is run by the charity Access All Areas (AAA), a theatre company in Hackney for adults with learning disabilities.

Binchy, 25, describes it as giving him a newfound confidence (or in his words, it made him “stick [his] Kanye on”), and his show aims to explore the autistic mind and question the place of disability in society. It is categorically “not Rain Man”.

Nick Llewellyn, the artistic director of AAA (who is neurotypical), agrees that confidence is crucial for the actors he supports.

“It’s about enabling people to feel confident about who they are as a person and not just trying to fit in with everybody else. To embrace their difference, use it within their work and to inspire other people to see that difference is interesting, that difference is complicated.”

But the Central diploma takes one step further to help its participants carve out legitimate careers in the arts.

Llewellyn, 36, explains: “There is a two-pronged attack we’ve got here. We’ve got Cian on the one side creating his own show and actually making a market for that as well. He’s creating his own style of performance and his own aesthetic.

“And then Jules on the other side, breaking down doors in places like the BBC. They’ve been a closed shop for far too long for neuro-diverse people to come in through those doors.”

In Holby City, Robertson’s character Jason has a type of Asperger’s that is slightly different to the actor’s condition (Jason is obsessed by medical terms in the show while in real life, Robertson is obsessed with Steve Martin), although they do both like to compare people to animals (he reckons I’m a sparrow).

His first role was as an extra on Harry Potter and he names Alan Rickman as an inspiration. Before the actor passed away in January, he emailed Robertson to say “Bravo”.

Llewellyn credits casting director Sarah Hughes with beginning the movement that led to Robertson being cast in Holby, when she led the BBC Talent Alert for disabled actors in 2009/10.

“Really it’s Sarah’s work a long time ago that kick-started all this happening. And now she teaches audition technique classes for us, which Jules has taken part in. Often people think access is about opening a door and saying ‘come on in’ but actually access is about something a bit extra. An open-door policy doesn’t always work because you still need to support people through that door.”

Binchy thinks that the industry has been slow to recognise the potential of disabled actors and performers but also acknowledges that they need support and cannot do it alone.

“I owe it all to AAA. I do feel like I’m breaking some barriers and I feel like I’m saying that people with autism can perform, if they meet the right people.

“It makes me feel great that people might look to me as a role model. When people with autism see people like me and Jules perform, I hope they will say ‘that can be me’ but be realistic at the same time.”

He was a consultant on the National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time in 2012, where he advised the actors about his experience with Asperger’s, and he likes the show. But Binchy still admits he’d like to see an actor with autism in the lead role (the part was played by Luke Treadaway). Most of all he wants to see autistic characters portrayed  as real people.

“When you see a character with autism, you should actually see that character rather than think that everyone with autism is going to be like that. You should show that character as an individual, not just somebody with autism.”

It might not be such a far-off ambition as the industry is starting to respond to pressures to represent the 19 per cent of people in the UK (according to the national disability charity, Scope) who have some sort of disability more accurately.

Llewellyn cites Channel 4’s 360 Diversity Charter, which states that for every role there should be two disabled actors going up for it, even if disability isn’t part of the storyline, and the Arts Council’s vow that disability should be considered at the forefront of all programming. He says: “People are being a lot more receptive to it now — they want to get it right. They know that they have to get it right.

“I am in favour of quotas to kick-start us. It’ll probably take a while to get the momentum going and then, maybe in 10 years’ time, the quota thing will just have been a temporary thing, an intervention, and then it can disappear.”

He emphasises that the AAA programme is careful only to boost people’s careers where they believe the individual is at the right level to cope with being exposed to the theatre industry. It won’t work for everyone.

But for Binchy and Robertson this is only the beginning of their careers, and neither is short on ambition.Binchy would like to take his show to New York, while Robertson wants to play the first Asperger’s Hamlet. “I think it would be really interesting because I definitely think Hamlet had some form of autism, I think he had Asperger’s.”

Whatever the role, both men are most keen to impress that it is not a one-size-fits-all approach and that they are each their own distinct performers.

As Robertson says: “I’m very proud to be Jules Robertson. I don’t need to be anyone else.”

Source: Evening Standard



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