At the start of May I’ll heading to south London again to play Rose in 213 Things About Me at the Battersea Arts Centre. After a short run of sold out scratch performances last November, the lovely people at the BAC have asked us to come back and do a short run of a full production.
213 Things About Me tells the true story of Rose, an autistic savant who was a close friend of the play’s writer and director, Richard Butchins. Richard and I have collaborated on a few projects, including It’s All Going Wonderfully Well.
Rose was diagnosed with Aspergers disorder in 2013. Shortly after she was diagnosed, Richard suggested she write a list of traits about herself:
“We were having a conversation on Skype and I asked her to write a list of her traits. It was that standard thing where you ask someone to say five good things about themselves; I thought it might be a useful focus for her. When we spoke a week later she said: “I did that list, I’ve got 213 things.” What she had to say was touching, funny, moving and sad.”
Six months later she committed suicide by hanging, aged 36. She left no note. Richard was understandably devastated when Rose died, and as a way to process his loss he made an art instillation film about her, which I narrated and was shown at the Edinburgh Festival. He then developed the script into a one-hour monologue.
We’ve been working on this play for a long time now and I feel very close to the character. There’s a weight of responsibility playing a woman who really lived. By all accounts she was vibrant, warm and funny. Although the play starts with Rose announcing that she is dead, 213 isn’t about suicide; it’s a study of her life. She re-lives her dysfunctional relationship with her family, talks about her musical gifts and sings her songs, but struggles to find a place in a world full of nonsensical rules that she does not understand.
I am not autistic and there has been much criticism of able-bodied actors taking disabled roles over the last few years, and I used to feel uneasy about where I fit into this. I understand why disabled people feel underrepresented in the media. The clichéd ‘inspirational’ narrative of the disabled person who triumphs in the face of adversity is as reductive as it is boring. Added to this, the institutions that are supposed to facilitate disabled people to join groups and be included in society are, usually, run by the able bodied. As a consequence, people with disabilities are often consumers or beneficiaries, rather than empowered agents of change.
I’ve had many conversations with Richard about this subject, who himself is physically disabled as well as being on the autistic spectrum. He wrote the part for me, and we’ve been working on this for a while now. I explained that I felt anxious about causing offence through playing a disabled role. Richard looked at me with one eyebrow raised and informed me that I do have a disability.
‘You’ve got bi-polar dummy. Of course you’re disabled.’This had not occurred to me but, according to the Equality Act of 2010, I am indeed neurologically disabled. Does this qualify me to play someone who on the autistic spectrum? I don’t know. What I do know is that there is someone in my life who I am extremely close to, as well as Richard, who is also autistic. Richard would also point out that he needed an actor to play Rose and that an actors job is to act as someone else – to inhabit a role, to be another person. The fact that I now feel ownership over the role is rather incidental. Nonetheless, I hope to do Rose justice and honour the memory of an extraordinary and unique person.
213 Things About Me is on from May 9th to 12th at the Battersea Arts Centre. You can book tickets here.