Aridhi Anderson is a theatremaker, performer and reviewer based in Melbourne. Check out her work at aridhianderson.com.
Help that embraces and empowers the person being helped
Combining sketch comedy, satire, storytelling, mime, psychology/education, and a whole lot more, Helping Hands by A_tistic is a show that is powerful, deep, complex and varied. Fittingly so, considering its subject matter: the autism spectrum.
Image credit: John Collopy (original photography), Hannah Aroni (illustration).
The show begins with a light talk show parody, where the host speaks to an "allism" mother about their non-autistic child, discussing the challenges of raising a child who has trouble speaking the truth, but does really well with making phone calls (a savant!). From there the show progresses into both serious and humourous sketches about the nightmares of dealing with Centrelink, ABA therapy (which is criticized for its use of traumatic methods to "normalize" autistic children rather than using techniques that would affirm who they actually are), the Milgram experiment and the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts (analysing the continued use of electric shock therapy and other horrific methods designed to "help" autistic children and adults, despite evidence of lasting traumatic impact). The show also explores the difficulties faced by autistic teenagers trying to do well at school, adults trying to navigate their truth in the absence of a childhood diagnosis, non-verbal autistic people hoping to be understood, people trying to fit into social situations, people searching for a therapist who understands their unique needs, people working out how to avoid being overwhelmed but also working out how to deal with meltdowns when they happen, and so on.
Helping Hands, as the show title might indicate, is essentially a show about what help means in the context of autism, and what is genuinely helpful to the person being helped, rather than simply erasing (masking) the traits that make a person stand out (a principle which works when applied beyond the context of autism as well). In this show, the A_tistic Theatre team has delivered an intelligently crafted, substantially solid, and yet entertaining, easy to absorb collection of stories from across the spectrum, which will appeal to and inform autistic and non-autistic people alike. The show's brilliance lies in the fact that they don't water down their content assuming a lack of knowledge among the audience - they make a genuine effort to convey the dense content in ways that will be understandable, accessible, and enjoyable. And they succeed in this. No matter what an audience member's experience with or understanding of autism is, there will be a lot for them to take away from this show.
A_tistic Theatre is a team of neurodiverse artists whose goal is to bring autistic lives to the stage, and in Helping Hands they do so with authenticity, solid research, theatrical skill, and regard for a holistically inclusive audience experience. I attended this show on the night of their relaxed performance, which was something they pulled off exceptionally well. Clearly marked signs, a quiet chill-out zone for people to retreat to if the foyer or the theatre got overwhelming, dedicated staff to check-in and offer care if anyone needed it, a detailed relaxed performance guide, etc, were just a few of the ways in which this show enabled low-stress access for a wider audience demographic. In the performance itself, sound and light levels were maintained at sensory-friendly levels, and trigger warnings made clear by verbal announcements just before potentially triggering scenes were enacted, and yet all this in a way that did not compromise theatrical impact. Ticket sales for this night were also capped at a lower number, to ensure that audience members did not feel crowded, and had space to enter and exit the theatre during the show without much disruption, if need arose.
For a play with such a specialized subject matter, Helping Hands turned out to be an incredibly engaging production that was as entertaining as it was informative. Despite going over its advertised run time, it held the audience's attention with ease and used humour skillfully to enable an easy experience of some pretty dense content.