conversation, interview, Theatre

in conversation: jess gonsalvez and tom middleditch on creating an autistic world through theatre

Them Aspies was first made and performed by students at Monash University Student Theatre last year and, whilst I was interstate and unable to see it, I’ve been fascinated by the project ever since. I want to see the show about autism that is made by a team living with it, incorporating it into their art and proud of the identity ‘aspie’. I love interviewing emerging artists and giving them the respect and consideration that I believe their work deserves and Them Aspies is a particularly delicate and ambitious project. It returns for a season at Monash, April 15-25, and last week I spoke to its creators, Jess Gonsalvez and Tom Middleditch in dappled sunlight on the lemon scented lawns at Monash.

THEM ASPIES, photo by Jarrod Rose

THEM ASPIES, photo by Jarrod Rose

Tom: One of our actors has this beautiful metaphor for autism: somebody’s walked up to the sound desk that is your personality and flipped a couple of things up and down to levels that they’re not usually meant to be at. The mild autism is where they’ve been moved a little bit and extreme or severe autism is where they’ve been moved so far that you get feedback and you can’t actually process the world properly or at least not in a way that would be deemed ‘properly’.

Fleur: What is it like to work with a cast that is both on and off the spectrum?

Tom: I think it has kind of been reflected through the directorial process because I’m diagnosed aspie and Jess isn’t.

The trick with getting both autistic and non-autistic actors to work together was simply just to be completely blunt about who was autistic and who wasn’t and what we were going to do.

Jess: I think I always approached it as “Okay, do whatever you need to do to look after yourself.” There has been a thing of, “it’s okay to step out of the space if you need to” and what we’ve found is that people are so much more enthusiastic about stepping back in because they can take that moment that they need.

Fleur: It strikes me as an incredibly complex and delicate rehearsal room to run as young directors. Why did you put yourselves through that?

Jess laughs.

Tom: Because I think we needed to. The fact that Rain Man is considered by many to be an autistic character is just… that baffles me. The experience of autism within the world is so varied and people generally only focus on the quirky stuff. Characters like Abed (who is a good representation), Sheldon (who is a complicated representation), Sigourney Weaver’s character from Snow Cake, Christopher Boone (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time), these are all people who are defined by their quirks. Nobody ever asks “well, why do they do this with their hands? Why do they like seven cars and green food?”

The cast and directors of THEM ASPIES, with their injury count.

The cast and directors of THEM ASPIES, with their injury count.

I’m not just autistic. I also have an autistic brother. I treat him like a brother. That is to say, mean. Because I think that’s fair. He is autistic but he is also a little bit of a shit. That’s something that people get offended by. Like “no, no, no! He’s autistic! He just has trouble with the word ‘no’.” Autism isn’t a moral quality. It is the car you drive. It’s the system you run.

Jess: It’s whether you’re using a Mac or PC.

Tom: Yeah! They still work! But people get frustrated with Macs because they are different! Why are they different? It makes no sense!

Jess: It only makes no sense if you are coming at it with that mindset of PC.

Tom: But to draw it back to your question, I think it was possibly because we don’t have as much experience as directors that we weren’t as scared going into this process.

Jess: Yes. And the fact that we are young people meant that it is more permissible for us to make mistakes.

Fleur: That is also beautiful. I mean, I direct from a place of uncertainty and in some ways I aim to only have a few hours more knowledge of my show than the cast. There is a beauty to figuring it out with them and that is really acceptable in a university-studenty context. It is so invigorating to work together in that place of uncertainty.

Tom: It is kind of the benefit of student theatre. There are a lot of bad connotations put with the term ‘student theatre’. What was that quote that was thrown around? “A whole lot of young things with pants on their heads, running ‘round ruining Shakespeare.”

Fleur: Hot.

Tom: Yeah. I’d love to see that. Also with student theatre – I’m talking a lot.

Jess: That’s okay. I will butt in when I have something to say.

Tom: The theatre style we are working with is brand new. It is something that we are developing and is still in its student stages. It kind of makes sense that it is going through its student period.

Jess Gonsalvez and Tom Middleditch, photo by Jacinta Anderson

Jess Gonsalvez and Tom Middleditch, photo by Jacinta Anderson

Fleur: I think there is something really beautiful about interviewing you guys, not just about the show but about this moment in your careers when this stuff is all bubbling away –

Jess: (squeaks) She said ‘careers’!

Fleur: I totally said ‘careers’. Where to now? How do you think that doing this incredibly ambitious, complex, emotive, ever-evolving project so early on will affect what you do in the future and how you think about directing?

Jess: It has given us a bit of a framework. It has been our playtest of what we are calling ‘Spectrum Theatre’, which is using autistic elements in the building of the show.

Tom: Which is not new to theatre. Robert Wilson actually used his experience of working with autistic children to inform his theatre style. If you look at Einstein on the Beach, there are quite a few elements of the autistic, with repeated visual stuff and obsessive detail.

Jess: You never know where you’re going to end up with autism. We do have a couple of ideas for what comes next but they are still in the ‘let’s dig up the veggie patch we haven’t really planted yet’ stage.

Tom: And I need to get better at not pulling the seeds up. Is it ready? Is it ready? Why isn’t it ready?

Jess: It’s a root vegetable, Tom! Let it grow!

Tom: I’ve given it ten minutes!

Jess: I think for me it is about the stories that we want to tell and the stories we want to hear and experience. We did this because we wanted autism to be the material for stage. We wanted it to be the action that happens. Whereas a lot of the autistic theatre that you get is either ‘we will make regular theatre accessible for autistic viewers’ or ‘we will invite autistic performers in to play characters’. It’s not usually about the characters being autistic –

Tom: Or the world being autistic.

Jess: But it is difficult. Last year some people looked at our cast image that we used to advertise the show and were like “That’s offensive! They are all pulling funny faces! You’re making fun of autism!” Then we changed it and they went “That’s not right! They don’t look autistic!”

Tom: You are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Ironically autism has no body and a very specific body.

THEM ASPIES, photo by

THEM ASPIES, photo by Piper Huynh

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