A chance to make some real change…

Katie Walters reflects on their Remote Nest Residency in early 2021

Last year was a very difficult time to be a performer. Because of the pandemic, my world quickly became a sea of cancelled gigs and indefinitely postponed plans. As someone whose life revolves around the energy of crowds, it was really disorienting to find them abruptly and unceremoniously outlawed. Last year was also a very difficult time to be a disabled person. As someone who is very vulnerable to COVID, I have been stuck indoors far longer than most people, unable to take advantage of the brief gaps between national lockdowns. From care rationing policies that would deny me ICU admission, to the difficulty I’ve faced in accessing the vaccine, it’s become very clear how little the government value my life, and the lives of the people I hold dear. All in all, it’s been a profoundly alienating experience.

But if there’s one thing the pandemic has been good for, it’s writing. Vast stretches of unfillable time, for me, at least, were a great opportunity to sit down and work on things I’d been far too busy and stressed to make time for. Feeling freshly alienated by the total collapse of life as I knew it, the time felt right for me to pick up Planet Alex; a play about isolation, communication, and a literal actual alien. It’s a show I’ve been working on for quite some time, and a story I’ve been wanting to tell for even longer. In 2019, Talking Birds gave me the office space and financial support I needed to write a first draft (you can read my first blog here!), and in 2020 I was fortunate enough to be awarded a second Nest Residency, which allowed me to write vastly superior second and third drafts. I spent a total of four weeks writing, spread out over several months to suit my access needs, with invaluable input from Ola Animashawun, without whom the play would not be nearly as good as it is. Once it was written, Talking Birds also arranged a rehearsed reading of the script in full [performed by Adaya Henry and directed by Tom Roden], which gave me the chance to properly see how the whole thing fit together, and get some feedback from a small and supportive audience.

My second Nest Residency was a lifeline during a very difficult time for me both as a person and in my career. It gave me work during a time when work was very scarce, and gave me purpose when I felt directionless. Writing during the pandemic afforded me a newfound appreciation for why Planet Alex is such an important story for me to tell. It’s a solo play about an autistic teenager who meets an alien living in her back garden, and a coming of age narrative that reflects the struggles and joys of life as an autistic young adult. I describe it to others as the story I wish I could have heard when I was younger, and I’ve been driven to tell it because I want to improve authentic representation for autistic audiences. But after reading news stories about DNR orders that were imposed on autistic adults without consent during the pandemic, it’s become increasingly apparent to me that this story is important for neurotypical audiences too. Autistic people are literally fighting for our lives. Of course, we shouldn’t have to make great art for people to understand that we deserve to live, but until they do, plays that show how wonderful and complex and brilliant autistic people are feel very important to create. We live vibrant, human lives. That’s something the world needs to know.

The future of Planet Alex is looking bright. Through my Nest Residency, I was able to spend some time talking with producer Pippa Frith, to figure out the best way to take the project forwards. I’ve assembled a modest all-autistic creative team, in director Sam Holley-Horseman and composer Taka Owen. I’m planning to act as assistant director, too, because I really want to learn some new skills.

A four minute proof of concept film for the show is going to be shared at China Plate’s First Bite Festival later this year, and we’re looking for opportunities to spend some time experimenting with the format of the show. Sam is really interested in finding ways to integrate a “sensory diet” into the performance. Plays for autistic audiences tend to assume that we are all sensory avoidant, and need quiet environments with simple lighting to be able to concentrate. And that’s important, but lots of us a sensory seeking too, and we need things to be really stimulating to be able to pay attention to them. So we’re looking at using lighting, music, projected images, all sorts of things to make the show properly engaging for sensory seeking autistics. It’s a really exciting area to be exploring.

Honestly the biggest takeaway from my Nest Residency (apart from the playtext I suppose!) is just confidence. Having dedicated and specialist support from such a kind group of people, and the faith that those people seem to have in me, it’s left me feeling like I’ve got something really special here. Something with a lot of potential. I don’t feel that way very often! But I’m feeling really ambitious right now. I think we have a chance to make some real change in the industry, and that’s super exciting.

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