Northern Insight's Steve Russell meets local playwright Alison Stanley, whose latest work tackles an emotional subject with humour and integrity.
“English is my second language. Autism is my first.”
Those words, from American animation entrepreneur and social activist, Dani Bowman, speak to the fundamental influence the condition has upon the ways in which autistic people experience and understand the world. It’s a sentiment which will resonate with anyone who has personal experience of autism, none more so than Tyneside playwright Alison Stanley, whose latest stage production, The Life of Reilly, explores the issue as seen through the eyes of a typical North-East family. Alison – who also stars in the play – explains the inspiration behind it:
“I wrote this play because my youngest son is autistic and a lot of the content is based on our own family life. I think theatre is such a powerful medium for educating and informing people, so having a lot of experience with autism and a passion for changing attitudes towards the condition, I felt this really needed to be seen.”
Around the time Alison wrote the first draft of the play, she met Christine Stephenson – another local woman who had similar life experiences. Having struggled with the demands of being a mother to an autistic son herself, Christine began a blog in 2016 chiefly in response to the negative reactions she was encountering in everyday situations. Also called The Life of Reilly, (named after her son) the blog is a visceral and inspiring account of the dedication, patience and resilience needed to raise an autistic child. Alison and Christine hit it off immediately and along with Christine’s sister-in-law Kelly Best – who also has an autistic son the trio began working together on a range of projects to raise awareness of autism and challenge attitudes towards it.
This collaboration started with a rework of the play, of which Christine went on to become a producer. They jointly raised the funds to get it into production and the full version debuted at The Northern Stage in Newcastle in 2018, where it received rave reviews from both critics and audiences.
The play centres around the childhood memories of a young autistic man and while Alison was eager to portray autism as it is experienced by the individual, she was equally keen to depict the challenges and complexities which autism brings to a family as a collective:
“It looks at the issues which autistic children experience at various stages of development but it also focuses on how different family members deal with those issues.”
She describes an incessant search for information as her own coping mechanism, but the play’s characters reflect the wide range of emotions and attitudes which Alison has personally witnessed, including anger, denial, frustration and ignorance:
“Reilly’s dad can’t accept the diagnosis and tries to make his son fit in with social norms, his sister struggles with conflicting emotions, while his grandmother doesn’t understand his behaviour at all.”
Some of the scenes are deliberately shocking and Alison feels this is an essential element of effective drama:
z”I won’t give too much away but there is one particular scene which always draws gasps of horror and I enjoy that reaction as it means that the audience is being challenged rather than merely entertained.”
The play is certainly thought-provoking but both Alison and Christine feel much more needs to be done to combat the stigma and misconceptions attached to autism. To that end, they have set up various initiatives, as Alison explains:
“We’ve established a company called Life of Reilly CIC which has various objectives. The first strand is a training course for parents of newly diagnosed (and sometimes undiagnosed) autistic children who may be struggling to deal with their situation. For that we use an alphabet format, which is intended as a lighthearted way to communicate some of the issues they may face, for example, in relation to food, F is for FFS just eat it! We also run a course specifically for grandparents, which gives them a chance to learn about the condition in the context of their own understanding, which may have been influenced by the values of their generation.”
As recently as the 1950s, autistic behaviours in children were being attributed to “refrigerator mothers” so both Alison and Christine can understand why many older people might have misconceptions. However, they are determined that the current generation will be better informed and that desire is what underpins the third strand of their business:
“The other main part of what we do is Theatre in Education where we visit schools and perform a play called Really Reilly, to educate children about why some of their autistic peers might act differently. We’ve written an accompanying children’s book, which we are currently discussing with publishers, so that will hopefully be available soon.” Additionally, they run autism awareness courses for businesses and are keen to run similar courses with the police, in the hope of reducing arrest rates in situations where autistic behaviours can be mistaken for aggression. With all that going on you could forgive them for needing a breather but their mission continues apace! The Life of Reilly will soon embark on a national tour, visiting Stockton, Washington, Hexham, Berwick, Darlington and Blyth throughout April, before it goes on to Manchester, London and the Edinburgh Fringe over the summer.
Then in Autumn, filming will begin on a big-screen adaption. Co-written by Alison and Christine, they describe their vision for the film as “I Daniel Blake crossed with Shameless”. Like its authors, it promises to be quintessentially northern; gritty, honest and hilarious in equal measures! You’d be mad to miss it.