Representation as Exclusion

I have ADD. And the week before last, the nine-hundred-and-sixty-fourth week of my life, I found a character who canonically has ADD for the first time. Representation is important; we say it all the time. But moments like these (if you’ll permit me a sappy moment) where you’re sitting on the bus, listening to a podcast featuring a story of someone like you, highlights that importance on a personal scale.

Because of who I am as a person, and because I write for a theatre website, I’ve been trying to think of representations of—if not of ADD itself—symptoms of it. The first thing to come to mind was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Simon Stephens. It’s been about two years since I’ve seen it, but Bunny Christie’s design still resonates with me. The production’s use of light and sound recreated what experiencing a sensory overload (a symptom of both ADHD and autism, hence the connection) feels like. The ability to bring a neurotypical audience into the mind of someone experiencing sensory overload is proof of the technological and creative prowess of theatre.

Instead of seeing an actor crumpled over on the stage and having to imply what is going on in their mind, the audience is able to experience and understand what it’s like to go through sensory overload. Part of the importance behind representation is that it allows people who are not a part of a specific group to better understand the experiences of the said group. This representation of sensory overload does a great job of that.

The problem is that this production of sensory overload triggers sensory overload. I was blown away and I absolutely loved the show, but sitting through it was excruciating. Everything was too loud, too bright, too much. I knew exactly where I was, but I felt lost, like I had been spun around blindfolded about a million times. I spent a good portion of the show curled in a ball trying not to be sick. This is in direct contradiction to another important aspect (the most important, in my opinion) of representation: the aspect of allowing people to see themselves and their experiences in media. This is like having a show about immigrants and calling it representation while charging prices too expensive for most of the people being represented to afford. It might entertain the crowd and make them feel cultured and enlightened, but the people who never see themselves in stories still aren’t seeing themselves in them. Art is touted as the reflection of humanity; if you can’t see yourself in that, how can you see yourself as human?

It is ridiculous that I have to struggle with a part of me simply to see that part of myself represented on stage. There were no sensory-friendly performances offered. Beyond the production itself, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time showcases a myriad of problems that are common with shows that cover mental disorders. The author of the book that this play is based off of, Mark Haddon, did almost no research on autism before writing the novel. Furthermore, the actor who played Christopher was not autistic. From what I can find online, only one autistic actor has been cast as the lead.

I don’t like ending my articles with vague calls to action, but other than espousing the importance of diverse voices in theatre, I have no other conclusion to draw. Seek out writers and actors and directors and designers who actually have experience with what they are representing. Don’t just look for stories about the underrepresented; let the underrepresented speak for themselves.

Note: For those of you who are curious, the character who canonically has ADD is Aubrey Little from Amnesty: The Adventure Zone.

(Photo by Brinkhoff/Möegenburg)