Of all the theatre projects I’ve ever conceived or developed, Forgive Me has to be the most ambitious. And the most authentic. Last year, my then ten-year-old son Theo was diagnosed with autism after many years of executive function issues – things like his ability to communicate with his peers, his tendency to hyper-fixate on things, his love of repetition and the odd sensory issue.
The fact that he went to a very proactive and supportive school, including in the field of SEND (special educational needs and disabilities), led us down the pathway of autism/ADHD diagnosis. It had already been quite an emotional experience because he’d been misdiagnosed the year before due to Covid lockdown and the assessor’s inability to observe Theo in situ with his peers at school.
Autism: cracking open the doors of perception
After confirmation of a diagnosis in July 2022, I felt that we had turned a corner, but I also felt completely overwhelmed. It was like a kind of watershed moment for me in that it confirmed a lot of things in Theo’s developmental journey from nursery to Year 6 and the relief to me was almost visceral.
It’s hard to explain, but it put so many things into perspective that it was almost like looking through lenses that finally worked. There was one little boy we thought we had and we ended up with another equally beautiful but different boy. That’s the only way I can describe it, but there is a sense of letting go of something you thought you had – the neurotype and letting something else in – the neurodiverse and it made me wonder why we place such an emphasis on one over the other to begin with.
I had to put this into words. I had to bring it to life somehow. The linchpin was gaming; something that Theo loved and, to my mind, was obsessed with. I could just about manage Space Invaders or Pacman when I was his age, but this boy was a whizz-kid at Minecraft, Roblox, Zelda, you name it, his thumbs working overtime to build those castles or fight those monsters.
We’d bought him a Nintendo Switch a couple of years before, but he was also fixated on YouTube, watching famous YouTubers play games, usually pimply teenage American kids with high pitched whiny voices. I imagine my son’s admonishment at me for saying that, but I really couldn’t see the attraction.
A technological generation gap
It dawned on me that our lives were so different, not just cognitively (although since my son’s diagnosis I have started the procedure myself – a lot of things chiming with me) but technologically. We never grew up with this kind of constant visual stimulation. Ok, we had TV but you couldn’t take it around with you in your pocket. I was a latchkey kid and regularly played with my friends in the park or went roller skating, occasionally causing my mum to go apeshit at my whereabouts. Meanwhile, Theo would be quite literally tethered to his device, a meltdown ensuing if we tried to get him off.
I started to wonder if there was any correlation between autism and gaming. It made sense to me if there was – the safety (mostly) of this online world he inhabited, its predictability, the power it afforded. I joined the SEND group at school, attended workshops on autism and completed a six-week NHS trust course, which connected me with other parents of children on the spectrum.
Getting the project off the ground
I applied to the Arts Council (via its Grants for the Arts (GFTA) scheme) to develop my project, hunted out creatives that I wanted to work with, including Helen Tennison with whom I’d collaborated on Everything I See I Swallow (an award-winning show about intergenerational feminism and rope bondage). The GFTA application for research and development was successful and as a result I booked a residency at Brighton’s digital hub Fusebox (to connect with digital makers) and put a date in the diary to perform the show at the Lowry in Salford – nothing like putting a date in the diary to put the fear of God in you!
This makes it sound very easy but of course it wasn’t. Any creative process, where you put yourself on the line is bloody hard and this project is by far the hardest thing that I’ve ever embarked on. I’m not the sort of ‘in yer face’ confessional theatre maker of the likes of Bryony Kimmings (I’m a Phoenix Bitch, Fake it til you Make It). Or at least I hadn’t thought I was.
There was an element of that in Swallow, but not to this extent. Mine and Theo’s journey was reinvented for the stage and that old ghost of imposter syndrome was looming large. Why would anyone be interested in this story and my telling of it? What did I know about autism? Or gaming for that matter?
Realising Theo’s complex internal world
My research was intense and is obviously ongoing. Autism and gaming are two huge players in the 21st century, not just in the UK but globally and my bookshelf is literally groaning under the weight of books on both subjects. It was fundamental to me that Theo’s voice (given the name of the character of Danny in the play) was very real and present. Theo was happy to collaborate if it meant he was allowed to game! We shot silhouettes of him on his device and interviewed him about autism and gaming and his voice features quite significantly in the piece.
I wanted the show to reflect what was going on in Theo’s gaming head and so having video footage and digital projection was crucial. Helen and I worked with digital pioneers BRiGHTBLACK and video mapping specialist Giles Thacker to create a beautiful and interactive backdrop that also involved an element of live audience interaction. Maira Vazeo designed moveable screens on which to project these images (many of which were created by Katherine Sturt-Scobie under Giles’ tutelage) which had to hit exactly the right spot on the screens in order to work. It was a complex and painstaking process, and the journey is evolving constantly.
Another crucial element in the show is the pole. As a physical performer (we used aerial circus in Swallow) I wanted to explore the narrative dynamically. The pole represents the mother’s playground and vantage point. It allowed me to explore the other theme I wanted to develop – that of our innate human need to fight monsters, a key part of many video games. The pole becomes a place of refuge, isolation and combat. We put all of these elements together, got into a rehearsal room and played.
The result is very much the culmination of that research and development period – and the audience at the Lowry gave it the thumbs up.
“‘Forgive Me’ is a remarkable theatrical Tour de Force – bursting with ideas and full of unforgettable images… This is physical theatre with real heart and intelligence”Head of theatre operations, The Lowry
There’s a long way to go to get it to a place that I’m really happy with, but I’m so grateful to be able to tell this story.
In 2021, the World Health Organisation added ‘gaming disorder’ to its International Classification of Diseases, adding to the worry that parents already have about their children’s so called ‘screen time’. Obviously, it’s not just parents of autistic kids that worry about their children gaming, but is this expression ‘screen time’ part of the problem itself? Isn’t it just another generic expression that causes us to worry and fear technology? Shouldn’t we be harnessing the power of game play as a force for good?
I’ve tried, in Forgive Me, to create a nuanced piece which explores and, at times, celebrates the correlation between autism and gaming. For my son it’s a place of refuge, joy and achievement. In order for the mother (my character) to understand her son’s journey she has to ‘play the game’ and believe me I’ve been playing it.
Rethinking the monsters
My son and I love swimming so this, for me, was an avenue from the real world into the virtual, and BRiGHTBLACK suggested the video game ABZÛ as a source of inspiration. They created some ABZÛ-inspired footage and Theo and I shot some underwater scenes at Tankspace, which we projected onto the screens and things started to become clearer. Instead of fighting her son’s love of gaming and seeing it as a monster, my character join forces with it. In doing so she realises that when it comes to fighting monsters, collaboration is the thing and an army of two is better than one!
For the second stage of the project, I’ll be working with video game journalist Andy Robertson (author of Taming Gaming) who argues for a closer connection between parents and their children on that digital journey. This was already an element of Forgive Me, but one which I’ll be exploring in more depth. We plan to create an intergenerational digital playground for children and their parents. A connected learning space that offers collaborative and positive experiences of gaming together as a family.
Shaping the next stage
I’ve just launched a Crowdfunder to support Forgive Me’s development and to help me complete this first phase and begin work on stage two. If any of the themes in this article resonate with you then please support me and share with your friends. Thank you!