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00:02 Carers Queensland announcement: If you're not eligible for the NDIS, or you choose not to use it, Carers Queensland is here for you. As the state’s largest Local Area Coordinator we help people with disability connect with mainstream services and find support and opportunities in their area. We also work with the broader community to improve accessibility, bust myths about disability, and create a Queensland where everyone is included and welcome. To find out more visit our website at carersqld.com.au.
0:35 Jodie van de Wetering: Choice and Control a podcast celebrating people with disability, brought to you by Carers Queensland, NDIS Local Area Coordination Partner in the Community.
Oliver Hetherington-Page hates the Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, even though at first glance you might think they have a fair bit in common. The Brisbane performer has channelled his lived experience with autism into a one-man cabaret show, The No Bang Theory, and it's coming to the Undercover Artist Festival and the Wynnum Fringe. Oliver’s love of theatre goes right back to his childhood, when his mother was covering children’s affairs for the local paper so she’d take him to all the shows she was writing about. These days his Mum’s a theatre reviewer, and Oliver’s discovered a passion, a career and a way of understanding the world.
01:24 Oliver Hetherington-Page: I like to think that I learnt how to interact with the world through theatre. If I didn’t know how to interact with the social interaction I would do a ‘what would this character do, and how can I replicate that?’ The challenge with that, or the downside I should say, is that I’m not necessarily my authentic self, and when I’m trying to be Hugh Grant in Love Actually that doesn’t always work because there's a fine line between charming and creepy and I don’t always fall on the right side of that line, I will freely admit that. I talk about that a lot in my show The No Bang Theory which is specifically about my interactions around dating and how my autism affected that. And I find it a lot more comforting on stage than I do off stage. I’m far more comfortable performing a part than I am off stage as myself, as Oliver. Because you know, there are lines, I know the social contract that is happening on stage because we’ve rehearsed it for months. But when I’m myself I’m always figuring out that social contract, am I standing too close to someone? Am I too far away? Am I talking too much, or is the other person bored? And you know that social interaction when it comes with autism is always hard to negotiate. And on stage you don’t have to negotiate it because it's rehearsed within an inch of its life.
02:51 Jodie: Now you mentioned The No Bang Theory, could you fill us in on how that show came to be, and is it a coincidence it has a very similar name to a certain sitcom?
03:01 Oliver: It is not an accident, almost somewhat of a double pun. I am a 23-year-old virgin and I’m not ashamed to admit that, and so there's the level that there's no banging, and then there’s its similarity to the sitcom. It came out of the fact that I felt that I was always compared to Sheldon Cooper, my autism was ranked against Sheldon Cooper, and I never felt that I fit the stereotype of Sheldon Cooper. I got a lot of ‘oh you can’t be autistic, you're not like Sheldon at all’ and I’m like just ‘because I’m not like Sheldon doesn’t mean I’m any less autistic’. Because Sheldon isn’t played by an autistic actor, it isn’t written by autistic people, there is no actual representation anywhere in the Big Bang Theory, to the point that the creators are going ‘no, no, no, Sheldon’s not autistic’, and I’m like ‘come on, you’ve created a stereotype that people put on a pedestal of what autism looks like, you can’t then just brush away people’s legitimate concerns about that character’.
I love musical theatre, and I knew I wanted to find a way of telling my story of autism and growth and triumph through the form of musical theatre. That was something I wanted to do. Also I wanted to shine a light on what autism looks like, and the Sheldon Cooper effect of autism in the community. And both these shows were kind of festering in their own weird place that art festers and you kind of can’t force that. They just sort of came together in the No Bang Theory. Last year Access Arts gave me $2500 to just develop the first 15 minutes, and then I was able to use that as a jumping off point to get some Arts Queensland funding and now I’m performing at the Undercover Artists Festival and the Wynnum Fringe later in the year.
I have a belief that the funniest thing you can do is tell the truth. It's always going to be funnier to be truthful than it is to perform a stereotype. Because as Mel Brooks says, comedy is tragedy plus time. So I want an audience to kind of be laughing and then just get punched in the heart, because something real has happened, and I think you're more likely to get a message across if you're funny and disarming, than if you're preaching at them for 60 minutes. Because there's nothing worse, and we’ve all been in theatre like this, where they're just like yelling at you and getting out a fire hose and spraying you with what they're thinking. And I’m like ‘okay I feel very attacked right now and I’m not taking in the message’. But if you can disarm them with humour, their mouths are open and then they can intake the message that you're trying to get across. So that’s definitely something that I’m interested in figuring out. Humour with heart and heart with humour, I guess is what I’m trying to say.
06:39 Jodie: As a performer on the autism spectrum, are you inevitably compared to Hannah Gadsby?
06:45 Oliver: Probably, I love Hannah Gadsby, I adore Hannah Gadsby. I remember when I saw Douglas for the first time, I hadn’t yet watched Nanette, I just missed it when Nanette came out, and I watched Douglas because it came up during lockdown and I’m like ‘okay let's put this on’. And I remember I cried, because it was the first time that I’d actually seen myself on screen, and she told stories and she’s told something about autism that felt real for the first time. And that’s what I think we need more of.
I got to ask a question on Q&A earlier this year, they were having the disability episode of Q&A where they got the disability senator, Autism Awareness Australia CEO, someone from Love on the Spectrum, and a series of disabled people, to talk about disability. And I asked a question about the Big Bang Theory about why are we allowing non-autistic actors and non-autistic writers to define autism. And one of the people on the panel said well actors act, and I’m like ‘yes technically that is true’. We don’t expect Matt Damon to be an astronaut to play an astronaut in The Martian. But we also would not allow Meryl Streep, as great an actress as she is, to play Martin Luther King. That is just not going to happen.
It's not an attack on Meryl to say she can’t play Martin Luther King, but it's somehow an attack on Jim Parsons to say ‘oh maybe you shouldn’t have played Sheldon Cooper’? I’ve seen Jim Parsons in other things, I think he’s an okay decent actor, but I still wouldn't have cast him in that part, and I still don’t think he should’ve played that part. And even when they did the recasting of Sheldon for the spin off, which I admit I haven’t watched much of, when they had an opportunity to cast a young autistic actor, they didn’t. You have opportunities and you don’t take it, and that really annoys me. But then on the other hand I think just because I’m an autistic actor doesn’t mean every part I want to play is autistic. I’d love to play Hamlet, last time I checked Hamlet is not an autistic character. I could bring my lived experience as an autistic person to that part and allow that to influence me, that does not make Hamlet an autistic character. And so I don’t want to be limited, but at the same time I think on a fundamental level representation is important. So it is always a balancing act.
I have a number of disabled friends who have disabilities of all kinds, not just autism. And one of the things they say is no representation without us: to be truly representative you need to include us in the process. And one of the shows that I think gets this really right is another Australian product that Josh Thomas has done called Everything’s Going to be Okay. I remember watching that show for the first time, and again it just opened myself up to a whole different experience of autism. Because the number of autistic characters on that show, many of whom are queer or different gender presentations to what I am as a cis heterosexual white man. But there are some universal things that that show got right, because it is written by Josh Thomas who is an autistic individual, it stars Josh Thomas who is an autistic individual, it also stars Kayla Cromer I think, who’s also an autistic individual, and it actually fills itself up with all kinds of autistic people, at all different points on the spectrum. It's not just, like Josh Thomas presents very differently, as an autistic person, to Kayla Cromer, to there's someone else on that show who I’m not going to remember the name of so I’m not even going to try, who’s also autistic. And they all present shockingly differently, but they're still all autistic, and I think that is just as important for autism representation, than Sheldon Cooper.
I also acknowledge that I am still a straight white man. I have a whole, whole level of privilege that a black queer trans woman isn’t going to get access to. Just because I’m autistic doesn’t erase other parts of my identity and the privilege that I inherently get in society. I am both in and out of the privilege circle, so I’m aware of the large amount of privilege that I have, because of the disenfranchisement that has been there because I’m a disabled person.
12:12 Carers Queensland announcement: You’ve heard of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, but how much do you know about it? Find out what it means, how it works and how to apply for access at Carers Queensland’s free workshop, Understanding the NDIS. Find out more, check for events coming up near you and book your spot online at carersqld.com.au. You can also call us on 1300 999 636.
12:39 Jodie: Inclusion doesn’t mean treating everybody exactly the same, it means giving everybody the opportunities they need to reach the same end goal. And Oliver has come up against challenges with this during his work as a performer.
12:53 Oliver: At university in my, end of my first year we did a big showcase, and the feedback I got from my tutor was he told me to read the room better. And I’m like ‘you wouldn’t tell a person in a wheelchair to stand up straight, but you actively are telling an autistic person to read the room better, when I am trying my best in every social situation to figure out what the correct response is’. And it just was a punch in the guts. I ran into this tutor at an event, shared a beer, we had a chat, and I asked him, I told him I said ‘you said this and this really upset me at the time, you know why did you say that?’ And he said ‘I knew you were autistic and I wanted to treat you how I would treat any other student, I didn’t want to give you any special treatment because of your disability, and if any other student had exhibited the behaviours that you exhibited in that rehearsal room, my feedback would be you need to read the room better’. And I think is just so problematic. Inclusion is not just about giving us the same rights as a non-disabled person. Inclusion is understanding that we need more access, I need more support in social situations, and if I make someone uncomfortable or I do the wrong thing, just tell me. And I have a number of friends, some male, some female, who have gone ‘Oliver, when you did this you made me feel uncomfortable’, and my first response is ‘oh my God I am so sorry, I will endeavour to do better, I just, I totally missed that interaction, it made sense in my head in the moment, I didn’t think about it, I’m sorry that I made you uncomfortable.’
When I enter a room I declare it early and go ‘this is a thing, these are the fundamentals that you need to know’. 1) if I do the wrong thing just tell me, 2) if I don’t think I can do something I will tell you, they’re the two things that you need to know.
Because in my final year of uni I went up for an internship and I didn’t get it, and I asked ‘why didn’t I get this internship that I really wanted?’ And the feedback was ‘oh with your issues we just felt that you wouldn’t be the best fit’. Because I’d declared that I had autism early. And I found that kind of offensive, because here the truth is if I didn’t think I was up to the challenge of doing that internship, I wouldn’t have applied for it. I have a good sense of my own ability, and I am capable of doing what that role required.
It is always a balancing act, because when I wasn’t telling people I was being told to read the room better, and when I was telling people they were making discriminatory decisions. So I do think it's always going to be a bit of a minefield and a balancing act, but if I am okay with it and have my sense of what is right and what is wrong, I’m going to lean back and own that more.
16:34 Jodie: So are there any plans yet for what happens after The No Bang Theory?
16:39 Oliver: Yes and no, not that I can talk about at this stage, because there's nothing that’s been confirmed. We are looking to take The No Bang Theory on the road across Queensland, at some point. Again nothing has been confirmed, we still only have the Undercover Artists Festival and Wynnum confirmed at this stage, but next year, Covid depending, that is definitely something we’re looking at doing. I do at some point want to do a show that is just tangentially related to autism. Like one of the things that I’m working on that hasn’t gone anywhere yet is a love story that just happens to feature an autistic individual because I love rom coms and I love the Love Actuallys, Notting Hills, Four Weddings and a Funerals. And I just wanted to do one about an autistic person, and not be ‘look at us we’re doing an autistic love story!’ It's just kind of there.
The problem with that is in order to get funding you need to market it, and that downside of marketing is you then have to get people to care about it you have to go ‘it's an autistic love story, come check it out, isn’t this amazing’. That’s always the dark side of this business and marketing in it. You almost have to sell autism, and my autism card, it's like ‘come check out my autism show’. And my autism has almost become a commodity that I have to sell, which I am okay with doing, I understand that everyone needs to sell a version of themselves in this business, in the arts, to kind of get ahead. But the version of myself that I’m selling is my disability and I’m not always sure how I feel about that. I’m performing at the State Theatre Company in a couple of weeks, and I know that a lot of my cohort wouldn’t get that opportunity in a million years, my university cohort would not get that opportunity in a million years, and I only got that opportunity because of my autism, and I only got the Arts Queensland grant because I talked about its relevance to the autism community, and I got members of that community and doctors and support groups to show to the strength of the work. And I’m very grateful for that, and I’m very grateful that I’m getting these opportunities because I’m autistic. But at the same time, as I mentioned earlier, I would love to play Hamlet. I would not want to be the autistic Hamlet, I want to be Hamlet. That is where there's a grey area I think, that I am very okay to market autism when it is relevant, but I don’t want it always to be this selling point of ‘he’s autistic, you know?’ I think sometimes my autism is not relevant to the story that is needing to be told right now.
19:55 Jodie: But the story being told right now is The No Bang Theory coming up at the undercover artists festival on September 16, and the Wynnum Fringe on November 21.
20:05 Oliver: I know so many of these works are going to be fantastic. Support the whole festival, it's not just me. Madeleine Little, the Festival Director, has programmed an amazing festival from top to bottom, they're all disability-led, they're diverse, there's queer and gender non-binary and trans stories in there, there are all different forms of disability, some people are getting up on trapezes in wheelchairs, I’m sure there are lots of amazing things in all different forms of art at this festival that people should check out. And not just disabled people looking for disabled art, but people who just like going to the theatre, people that will go see a show at QPAC at Southbank, or if Wicked’s coming to town, or Cats is coming to town or any of those big mainstream shows, if you like them I guarantee that there’ll be something for you at the Undercover Artist Festival
21:11 Jodie: Find out more about the Undercover Artist Festival at undercoverartistfest.com.
Thanks for joining us at Choice and Control, a Carers Queensland podcast. For more information about the National Disability Insurance Scheme or Carers Queensland, contact us online at carersqld.com.au. You can call us on 1300 999 636 or head to Facebook and look for Carers Queensland NDIS.
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