Intimate view from the spectrum

29 September 2021

Awesome Festival continues, with a beautifully constructed, personal perspective of life on the autism spectrum that leaves Lydia Edwards and junior reviewer Bethany Stopher with a rare feeling of connection to the protagonist.

ARCO, WA Youth Theatre Company & Awesome Festival ·
State Theatre Centre Rehearsal Room 1 ·

Over the past few years there has been a far greater effort to make the public at large aware of what autism is, and especially to hear first-hand from those who sit within the umbrella of autism spectrum disorders. 

TV shows such as Love on the Spectrum have explored the romantic hopes of individuals and offered a real, if curated, view into the perspectives of some extraordinary young men and women, battling for acceptance in a world still saturated by “the norm” and our assumptions of what that means. 

I was expecting a similar approach in ARCO, albeit one modified for a young audience, and to some extent that is what I got. 

However, this intimate, uplifting show, at times joyful and at times piercing, delivers something different again. It explores the world view of Adam Kelly and his own unique experience of being autistic (an important point to stress, since everyone will live with different interpretations of how autism affects them – its range is huge and it is vehemently, callously non-discriminatory). 

And that is exactly what made this show so special. Although he introduced his young audience to the concept of autism and what it means to navigate it on a daily basis, Kelly himself was the point of interest and I could feel the weight of the audience on his side. 

His raw, unflinching honesty and gentleness immediately endeared him to a broad age range, and I can think of few times when I’ve come away from a performance feeling so personally connected to the protagonist. This enabled an innately human, humanising experience for first timers, and a refreshing change for seasoned theatre-goers. 

At the same time, I observed some beautifully constructed messages attempting to make the complex world of autism understandable. Perhaps most pertinent was Kelly’s comment regarding behaviours associated with those on the spectrum: “everybody rocks, repeats words (etc) … they just do it privately”. It was almost possible to feel the ripple of lightbulb moments from the audience as this statement was digested and personally applied. 

Intimacy was achieved partly through Kelly’s conversational style and ability to interact with the audience. His use of props, for example, simple paper masks (which later became planes) to demonstrate the restrictions of face blindness, was especially effective. 

Adam Kelly offers an inclusive message that we are all perfect in our own way. Photo supplied

Ben Hollingsworth’s wry, engaging and comedic animations followed Kelly’s story, and were especially effective at portraying aspects such as sensitivity to noise, social pressures and feelings of loneliness and rejection. 

The core structure was based around the title “ARCO”, seamlessly exploring each topic: A for Autism, R for Rejection, C for Closeness and O for Optimism. 

I was struck by the show’s emphasis on a broader message, too — that of acceptance. Kelly’s stance was not to set himself apart as someone with autism whose experiences could not possibly be understood by anyone else. He was inclusive in his message that “we are all perfect” in our own way, and if younger children came away none the wiser about the mechanics of autism itself, they left with something even more important. 

As someone with a close family member “on the spectrum”, I would like to personally thank this self-described Autistic Gentleman for his courage in sharing his unique perspective. It made me feel closer not only to my relative, but also to all of those who must march bravely, often hesitantly, through the world to the beat of their own drum.  

Junior review by Bethany Stopher age 15 ·

ARCO, created by Adam Kelly and James Berlin (director of the WA Youth Theatre), is a fresh and personal outlook on the experiences of having autism. Adam reflects on how other people perceive him and how he sees others, and communicates this topic effectively to young children.

ARCO is an acronym of Adam’s creation; it stands for Autism, Rejection, Closeness and Optimism. He explains them as the show goes on.

Adam doesn’t think of himself as being defined by Autism; it is just a part of who he is. He was born with Autism and knows no different. He introduces his fish friend Finbar, projected onto a screen behind him. He envisioned this character, and young artist Ben Hollingsworth brought his ideas to life. Finbar doesn’t realise he’s in water; that’s just what he’s used to. Adam thinks Finbar is perfect the way he is and the audience agrees. He reiterates that everyone is perfect in their own way, even on tough days.

R is for rejection. Adam talks of how his differences have pushed some people away. He has experienced being been let down by friends, prospective love interests, and even by society in general. Although he says that this upsets him, he has a way of coping. He has created a character, a dragon who helps remind him that he is in control.

C is for closeness. Adam describes his family as beautiful human beings, but doubts he will ever find that same closeness outside of his flesh and blood. He is affected by face blindness, and after the audience all put on masks that conceal all facial expression, I appreciate how this would make social cues and communication difficult.

O is for optimism. Adam confesses that although he feels lonely sometimes, he reminds himself that his is not sick or injured. He thinks life would be boring if he wasn’t optimistic, and believes there is some good in everything. His merry mood was contagious, and there were many grinning faces in the audience.

He also stresses that, although it may make some things hard for him, seeing the world in a different light can be a positive. Although the sounds of the city stress him out, he said it amazes him how deeply his body can feel vibrations and sounds.

The show was very interactive. From getting up to dance, to letting go of hurtful comments on paper planes, it was very engaging for children and adults alike. I think this show really encouraged children to be unapologetically themselves, and gave them understanding of what Autism may look like for some. I found it an intimate and interesting experience. It is a family event, pure and eye opening, so I hope Adam’s story reaches as many people as possible. 

ARCO continues until 2 October 2021.

The original adult version of ARCO is back for a limited season at DADAA Theatre in Fremantle from 5-9 October.

Pictured top: Adam Kelly delivers a deeply personal and unique perspective on life with autism. Photo supplied

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Author —
Lydia Edwards

Lydia Edwards is a fashion historian and author. Her first book How to Read a Dress was published in 2017 and its follow up, How to Read a Suit, will be out in February 2020. She lectures at ECU and WAAPA, and her favourite piece of playground equipment is the expression swing!

Past Articles

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    Even the pandemic can’t keep West Australian kids from enjoying a smorgasbord of the arts. Lydia Edwards offers a taste of where to find the fun in the school holidays.

  • Summer fun has a dark side

    Shaun Tan’s classic picture book about the complexities of childhood makes a seamless – and wordless – transition to the stage. Lydia Edwards and junior reviewer Sascha Bott are charmed by this new Spare Parts Puppet Theatre production.

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