According to the National Autistic Society (UK), there are around 700,000 people on the Autistic spectrum in the United Kingdom. With understanding still being improved – such as the Labour Force Survey only just beginning to count how many on the spectrum are in employment, following a pledge by Minister Justin Tomlinson – we ask: how can comedy make the invisible, visible?
Lava Elastic is a by-monthly comedy and poetry night, that takes place at Werks Central, on Brighton’s Middle Street. The bill comprises a litany of different types of acts – including improv, poetry, stand up, musical songs and skits. The idea is to provide a safe space, open to all. Founded by one Sarah Saeed, a neurodiverse actress and performer, it was formed as a response to the need for diversity in comedy.
When asked about the process of setting up Lava Elastic, Saeed says: “Lava Elastic came about… I suppose the short answer is I’ve been a performer for pretty much my whole life in one context or another. The impetus was when I got my diagnosis of Asperger’s in my late 30s. So basically, I became aware gradually, that my biggest problems as a performer when I was younger [was] that I had very severe anxiety.”
For years she ‘gigged’ as the operatic alter-ego, Marianna Harlotta. Complete with a dramatic, swept-up big hair do, and a mezzo soprano voice, Saeed found the social side of the comedy circuit quite difficult at times. As a response, she would stay in character – a kind of brash, ballsy female character she could use almost as a defence mechanism. Then came the diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome – and she realised that this had been the behaviour of a “textbook autistic, shall we say.”
“One of my key things has always been comedy.” Describing herself as a “massive comedy nerd”, Saeed would spend her time watching live comedy, going to shows, and more, by way of topic immersion. It was “just my thing,” she said, admitting she has something of an encyclopedic knowledge of the topic.
But what about ‘gigging’ as somebody considered to be neurodiverse? Was it difficult to do that, in the character of Marianna Harlotta? “The reason I found it hard to gig as Harlotta, as much as I would have liked when I was younger, was that I found the comedy circuit unfriendly to someone with all of my anxieties and barriers.” When she began on the circuit, it seemed to Saeed like there was a lack of diversity – complete with an occasional token female on an all-male line up. Saeed also mentioned how there seemed to occasionally be a mean-spirited, ‘frat boy’ vibe, which could be scary to somebody on the spectrum.
Lava Elastic began life as a gradual process, an accumulation of ideas. With a background in arts production and stage management, Saeed experienced burnout, all the while struggling to meet the demands of the job. While talking to mentors old and new, the idea of a neurodiverse-friendly comedy night began to take shape. The Autism Arts also played a fundamental part in this, she said.
At the beginning of each show, Saeed acts as compare – introducing audience members to a little more about the idea of neurodiversity. To her, it is illogical that we have a ‘one brain’ mindset – that one type of brain is good, and any variant – such as Asperger Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADD, ADHD – is deemed an issue. “I have a shorthand for this…” she muses. “All different types of blood are good, so how can there be one type of brain, by that token?” Lava Elastic represents a kind of flow, a form of neuro-plasticity; because, if we are allowed to be different and in our own right, who knows what could happen.
At this point in the conversation, we manage to scare a Waterstones café customer away with our ‘set the world to rights’ topics. Complete with a girlish giggle, Saeed turns her attention back to dissecting the topic at hand. There is still work to be done in comedy, but with nights such as Lava Elastic, and organisations like the Autism Arts Festival, the industry is slowly beginning to change.
Sarah Saeed and Lava Elastic return to Sweet Werks on Fri 13 Dec 2019