Friday, October 10, 2014

Theatre: Echolalia

Kallo Collective
Written and performed by Jen McArthur
Awesome Festival
Until October 13
(Recommended for 7+ year-olds)

One of the goals of this year’s Awesome Festival is to be welcoming for children on the autism spectrum. Awesome contains a number of events by autistic people and about autism, among them Echolalia, by the New Zealander Jen McArthur.
Echolalia is a behaviour involving the imitation of words, phrases and, sometimes, whole passages by autistic people, often in language they would not normally use and don’t fully understand.
From the outside looking in, autism is bewildering and often frightening. The great gift of Echolalia is to help us see it from the inside looking out. The result is a work that has the intent and appearance of children’s theatre, but lacks nothing for adult audiences.

Echo is a sweet, determined, frightened young autistic woman, and this is the story of her day. She has a list of tasks to tick off – Say Good Morning to Sarah, Brush Hair, Fold Blanket, Dusting, Rehearse Job Interview, Cup of Moccona – and attacks, or side-steps, them with fierce energy. She’s got tactics, but precious little strategy; she wants to be in the world, but it’s terrifying and unable to be put in order.
It also needs emotional tools she is utterly without (she knows she must be cheerful and friendly in a job interview, but her only concept of “smile” is “turn your mouth up”).
McArthur gives a notable performance. That’s partly because the work she’s done with autistic children gives it a recognizable authenticity, but it’s also because her skills – she is a talented, expressive clown and a great dancer – allow her to physically represent the emotions she’s conveying while, at the same time, giving us engrossing entertainment. Two dance pieces (to impeccably chosen music – Beirut’s propulsive Santa Fe and Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s haunting Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us) are highlights.
Life with autism shouldn’t be sugar-coated, and there are tough moments in Echolalia that are very challenging for young audiences (it’s recommended for 7-year-olds and up; I think that’s a well set minimum age).
But they, and all of us, can gain much from the experience.

This review appeared in The West Australian 10.10.14

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