UK playwright Pete Carruthers discusses “The Possibility of Colour”, his funny, thought-provoking play about AI-induced standardisation of minds: a turning point for the survival of neurodiverse humanity?
|“I think it’s fair to say that when most people witness unusual traits in others, they’re much more likely to respond with fear and suspicion than with curiosity and open-mindedness … it results in missed opportunities for the whole of society, with its blinkered insistence on a perceived ‘neurotypical’ ideal” …”–-Pete Carruthers
Playwright Pete Curruthers is interviewed by Patricia Lynne Duffy
PLD: Your play, “The Possibility of Colour” is a moving, serious, and humorous work that explores the topic of neurodiversity. The play shows that neurodivergent traits have often been socially stigmatised—and thus “hidden” by those who are hosts to them. What led to your interest in neurodiversity?
PC: I suppose my interest in neurodiversity began in 2005 when my eldest son, Luke, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Right from day one, I urged Luke to be authentic and to be proud of who he is, which was contrary to some of the advice he was given by some well-meaning health professionals and teachers, who regularly advised him to hide his quirks, mimic the other children and try to ‘fit in’. I think this contributed to the ongoing fascination I have with what makes us tick as human beings. The older I get, the more confident I am that the one thing that unites us all is our infinite diversity.
PLD: In this 3-character play, the main character Joseph (played by you!) is a word-taste, shape-taste synesthete. His sister, Aisling [played by Rachel Marwood] is neuro-divergent in another way: she hears voices. Are the characters, Joseph, Helen, his assistant [played by Amy Revelle], and Aisling based on any real persons you have met?
PC: I would say that each of the characters in the play were inspired by a combination of several real people who I either know from my personal life or have been lucky to spend time with during the 14 years of research and development. Joseph certainly has elements of my son, Luke, but Joseph’s synaesthesia was inspired when I read about James Wannerton’s experiences (and his famous London Underground map!). Aisling was initially inspired by Eleanor Longden’s brilliant TedTalk on voice hearing, but she also has elements of many other people I know, some of whom are voice hearers. But many more people who don’t hear voices have contributed to other aspects of her character. There’s also a lot of me in each of the characters (even Vigil if I’m honest) because that’s the only way I know how to write — by spending time in each of the characters’ shoes as I work out what they should do next.
PLD: It occurs to me that we might consider The Possibility of Colour a 4-character play if we count as a character “Vigil” (that “Siri-like” disembodied voice that intervenes in the lives of the human characters). Is “Vigil” [voice of Verity Henry] a fourth character in the play?
PC: Oh yes, 100%. Vigil is a vital character in the piece, and, as a writer, I spent a huge amount of time sitting with her, thinking about her objectives, her needs, and her beliefs (or should that be ‘programming’?). And while she’s not necessarily a ‘person’ she has an important job to do in terms of representing the people we don’t see in the play, especially those who hold the power. I would also argue that Aisling’s voices are the fifth, sixth and seventh characters in the play, because whilst they can be seen as extensions of Aisling herself in some respects, I still treated each of them as fully rounded characters in their own right.
PLD: The play suggests that individuals who have such anomalous traits as “hearing voices” often suffer more from society’s negative reaction to their traits than from the traits themselves. The character Aisling calls her voices “her best friends”. Do you believe that neurodiverse traits may have advantages that have been overlooked?
PC: I think it’s fair to say that when most people witness unusual traits in others, they’re much more likely to respond with fear and suspicion than with curiosity and open-mindedness. I think this causes harm in two different ways; firstly, it can harm the person with the ‘unusual’ traits, resulting in shame, low self-esteem and even hatred of what makes them unique. Secondly, it results in missed opportunities for the whole of society, with its blinkered insistence on a perceived ‘neurotypical ideal’, meaning we dismiss the huge potential of millions of people with a huge array of undervalued and undiscovered strengths, perspectives, and abilities.
PLD: The play deals with the theme of human evolution and how it may be affected by our increasing use of technology –with the latter’s increasing power to alter human personality. Characters in the play consider a medically encouraged technological solution called “getting the implant” — to erase the “difficult” or “weird” aspects of their personalities and behavior— and thus end their struggles to “fit in”.
Are human beings currently at a turning point—where we may truly become the stuff of what used to be ‘science fiction’? The play poses the question: will we choose to evolve into cyborgs — or retain our traditional “humanness” — by refusing the technological modifications to make our life struggles “easier” or even non-existent?
PC: I do think we’re getting closer to the reality of cyborgs walking amongst us, and maybe there’s an argument to say this has already begun. I think the question around whether people will choose to be cyborgs or not is important, because of course some will be for it and some will be against it. But the bigger question for me is ‘will people actually have a real choice?’. Because if choosing to ‘retain our traditional human-ness’ results in us being essentially unemployable compared to our exponentially stronger, faster, fitter and smarter cyborg cousins, then we may be faced with the more desperate choice of ‘become a cyborg or get left behind (or worse…)’.
PLD: It is interesting to observe that—just when human society is at such a turning point – there is a “neurodiversity movement” with neurodivergent persons asserting their identities. Might this offer some hope for keeping humanity diverse?
PC: I think it’s fantastic that so many more people are asserting and celebrating their unique identities. I would like to take hope from it, but I also think it depends on what happens next. For example, what would happen if the theoretical “implant” from the play became reality, and it was hailed as a ‘cure’ for neurodiversity? How would society treat the people who reject it and choose to retain their unique identities, even if this means they’re seen by those in power as less useful cogs in the machine?
I know that’s an extreme example, but you could equally look at what happens when drugs are recommended for certain neurodiverse conditions, like Ritalin for ADHD for example. Some people might feel pressured to take the drug so that they’re more reliable and productive in their work, especially if they feel like their job is at risk and they can’t afford to be unemployed. In this situation they might reluctantly take the drug even if it also feels like they’re losing something of themselves by doing so. It all comes down to how realistic individual choice and genuine autonomy actually is, because the social and political factors that contribute to our decision-making process are massive.
PLD: What was the audience reaction to the play, especially those members who identify as neurodivergent?
PC: Thankfully the audience response has been phenomenal, regardless of people’s relationship to the themes explored by the piece. But I think some of my favorite moments have been when people have approached me after the play and thanked me for getting the neurodiverse elements right. One audience member gleefully shared that she had synaesthesia and that my voice tasted of chocolate cake! (that will make more sense to people who’ve watched the play).
One close relative disclosed to me that watching the play gave her the realization that she has a form of synaesthesia herself, enabling her to make sense of the experiences she’s managed secretly for 60 years. And perhaps the most exciting response was when James Wannerton, who I was very grateful to work with closely during the development of the play, shared that not only did I capture his experience of synaesthesia authentically, he also had the realization whilst watching the play that he hears voices in the same way that Aisling does. His ‘voice hearing’ was something he’d never shared with anyone before. But since watching the play, he has started sharing his experiences with others in the synaesthesia community, including during an episode of Maike Preißing’s brilliant ‘Let’s Talk Synesthesia’ podcast, where James talks in detail about his experiences of voice hearing. That gives me goosebumps every time I think about it!
PLD: Are there plans for more performances of The Possibility of Colour?
Yes, I’m hoping to programme a UK tour of the play in 2025, but for now the focus is on working with NHS England and several UK universities to co-develop a package of training for student nurses and qualified clinicians — based on a recorded performance of the play and some of my earlier short films. If we get it right, thousands of nurses will watch the play as part of their training each year for the foreseeable future, which will hopefully improve awareness and understanding of neurodiversity (as well as the other themes explored in the play) right throughout the UK health sector.
PLD: Is there anything else you would like to say about your play, The Possibility of Colour?
PC: Only that if people want to know more about the play and the plans for it, I’m always happy to hear from new people. Thanks for giving me the chance to talk about it. I’m sorry if I’ve waffled on a bit, I just find this whole subject fascinating and could talk about it for days!
Patricia Lynne Duffy is the author of the now classic, Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: how synesthetes color their worlds, the first book by a synesthete about synesthesia. An audio version of the book with research updates, music by synesthete-composers, and an “Afterword” is recently out. Available from Audible She also contributed a chapter, “Synesthesia and Literature” to the Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia.