Life with autistic brother translated to the stage in Chichester

Performer Grania Pickard takes to the stage with her story of growing up with her disabled, autistic brother Sean.

He Ain't Heavy
He Ain't Heavy

He Ain’t Heavy is in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre on January 9.

Using physical theatre, aerial circus, audience interaction and storytelling, she is promising a poignant and intimate portrayal of sibling love. Through puppetry, the audience will see how Sean walks, talks and interacts with the world and how his unique take on life has shaped and influenced Grania.

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“When people ask me about my brother, I usually give them the short answer: he has severe learning disabilities, epilepsy and autism. He Ain’t Heavy is the long answer.

“As Sean cannot go on a national tour due to a love of routine and no concept of theatre, we are going to bring him into the room in other ways.

“I was at the stage where I was working with other companies and I thought it would be brave to make my own show. This was four years ago. I started writing down lots of ideas. I was just brainstorming ideas.

“I got married and my brother could not come to the wedding, and that was what started me thinking about this. He has got severe learning disabilities which means that he has got the mental age of an 18-month-old toddler with the same development of language. He is also on the autistic spectrum and has got epilepsy. He is 32. He is like a really tall, gangly toddler who is not really interested in what you want to do.

“He has certain patterns. When we go to visit him, we go shopping and we have to go to the same shops and buy the same things. If he had come to the wedding, he would have had no concept of what was going on. He would have just walked up to me on the day and said ‘Car! Car! Car! Car!’ because that’s what he would have wanted to do.

“The wedding was like a big social marker in my life and it was the first time that I thought that I would have liked him to be there at this time. It meant me stopping and thinking. Sometimes I have these dreams where we do normal things and go on adventures.”

Putting one of the adventures on stage was a possible starting point: “But we have gone for putting a big park swing on the stage that makes me look like an eight-year-old. It is about four metres high, and a lot of the show is me exploring my childhood with Sean, telling the audience what it was like, how he walks and how he talks and how that has moulded how I am.

“We play games with the audience and we recreate my wedding. But there are darker edges to it as well… It is a little bit like starting with an autobiographical story which gets taken over by Sean’s presence.

“For a while, I was doing the show and it was like this is just how it is and it wasn’t like it was massively affecting me, that I am quite happy to tell my version of the truth. But then recently I would go off the stage and feel really sad. It is like anything.

“You have good days and you have bad days, and I think the show is maybe a bit better on the days that I allow that to come through. It can be quite overwhelming but people talk to me after the show about how they connect with it because their families are similar.”

Grania stresses that He Ain’t Heavy is an accessible production, with a relaxed attitude to audience noise and movement.