West Sussex writer and director addresses female autism

Horsham writer and director Josh Merritt is delighted with the response to his important new play – a piece which looks at female autism.

Josh Merritt
Josh Merritt

His new work, Maddie, enjoyed a short sell-out run at London’s Arcola Theatre, a piece Josh developed during lockdown with actor Evlyne Oyedokun who, like Josh, lives with autism and dyspraxia.

Josh, a twice-published playwright who has previously been commissioned by New Wolsey Theatre and Boundless Theatre, is also a commissioned filmmaker with BBC Four/iPlayer and an Arts Council-funded writer-director.

Josh said: “It has been an extraordinarily challenging and rewarding experience to work with Ev and director Nicky Allpress developing and creating Maddie.

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    “I believe the significance of Maddie and this Arcola Theatre production lies in the fact that there hasn’t been a play which tackles female autism and the issue of masking, not least by an autistic writer and starring an autistic actress.

    “The humour, playfulness, imagination and unexpected moments of levity also make the play unique. We tackle homelessness and how, like disability, it can affect any one of us, but especially the more vulnerable in society, so denial is a big theme of the play and Maddie’s impressionable character.

    “It was excellent. We had lots of positive feedback and we have had some lovely reviews. There was a four-star review and there is also a five-star review we know about that hasn’t been published yet, but there was also lots of amazing comments from the audience. We had a mixture in the audience; we had some autistic people and some non-neurodivergent people.

    “Someone emailed that they thought the play was wonderful and full of inspiration and pathos. Someone else brought their elderly mum along. They suspected for a while that she was an undiagnosed autistic and they said that when they watched the play which deals with female autism and masking, the mum afterwards opened up to them more than she had ever done before. The son had a tear in his eye, he said.

    “Masking is external but it is also internal. We all mask. We all play a role in life. We all pretend we are OK when we are not. But I have a lot of female autistic friends. I attended a specialist residential school and I lived with a lot of autistic people for years and I feel that it is perhaps harder for women. It is hard for men as well but we live in a very structured world that is structured more towards the men and the boys. A lot of the diagnostic systems for autism were developed with boys and men in mind. Really I just wanted to represent the majority of the community that are not represented. Growing up I have always had strong female influences around me. I’ve often found that I prefer the company of women. I find it a lot less stressful and a lot more comforting and I feel that women are more open and patient. And a lot of my female autistic friends are great inspirations to me and great comforts. And I wanted to represent their voice. Nothing has ever really been written about female autism in the theatre before.”

    Josh is delighted with the response: “I didn’t expect conversations to open up so much. I am often underwhelmed by my own work because I’m so close to it but it’s lovely to think of the conversations that are happening. I don’t know the mum but from what the son told me she was seeing aspects of herself represented on the stage and that there was a safe space there where she could talk about it. I’m hoping to reduce the stigma that these people face. I want women with autism to feel safe and accepted. I want to give people validation and catharsis that perhaps I never achieve myself. It’s about trying to prevent others from feeling the same way that I did. Writing is itself like a preventative measure.

    “We have expanded the production and we are currently in the process of seeking funding and we are looking to tour next year. There are already a few big theatres that are interested in booking us.”

    Josh’s stage work has been produced at Arcola Theatre, Barbican, Folkestone Quarterhouse and Shoreditch Town Hall. He is a founding member of Barbican Young Filmmakers. His short films have screened globally, including London’s Olympic Park and received TV broadcasts. He currently has several theatre, TV, film and audio projects in development.