Award-winning, Robot Song, is set for its limited return season at Chapel off Chapel later this month. Winning a Helpmann Award for Best Presentation for Children and Young People in 2019, the show is based on a true story and is heavily influenced by Director/Writer/Designer Jolyon James’ own experience of having a son on the Autism Spectrum.
Juniper May, the lead role in the show, is played by actor Sophie Smyth who is herself on the Autism Spectrum. Smyth felt compelled to participate in the project realising its significance for her on a personal level early on.
“I knew this was a special show from my first read of the script, which is a testament to the incredible writing by Jolyon James,” says Smyth.
“It was so rewarding to finally see an authentic autistic character – something severely lacking across all forms of theatre, film, and television. Especially a character that isn’t inspiration porn, or filling a diversity quota, or pushing a political agenda – it’s just honest storytelling about the power of being who you truly are.”
Smyth acknowledges the story has many parallels to her own experiences growing up. The story evolves around eleven-year-old Juniper May who receives a petition signed by her entire class stating that she is “the most hated person in the school” and her life is thrown into complete meltdown.
“When I was in school there was no understanding of autism in women let alone any role models to look up to. I firmly believe that if you can see it, you can be it,” she says. “And I’m so passionate about authentic representation because I think if I saw a show like this when I was younger things would have been a lot different for me. I truly hope that seeing Juniper can be a validating and empowering experience for young autistic people.”
Smyth identifies one of the most important themes in the show as the power of difference and that you are powerful because of your difference, not in spite of it.
“People are scared of what they don’t understand, so I hope being invited into Juniper’s world will help them understand another perspective,” she explains. “It’s also about the power of music and how that unites us and creates community and connection; and what is possible with unconditional love and creativity. I think Robot Song is a beautiful example of how neurodivergent people can fly when they have support systems in place that are outside conventional structures.”
Smyth doesn’t want to give too much plot away saying only that Robot Song expertly combines the use of cutting-edge live animation technology, a smart and nuanced original musical score by Nate Gilkes, and a poignant, honest, and hilarious script full of wordplay and metaphor. “There isn’t a word, note, or screw out of place – and the payoff is genuinely one of the most transcendent experiences I’ve had in a theatre,” she says. “Plus, there’s a song about poo. What more could you want?”
Smyth describes her character, Juniper May, as a “mini-me” adding that it’s important that she tap into her inner-child during her process of finding and playing character.
“I’ve found during rehearsals that there’s a beauty in her innocence that I don’t need to overcomplicate by intellectualising too much,” she says. “I’ll say it again, but the writing is so incredible that it does most of the work for me – I just need to trust in the words.”
Smyth explains that her favourite thing about Juniper is that her age means she hasn’t yet formed a strong habit of what’s known in the autistic community as “masking.” “It’s where you mask particular traits or behaviours to fit into social situations easier and it’s exhausting,” explains Smyth. “Being allowed to stim (repetitive self-stimulatory movement), not feeling pressured to make eye contact, and speaking so bluntly is incredibly freeing. As Sophie, I expel a lot of energy making sure the people around me are comfortable and not affected by my autism – so being able to just exist is a relief.”
Smyth acknowledges that it is so wonderful that the show was recognised with a Helpmann Award. Although new to this season (juniper previously being played by Ashlea Pyke), Smyth admits the award to be a two-fold enrichment.
“Growing up, I spent many years alone in my room watching The Helpmman Awards and the American equivalent, The Tony Awards, so to be involved, even in a tiny way, is a huge honour and a dream come true,” she says. “If it brings more people to the show, then that can’t be a bad thing!”
Established in 1966, touring company, Arena Theatre, is one of Australia’s longest-running producers of theatre for young people. Robot Song is Smyth’s very positive maiden involvement with arena saying she feels so fortunate to working with a company that values inclusivity and diversity both within the workplace and in the work they create for young audiences.
Smyth’s involvement came as they usually do for a working actor: initially receiving an email from her agent inviting her in to audition for the role if she was interested; she was then sent the script to read, plus some sides and songs to learn, too; a few rounds of auditioning followed before she got the call offering her the role! “I still pinch myself every morning on my way to work,” says Smyth.
As an actor, Smyth generally gravitates towards comedies saying it’s really hard to beat the feeling of making someone laugh.
“My special interest is musical theatre, so (almost) anything in that genre interests me; it is my ikigai and integral to my person, to experiencing and processing emotions, and making me a better human,” she says. “In particular, I’m interested in work that challenges what is possible in music theatre – whether that be through new interpretations and reimagining of older texts, new ways of storytelling, or authentic honest stories from communities that haven’t had their voices heard.” At a base level, she really seeks stories that are truthful – stories that challenge ideas, reveal our humanity, and crack us open so the light can get in.
While Smyth hopes to share Robot Song with as many new audiences as possible, she admits to writing a lot at the moment and is currently working on an autobiographical show about a twenty-something girl called Sophie who is dumped on her birthday because of her autism – it’s a comedy.
Robot Song poses and attempts to answer the question: How do we support, foster and celebrate difference in our children in the face of an increasingly rigid and homogenised world? Smyth’s opinion on the work will always be biased because of her deep connection to the work (she cites her script as being one of her seven horcruxes – don’t tell Harry!) Smyth does, however, acknowledge that we have all endured so much over the last 18 months of this pandemic. “We have stayed home, stayed 1.5 meters apart, and stayed safe – and we need human connection more than ever,” she says. “I hope that we can do that for you – give you a chance to feel, to laugh, to understand, to connect.”
July 26 – 29