The Story so Far

Photo of a young white woman kneeling in a spotlight, looking up smiling broadly, arms outstretched like wings
Lucy Theobald on stage as the Duck 2020

It all started on a Summer’s day in 2017, when theatre director Joanna Loyn told me about an idea she’d had for a play. As with everything else in my life, my foray into theatre was not going to take the usual route. Jo knew that I had been writing about autism for a few years and she wondered if I would be interested in working with her. She had a neurodivergent (though not autistic) actor who she’d worked with before and who she felt would be perfect for a one woman play, if only I’d be interested in writing one.

That’s how it all began; a chat in my kitchen, leaning against the counter, sipping at tea that was too hot, but too tangled in thoughts to wait for it to cool before I drank it. As soon as the suggestion was released my mind was mulling over memories and themes.

I said I would write something, Jo warned me that she would likely edit it harshly, and so it began.

Within a week I had sent through the first iteration of The Duck, Jo responded, ‘I have no edits,’ and we began to plan the production. In November of 2017 Jo introduced me to Lucy Theobald and rehearsals began. It was a blustery, sunny day in Plymouth. We walked along the harbour front, past the picket fence of masts, and into the rehearsal space at the Barbican Theatre.

Photo of two white women in coats and scarves, with their hair blown over their faces, with boats and blue skies behind them
Jo Loyn and Rhi Lloyd-Williams first day of rehearsals

We had a week to see if it would work, to take the words from the page and find them a place on the stage. I knew nothing of Lucy and I was about to trust her with the intricacies of who I am and how I work. There was a nervous energy in the room.

We began with a read through, then moved to a walk around. This was my time. I let Lucy follow me around the room as I explained how I would claim a space. To make a room mine, to make it familiar, I would wander each corner, touch each fabric and wall, note the locations of windows and escapes and sockets and lights. I would make it mine by absorbing its being through touch and sight and sound.

I would step in with explanations of why I would do what I do, and I watched an incredible thing unfold. Between Jo and Lucy they began to build a person, that person was not me. She had the same motivations as me, but her stims were not my stims and her movements not my movements. Lucy was finding the stims that felt right to her. I felt understood.

As I watched the two of them it occurred to me that they were doing what I had spent years doing – taking a person and building a mask, a version of a person that could connect. I remembered considering such things as expressions and the details of my features when I was a teenager. I remember watching people and stealing their responses, so that mine would match the majority. I had built a character just as Lucy and Jo were building the Duck. It was fascinating.

We spent a week rehearsing, I stepped in now and again when something wasn’t quite right from a neurodivergent perspective, but each day with Jo’s vision, the play got closer to its final form.

We had a play.

A young white woman with brown hair tied back, laughing whilst standing on a chair and holding up a sheet on a stage
Lucy Theobald during rehearsals for The Duck

In 2018 I set up Autact Theatre CIC and we took The Duck on the road. When you grow up not knowing you are autistic, you grow up alone. Deep down there is still an embedded, ‘What if?’ What if it’s just you? What if you’re not even a proper autistic person? What if you’re just all alone? What if I put my mind on stage and everyone sneers and says, ‘That’s just you,’ what then?

That first night was the most terrifying. As I sat at the back of the theatre, watching the audience, listening tensely for the laughter to the jokes I had put in for everyone, and to the jokes that I’d put in just for the autistic audience. It came. At the end of the show an autistic woman came up to me and said simply, ‘You put me on stage,’ and that was enough. That was the only review I would ever need.

We continued to tour around the UK until March 2020. We had gone from performing to audiences of twenty or so, to selling out venues wherever we went. We won Pick of the Fringe and had glowing reviews. We’d been invited to perform at conferences about Neurodiversity, and filled the stands with experts and autistics. I met so many wonderful autistic people who took the time to tell me their own stories after the performances had ended. It was an exhausting, stressful, incredible time.

It was March 7th 2020 and the final tour date of our Winter tour. We were in Sheffield and there was an unspoken atmosphere in the air. Our sold out audience sat knee to knee and you felt the tension ripple through the audience when someone coughed. It was an incredible night, Lucy was sublime, she completely embodied who she was on that stage and she communicated so clearly exactly what it was I was trying to say. I had taken over running the theatre company in 2019 and this closing night would give me a few weeks respite before I began the marketing for the Summer tour which would culminate in a full month’s run at the Edinburgh Fringe, where I was hoping to find a producer that would mean I could step back from running the company and spend more time writing.

That’s when the global pandemic stopped us in our tracks and it all came tumbling down.

Photo of a young white woman swimming with her fingers and holding her knee whilst sat on a chair gazing off into the distance
Lucy Theobald as The Duck

It was at this point that I released an Audio Version of The Duck available to anyone on a pay-as-you-feel basis, as I knew that like me, so many people found themselves out of work in a whole new world of lockdowns and restrictions.

Sadly Autact Theatre CIC is on what might end up being a permanent hiatus. I have had to find work in new areas and this has meant that I simply do not have the time to produce more productions of The Duck at the moment.

It was an incredibly painful decision to make as I had never before had the privilege of connecting with so many people from so many different walks of life, but I know that it’s the right decision for me. If the years have taught me anything, it’s that I cannot do everything and I have to balance my life and how I work, with all the things I would love to be doing.

But I also wanted to let The Duck keep swimming, in its own way and in its own time, and so I’ve made the Audio Recording available here, alongside a Kindle publication of the play itself. Self-publishing is the most accessible option for me at the moment as I don’t have anything spare to chase more, but that doesn’t mean it will never happen.