Lennie Varvarides from Dyspla interviewed by Ronnie Krupa for Pascal Theatre Company for Neurodivergent Awareness Week
How did you first get involved with performing arts?
When you say first — how far back do you really want me to go? I can go back — way back to my first memory of being in front of people singing, ‘I’m A Little Teapot’, with all the other children in nursery school. It was my first theatrical experience — being in front of people and sharing something of myself. Our first memories inform us in profound ways. My 5-year-old self is not that different from this adult me. I still want to be part of a collective — a community of performers and makers and artists.
We are celebrating neurodiversity week, how have you seen diversity change over the years in the performing arts?
Most of my life was spent in shame — the way children are made to feel ashamed for not being very good at anything…or not good enough. Things only recently changed on a global level in 2017. Society is more willing to consider Neurodiversity as part of Diversity now, but there is still a lot more work that needs to be done around Ableism and discrimination, especially for disabled people. The education system unfortunately has not progressed at all from what I am seeing in local state schools.
When you were growing up, were people understanding of your diversity?
I grew up in the 90s and I think I was 14 years old by the time I heard the word ‘Dyslexia’ used. I remember my Dad saying, ‘I know what’s wrong with me now.’
As a Neurodivergent artist, what challenges have you met and barriers have you had to overcome in pursuing your career?
I guess, if I was a better reader growing up, I would have pursued acting but my short-term memory and my low self-esteem at the time made it too difficult. Instead of, ‘working harder’…I gave up. Auditions were too terrifying. Cold Reading gave me panic attacks and whenever I did get a chance to perform — I would either lose my voice or get an eye infection from the nerves. Being Neurodivergent in an old-fashioned environment that only values people based on their reading skills and memory retention, made me physically ill. Being a performer wasn’t in my cards but like all Neurodivergent people, I found another way to still be creative and to continue making work.
How do you support the people you work with?
I created DYSPLA because I needed something like DYSPLA. I needed a space of acceptance. That’s what I need — I am pretty sure every human needs to feel the same level of acceptance.
What are the challenges you have faced, if any, with a neurodiverse group of actors?
Actors are highly emotive people — they feel everything and they can feel what people think by the way they are treated. If a Neurodivergent actor feels ‘lesser’ than their neurotypical counterpart, the effect on the show is detrimental. Theatre only works when everyone looks and feels good.
Has understanding of neurodiversity improved over recent years? How? What still needs to be recognised and improved?
Absolutely it has improved and I am so proud of all the incredible work that our movement has achieved. Over the last ten years there has been a move to not only raise awareness about Neurodivergence but to raise self-esteem too. The climate around Neurodivergence is one of positivity and creativity and I feel this has brought with it a sense of pride about our differences as well as personal acceptance. Key people and collectives making positive changes are; Dyversity Lab, Marcia Brissett-Bailey, Amazing Dyslexics, Charles Freeman, Dr. Katherine Hewlett, Women Beyond the Box, The Future is ND — the list could go on and on!
What do you hope to achieve for the future of Neurodivergence?
When I started DYSPLA — I was not very ambitious. All I wanted was to run an arts festival of Neurodivergent playwrights and artists once a year and to have at least a few weeks where I was immersed by people who think in a similar way. I was craving a creative community because I was terribly lonely and felt out of place. That was back in 2009. I had no idea that I was part of something bigger — a global movement full of energy and creativity and activism. By 2013, what was a modest hobby, became incorporated and now DYSPLA is a staple in the Neurodivergent Creativity landscape. Now my ambition is far more brave — I want to establish a precedent for the term, the Neurodivergent Aesthetic. I want to be able to say that the screen and creative industries have an advantage when they embrace all forms of difference — especially Neurodivergence.
Who or what has been the biggest inspiration for your work?
My biggest inspiration was my imagination — but as you grow up and use your imagination less and less, one is forced to turn to other stimuli outside ourselves. The most dramatic thing I did was go to Art School — it opened me up to the possibility that my very own life could be an opportunity to live like an artist and think like an artist and dress like an artist and approach every challenge with a sense of play. If you are asking me who my influences are — I guess I will always go back to my first exposure to art — Shakespeare in school, Barbara Kruger in Art School, Theatre of the Absurd in Drama School and American movies in adulthood.
Finally, how did you become acquainted with Pascal Theatre Company, what made you connect?
In 2019, Julia Pascal applied to the DYSPLA Storymakers Residency — a 12 month script development program designed for Neurodivergent Creatives, where she was one of two people selected to develop their script. DYSPLA received a total of 169 submissions and Julia’s pitch was one of the most intriguing. Julia’s script was called LONDON MEDEA. The story was about a modern Medea who arrives in London. Medea is a Kurdish soldier fleeing persecution in Turkey and now an asylum-seeker working secretly as a cleaner in a gym. This is where she meets a bodybuilder called Jason, whose real name is Mohammed. He is the son of an Iraqi cab driver. They fall in love and Medea gives birth to their twin boys. When Sahir, Jason’s father, discovers that Jason is living with a ‘Kurd’, Sahir demands that Medea be abandoned. Under pressure, Jason ultimately rejects Medea and marries his cousin Glauke. When Medea is betrayed by her lover she commits an extraordinary act of aggression against those who seek to destroy her life. This script was Julia’s first attempt writing a feature film and the residency gave us an opportunity to work together. We quickly connected and enjoyed our creative talks and now see each other as friends.
Learn more about Dyspla: Dyspla.com