Machine for empathy

Juniper May grows in self-worth in the joyous musical Robot Song.

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

An imaginative exploration of bullying on the autism spectrum (ASD) is close to home for writer-director Jolyon James.

His musical theatre work Robot Song tells the tale of 11-year-old Juniper May who receives a petition from her class that she is “the most hated person in the school”.

“When she receives this horrible letter, she believes it,” James says. “Once it’s in writing, it’s something she can’t get over.”

In a bid to lift a devastated Juniper, her parents create a giant singing robot.

The family show is innovative and shows a hopeful way forward through creativity and unconditional love.

It combines song, laughs, with rare elements such as a cutting-edge animation that interacts with the audience as well as a giant robot.

The premise is based on a true story. It’s more documentary than a musical, James says.

As a parent of a son on the spectrum, James was horrified when a friend’s child received a similar note from his class of bullies.

He says as a parent, he also found creative ways to find how his son views the world.

“It was when he went to school, his diagnosis became obvious. He became overwhelmed with all the kids – he couldn’t cope at all.

“Working together on creative activities with him, I found our conversations were the most real and the most in-depth.

“My son responds creatively more than anything else, really.”

The robot was symbolic of how autism is often misunderstood, James says.

“There’s a misunderstand that people are not able to feel and lack empathy – but it’s the opposite.

“They feel so much, they feel they have to shut down.”

Robot Song is studied on the VCE curriculum, gaining fans from teenage classrooms as well as young audiences.

They email James, sharing their stories and revealing a great empathy and protectiveness for Juniper.

“We’re more attuned now to bullying’s impact.

“When I was a child, we just kind of shut up and put up with it.

“Parents have different expectations, we deal with it differently.”

At the end of the show, the bullying doesn’t necessarily stop but Juniper’s response transforms.

“It gives her a little tool to say I know exactly who I am, and I don’t have to hand that over to people who don’t know me.”

Robot Song is at The Drum theatre, Dandenong on 29 June, 1pm. Bookings: drumtheatre.com.au/robotsong

 

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