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Telethon Kid playwright Alistair Baldwin has been told he’s “one in a million” all his life. “I was fascinating right out of the gates,” he says of his vanishingly rare variation on muscular dystrophy. “When an infant is born with a non-specific neuromuscular disorder, they give them a very funny placeholder diagnosis called Floppy Baby Syndrome. And the test is if you hold the baby and the limbs ragdoll and sort of spill out like a loose burrito.”
Playwright Alistair Baldwin: never stood a chance to not become a writerCredit: Joe Armao
As a result, the now Melbourne-based writer spent much of his childhood in and out of Perth’s Princess Margaret Children’s Hospital, where he witnessed the surreal “razzle dazzle” swirling around sick kids hand-picked for the annual Perth Telethon to raise money for the institution. “Kids with rare and interesting diseases are surrounded by this intense spectacle,” he says. “You’re told before you can really remember that you are exceptionally interesting, so I never stood a chance to not become a writer.”
Only Baldwin was never selected to appear on the telethon. “I’m still jealous, because I know for a fact that some of my neurologist’s other patients were,” he chuckles.
Comparing it to the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon in the US, and the scandals that plagued it after some of the poster children grew up, dubbing themselves “Jerry’s Orphans″ to speak out about how they felt used, Baldwin says it’s an odd beast. “So much of the narrative of growing up with an ‘orphan’ disease, which is rare enough that actually there’s not really enough people to turn a profit on it, so you are kind of begging for donations, can be isolating.”
His experiences feed into Telethon Kid, directed by Hannah Fallowfield. William Rees (The Cripple of Inishmaan) is Sam, “inspiration” porn to their adoring Instagram followers, but a hot mess beyond the filters who hooks up with their former paediatric doctor, prompting an “erotic” ethical dilemma. “At its core, it’s about the ripple effects of a one-night-stand between a doctor and a former patient, which immediately gets into these questions of agency and consent,” Baldwin says. “That’s so important in these discussions, because infantilisation of people with disability is rife and we’re kind of encouraged to lean into that, because people care more for sick kids than sick adults.”
William Rees plays the stoic Billy in The Cripple of Inishmaan.
Rees’ casting is perfect. “They’re an incredible actor with a brachial plexus injury, and the play talks so much about the spectacle that abled people put onto disabled people, the intrigue, disgust and delight,” Baldwin says. “I think there’s something radical about seeing a hot disabled actor in a state of semi-undress, spoiler alert.”
The power dynamic between Sam and his doctor, played by Max Brown (Glitch), is complicated. “There’s that idea of being frozen as a kid in their brain, and how frustrating that is,” Baldwin says. “To what extent does seducing them become a way to assert your adulthood?”
Alistair Baldwin Credit: JOE ARMAO
The patient-doctor relationship is odd anyway, Baldwin insists. “It requires a level of dehumanisation for the patient, that we’re sort of lowering them to lab specimen, manipulated, moved and inspected.”
We also dehumanise doctors and nurses, “Through elevating them to these weird healer-angels who are expected to be self-sacrificing and altruistic when they have no work-life balance and never sleep,” Baldwin says. “We deny them the very human venting of f—ing around, getting drunk and making mistakes.”
The ethical quagmire of adults wrangling child stars and doctor-patient relations presented rich material for this button-pushing, sex and body-positive play. “I certainly love being a slut,” Baldwin says of his inspiration. “When you’re born with a genetic disorder or something like that, you become acquainted with your body as this problem, well before you understand that it can have a sexuality and is in a marketplace of being desired.”
It’s an idea Baldwin often coalesces around in his writing, including raunchy SBS comedy Latecomers led by disability activists Hannah Diviney and Angus Thompson. “So much of disability is about reframing our bodies away from something which is purely problematic,” he adds. “The most compelling counterargument is that bodies are sexy. We’re covered in all these little morphine button G-spots. How can a body be a mistake if it can also give you an orgasm, the most transcendent thing in the world?”
Telethon Kid is at the Malthouse Theatre July 28-August 13.
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