A profile of... Sarah Saeed

Lyia Wilkins speaks to Sarah Saeed on neurodiverse comedy, accessibility, and her show Lava Elastic.

A profile of... Sarah Saeed
Source: Diensen Pamben

Centering the lived experience of neurodiverse comedians, streaming platforms like Netflix have given us household names in recent years such as Hannah Gadsby. But what about the particular experience of local live comedy shows? Are there any accessibility issues we should be aware of? What can we do to solve such issues? Lydia Wilkins spoke to Sarah Saeed for The Brighton Seagull, whose neurodiverse comedy show could have the answers.

Saeed is a 40-something woman with a background in the arts, her clothing a myriad of colours and prints complimented by a cascade of long hair as she speaks rapidly. She is the sole founder and creator of Lava Elastic, the UK’s first openly neurodiverse comedy evening that is now touring the nation - which perhaps began with a childhood fascination with comedy. As a child, she openly admits, she began to develop an encyclopaedic knowledge of particular comedy genres, owing to something that is perhaps best described as an intense fascination. Like a lot of women, Saeed’s Autism and ADHD diagnoses came later on in life - an all too standard practice, owing to ingrained medical sexism, diagnostic criteria being written for males, and so much more.

Saeed spent her formative years exploring other forms of media and the arts. Previous plays she has been a part of include Dial M For Murder, as well as involvement with the annual event of Brighton Fringe. She was also a part of Stealth Aspies, a group composed of Autistic adults who performed a show to explore the world of Autism under a lighthearted lens.

I started Lava Elastic in response to the fact that as a performer for a lot of years, [I have] felt held back in a certain way because of difficulties with gigging systems, how to promote myself, [and] social anxiety around networking.

I started to learn enough about myself and had to make plans to continue doing what I love and am trained for, but a new version of myself.

Beginning a few years ago in Brighton and now in search of a more long-term home, Lava Elastic is the brainchild of an idea formed in response to finding the comedy circuit lacking in accommodations and access requirements. Individuals who are Autistic, for example, may struggle to be booked owing to their access needs not being met, or perhaps not being equipped to deal with unspoken social expectations.

The premise of Lava Elastic is to be neurodiversity-inclusive in contrast to usual standards, explains Saeed:

Lava Elastic was set up because the usual comedy circuit has quite a competitive, unsupportive human energy, but I wanted to… Because I didn’t just come from a comedy background, I come from a mixed-disciplined background (experimental theatre, devising  theatre), I think that enabled me to think differently about how to put together rooms for comedy where it’s more friendly, and more suited to neurodivergent performers and audiences.

As the show’s compère, Saeed remains in character as alter ego Marianna Harlotta, who introduces this concept at the start of act 1 - a term that encompasses a range of differences, including Autism/Aspergers Syndrome, ADHD, Tourettes Syndrome, Dyspraxia, and other such conditions. The idea is to celebrate these differences, rather than penalising what society may see as ‘other’, in order to create something new.

The ideal performer, says Saeed, is someone who does not fit the term ‘one size fits all’ - someone who will benefit from the environment, all the while being good at what they do, as well as being funny, passionate, and having a unique take on life. There is a range of acts on the bill - previous evenings have given audience members poetry, spoken word performances, comedy sets, and more.

While some may experience access barriers to bookings, owing to perhaps not seeing social codes, Lava Elastic actively works against this—though it should be noted that neurotypical performers (individuals outside of this framework) are also welcome. Previous performing guests have included Robyn Steward of Robyn’s Rocket (also co-presenter of 1800 Seconds On Autism, a BBC Sounds podcast), Joe Wells, Victoria Melody, Janine Booth, Bethany Black, and Brighton-based improv troupe Tiny Dynamite.

The Arts Council has funded a series of Lava Elastic shows for the second time running, awarding the funding to Saeed earlier this year. This award was approximately £32,000 to fund a national tour - with locations including: The Wardrobe, Bristol; The Gulbenkian, Canterbury; Arc, Stockton-On-Tees; and Contact Theatre, Manchester.

The 1st of December will see the show at Farnham, Maltings, with an online show soon to be announced. This will be posted about on the relevant social media networks - Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, too, if it’s still around. We speak at the height of the Elon Musk takeover, with users leaving the platform en masse—to which Saeed laughs.

A smile washes over Saeed’s face as she outlines her plans, all the while looking wistfully to the future. A few years ago she had been asked about her plans for what she would like to do in the future, if she could dream of any possibility that she would like to achieve: “One of my answers was there should be something like Lava Elastic in every city,” she says. This would be a neurodivergent friendly space, an alternative to the comedy spaces on offer already.

Her idea is that Lava Elastic becomes the start of the conversation for alternative comedy spaces on a national level; she says that Lava Elastic is already starting to prove this “by walking the walk, not just talking the talk.”