Before getting into this story it’s worth pointing out three things for context:
1. I was born in 1977 and got a late diagnosis of Asperger’s in 2016 at the age of 38. When I was much younger they hadn’t yet worked out women could be autistic.
2. Neurodivergent is the term for those of us who are differently wired in a bunch of different ways. So, for accuracy, I’m neurodivergent, not to be confused with neurodiverse which is what humans are, mixed neurodiversity including neurotypical brains or ‘normal’ as people used to say. Not a word I use if I can avoid it.
3. There is a major preconception that autistic people have no sense of humour, which I don’t even have the words for. Instead, I started a comedy night, Lava Elastic, to prove otherwise. There’s also a misconception in many quarters that women can’t be funny… which I just find hilarious, of course, and refuse to respond to.
I have performed comedy in a character act since about 2005 as my opera singing alter-ego Marianna Harlotta. It took me a long time to realise that I could use the occasions when people laughed at me to my advantage and hone these incidences into a comedy skill.
Growing up, friends and other people used to laugh a lot at things I did and said. I did everything differently from other people looking back, I am on the spectrum and have ADHD, I was constantly and obliviously dancing to my own tune!
Luckily, I have been acting, singing and dancing on stage since I was about seven, so performance became a part of me that I integrated into getting through the day, instead of just being offended when people laughed.
I was actually a very quiet kid and being funny gave me something to do and focus upon. To be honest it wasn’t always accidental! I loved watching comedy and could copy accents and singing voices easily. I was probably the only little English looking girl doing accurate impressions of my Pakistani Dad’s middle-aged friends – wildly un-PC by today’s standards! But the adults found it hysterical as I made the most of a prevalent autistic skill, mimicry.
Fast forward 20 years and I started performing at comedy nights, including my own. My comedy character Marianna Harlotta first emerged in Leeds, I had an approach that is very method for performing as Harlotta as I hate to break the spell for audiences. She is a diva who believes her own mystique, shattering that illusion seemed almost criminal.
In retrospect, it also conveniently reduced the amount of time I needed to do small talk with promoters and fellow performers when I needed to focus on having my ‘game head’ on. Convenient? Deliberately designed that way? The jury’s still out on that for me.