Acting, autism and an alter-ego: in conversation with Sarah Saeed

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Sarah Saeed is an actor, cabaret performer and comedian. Lydia Wilkins caught up with her as she prepares to perform as part of the ‘Stealth Aspies’ quartet at Brighton Fringe 22-26 May, before bringing the full force of her alter-ego Marianna Harlotta to Dukebox Theatre in June.

Sarah Saeed dressed in formal attire

Sarah Saeed as Marianna Harlotta. Photograph: Andrew Roach

From a young age, Sarah Saeed has been an actress, performing in various productions, as well as at festivals, and other events and venues. Saeed is part of a stand-up comedy and poetry night, called Lava Elastic. She is also Autistic, having only been diagnosed in recent years.

“I’ve always felt the pressure obviously to not let the side down when I’ve acted in shows or plays with other people, and it is a different feeling performing as my comedy alter-ego. I created the character so I ‘know’ her which makes me feel freer onstage,” she says.

When performing as part of Lava Elastic, Saaed becomes Marianna Harlotta, a character who serves as an operatic alter-ego, complete with big, stylised hair. The character was derived from a cabaret, comedy and music night that Saeed was involved with. There had been a story to the cabaret, with recurring characters throughout.

“Marianna Harlotta was one kind of sketch idea that we came up with,” Sarah explains, noting that performing as her, as well as narrating the show in order to give it direction, was well received that evening. Marianna Harlotta was a project that evolved over time.

Saeed does not write comedy as herself, yet; however, she clearly has an interest, a passion for it. She speaks about it fondly, mentioning a huge variety of work she has been involved with.

“Comedy has also always been a bit of a default setting,” she says, noting that she has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the industry. To know so much about an industry is perhaps reflective of a hallmark from the Autism spectrum. I share a similar trait in this respect; I could talk about American Presidents for hours.

Within the comedy set, there are parts that are improvised. The character is however less interactive; there are parts that are scripted, with spaces left in between.

Sarah Saeed as Marianna Harlotta

Sarah Saeed aka Marianna Harlotta. Photograph: Andrew Roach

The thing about Saaed that makes her stand out is her interest and complete embrace of neurodiversity; she also has a sense of humour. When we met at a Brighton bar, she comes across as being well-read about Autism, comedy, and the performing arts in general. She’s witty, immediate in responses, and speaks her mind completely. If she was to teach, she could captivate anyone, even the liveliest of students.

One thing that Sarah should also be noted for is the diversity, and sheer range, of her work; she has starred in productions such as Dial M For Murder, to La Llorona: The Weeping Woman, a 2017 Brighton Fringe Show.

But how does she, as an Autistic person, deal with the various issues that come with this line of work? I am curious as to how she deals with things such as sensory issues and social interaction, as a fellow Autistic person.

“It has thrown up problems over the years, because I have had stage fright and anxiety about performance.” Saeed also shares an anecdote about how she could not go on stage in a production as a teenager. The stage fright and anxiety are described as being “cripplingly bad”.

Saeed also adds that on days of performances, she likes to keep life simple, therefore deploying various tactics, as an Autistic adult.

Stealth Aspies, a collective of four Autistic adults, also includes Saeed as part of the cast. Having taken feedback from Autistic people as part of an online survey, they perform a spoken word set about listening to people who are on the spectrum. They will be performing at The Brighton Fringe this month, with other performance dates later this year.

I ask Saeed if she has any advice for people who wish to follow in her footsteps:

“If you really love it then give it a real shot. I stepped away from the Arts in my twenties to see if I could live a sensible, non-creative life for practical purposes, but it soon became apparent where my love, energy and intention lay.

Find mentors you really respect and learn from them; it’s always a learning curve for all of us. Learn to quiet the voices in your own head telling you that you can’t do it and try not to compare yourself to other people constantly, we do our stuff in our own time. Self-care is crucial, be good to you as much as possible, if you’re not doing that you can’t do your work.”

Sarah Saeed will be performing as part of Stealth Aspies at Brighton Fringe 22-26 May and as part of Lava Elastic at the Dukebox theatre, Brighton, on 22 of June.