Hiram College

Written by Jory Gomes ’18

“I began to understand more fully that there are multiple different ways that theatre can be ‘theatre’ and still effectively reach an audience.” Lisa Marcy ‘18, a theatre student at Hiram, is already aware of the diversity that exists in the theatre scene—but, for her, the October 27th performance helped to bring these concepts to life. The reality is that theatre, like most industries, is dominated by neurotypical, and typically-abled persons. Companies like Theatre on the Spectrum are pushing this boundary and showing people how making space within the theatre world for adults with autism—or other neurological disorders—just makes sense.

On Friday, October 27th, Theatre on the Spectrum gave a performance in the Showboat Theatre at Hiram College. Company members Samir and JT “Styles” were accompanied by Wendy Duke, program director, and Jocelyn Laracuente, program assistant, in their show. In this show, they proved to students and faculty alike that improv comedy and traditional theatre are two areas where actors with autism or cerebral palsy can excel. The laughter in the room was genuine and hearty. Students and faculty with nothing but final papers, group projects, and impending exams on their mind were completely immersed in each improv sketch. For one hour, the audience was taken on a journey with the actors, and at the end of the show, no one cared who was autistic and who wasn’t. Everyone heeded the advice that Styles often gives to people, according to program director Wendy Duke, to “stop looking at my wheelchair, and look at me!”

As fun as the show was, there was a lesson learned in the performance other than the fact that autistic and differently-abled people are incredibly humorous. Marcy explained that in watching the improv she “learned that theatre is a great outlet for learning social cues and helping with behavioral issues.” However, she was most impressed with Samir’s ability to perform a monologue from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which is so extremely difficult that neurotypical actors struggle with it. Her biggest takeaway from the performance was that “we have all of these programs for differently-abled children however we tend to ignore them once they’re adults.” She is happy to see that the theatre is opening doors for all different kinds of people, but wants to see this opportunity opened up for more individuals.

This is exactly what Duke envisioned doing when she transitioned from 22 years of teaching drama at Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts to co-founding The Center for Applied Drama and Autism of which Theatre on the Spectrum is a part. Duke spent time developing drama curriculum for kids with autism and then decided to work full-time on transitioning the center into a non-profit organization. Now, with their partnership with Ardmore Inc., they are hosting Saturday youth classes and a day theatre program for adults of all abilities. Theatre on the Spectrum’s past work has included a performance of The Glass Menagerie that looked through the prism of autism and an original play called Behind the Mask by Joshua Dushack, an autism advocate and playwright from Pittsburgh.

On their performance at Hiram, Duke referenced her favorite part of working with this company—seeing confidence grow as the actors respond to  the audience’s laughter. She added that “every morning, we begin our day with acting warm-ups before rehearsing and we focus on each individual’s abilities,” and “at Hiram, our actors did a great job connecting with the audience, which is not always easy for people on the autism spectrum or with other disabilities.”

Another highlight of their visit to Hiram was in one of the actor’s response. “Styles was very impressed by the visit to your campus — it was his first time visiting an institution of higher learning. He told us when he graduated from high school, his counselor told him he wasn’t going to college but would be staying at home with his mom for the rest of his life.” He has defied his guidance counselors words, now that he is utilizing technology and social media to develop a website in his quest to own an entertainment business and make other people smile. He and Samir, in Duke’s words, “we’re born to entertain.” Samir is a definitive playwright, with a mind full of characters and lines just waiting to be sorted in the right order. The Center, and the company that they are an integral part of, is helping them hone their craft and raise awareness throughout the community for things like accessibility issues. In return, they are able to make people smile and laugh at every single performance.

When asking Duke what she wants people to take away from the performance, she said “we live in a society that is far too impatient. Inclusivity takes time and effort. Actors may not be able to read scripts, but we can discover ways to help them learn lines through repetition and audio recordings. We can prepare our actors for the communities’ various stages, but unless each theatre has made the lobby, the seating area, the restrooms, the stage, and the backstage areas accessible, our actors will not be able to participate. There is great potential that is going to waste. We are seeing all kinds of ground-breaking casting going on these days, with women playing Shakespeare’s kings and minority interpretations of American history winning Tony Awards. We ask, why can’t King Lear be played from a wheelchair?  Why not seek out and train people with autism for onstage and backstage work? Why not lead the way?”

If anyone would like to book Theatre on the Spectrum for a performance, or come to the studio in Akron for some lunch hour theatre, please check out their web page at www.centerforada.org or email them at info@centerforada.org.