Our Differences are Our Strengths
Neurodiversity in Theatre
You may ask yourself, What is an autistic doing working at language-based theatre companies? I often ask myself that question. But I believe that in theatre my “weakness” is one of my strengths.
If you see me walking down the street, I most likely have headphones on. I nearly always wear a blue T-shirt—V-neck, so nothing touches my neck. And I don’t wear coats or jackets when it’s cold out, which drives my wife crazy. I was late to speak, but I invented my own incredibly detailed sign language to communicate. I had speech therapy all through elementary school and occupational therapy all through middle school.
There is a tension between everything that I am and everything that might be conventional for an actor. This is the same tension that makes incredible theatre. No one wants to see something if it is too comfortable. Every performance should have a tension between what feels easy and what feels risky.
I am also legally blind—autism is often linked with vision or hearing problems—so I can’t perform very well in cold readings. If given a few days before an audition, I always memorize sides so I don’t read them off the page. I enlarge scripts so they are twice as big, just like all of my textbooks and tests were enlarged in school. I will often secretly record the first readthrough of a play on my cell phone, hidden in my pocket, so that I can learn my lines and study the script by listening; my eyes give out after about fifteen minutes of looking at a page. But because I know this, I get off book damn fast. Often before the first rehearsal.
Autistics use scripts every day. We use scripting for daily situations that we can predict the outcome of, and we stick to those scripts. My job as an autistic is to make you believe that I am coming up with words on the spot, that this is spontaneous, the first time the conversation has ever happened in my life; this is also my job on stage as an actor.
For instance, at a coffee shop:
Me: Hi, how are you doing today? (Smile.) Can I please have a small coffee? Thank you so much! (If it seems like more conversation is needed.) Has it been busy today?
Barista: Any barista response.
Me: Oh yeah? Is it nicer when it’s busy or when it’s slow? Have a great rest of your day!
Always stick to the script. It makes things infinitely easier.
Or playing Edmund in King Lear:
Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me...
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true...[?]
It’s really no different. They’re lines I’ve learned, that I say often, but I’m making you believe they are mine, particular to this specific moment.
These all may seem like reasons why I should never be an actor. But acting is a dichotomy. A tension between what is safe and what is dangerous. What is known and what is unknown. What’s mundane and what’s exciting.
There is a tension between everything that I am and everything that might be conventional for an actor. This is the same tension that makes incredible theatre. No one wants to see something if it is too comfortable. Every performance should have a tension between what feels easy and what feels risky. When a grand piano is gracefully lowered out of a window by a rope onto a flatbed truck, slowly spinning and dangling, the tension in the rope is what everyone is watching. In theatre, the performer is the rope, making the incredible look graceful and easy, making the audience complicit in every thought, every tactical switch. When the rope goes slack, the show is over.
I put my dichotomies to work for me. It’s about doing the work and being in control so the audience trusts you to lead them, and then being vulnerable and letting the audience see your soul. The skill, study, and training help create the trust. The challenges make the vulnerability. You need both of them. As an autistic I have felt vulnerable my entire life—to be vulnerable on stage is no biggie.
With autism comes a new way of thinking; a fresh eye, a fresh mind. Literally, a completely different wiring of the brain.
Being in front of an audience of 500 or 2,890 people is very easy for me. The roles are incredibly clear, logical, and laid out. I am on stage; you are sitting in the seats watching me. I am playing a character, and that is what you expect, want, and are paying for. The conversations on stage are scripted, and written much better than the ones in my real life. On the street is where conversations are scary—those roles aren’t clear.
Sure, there are lots of things working against me at any given time. For example, one in every sixty-eight Americans is autistic. If all things were equally accessible, you would expect to see one autistic in sixty-eight employees of any company in the United States. Because small talk is so important in current interviews and auditions, this doesn’t happen. But it would happen if things were more accessible. And we can help to make it what we see in the future by acknowledging and realizing that not everyone’s brain is wired the same way; by acknowledging neurodiversity exists.