I’m in rehearsals for a production of Disney’s hit musical Newsies right now, and at the time of this article’s publication I will be in the middle of our run. Last week we had a cast dramaturgy session, where we were handed out official, Disney-approved packets of appropriate materials to give us historical and social context to the story of the scrappy newsboys who fought The New York World for fair pay. We were put into groups to read specific sections of the packet, and the group I was assigned was to read about how Crutchie’s disability is portrayed.
To my surprise and delight, the section about performing disabilities in the packet was co-written by Gregg Mozgala, the star of Teenage Dick at the Public and the Pulitzer-winning play Cost of Living. Gregg lives with cerebral palsy, and played characters with cerebral palsy in the two plays mentioned. In his section of the dramaturgy I learned some pretty eye-opening things: in a study conducted in 2017, only 2.7% of speaking characters in media were depicted with a disability, and nearly two thirds of that 2.7% were characters with a physical disability, like Newsies’ Crutchie. The remaining third was split so two thirds of that third was characters with mental disabilities, and one third with communicative disabilities. Mozgala talks a bit about his experience in Cost of Living, where he played a character affected by cerebral palsy differently to his own real life experience with the disability. His success in the playing the character boiled down to devoting more time on playing the reality of the character and expressing his essential humanity. Mozgala’s dramaturgy piece ended with a lovely sentiment that disability doesn’t define Crutchie, and it shouldn’t define any performance of a disabled character.
When I read that statement, I cried. I know the group I was assigned to for the dramaturgy session was random, but I really appreciated being put in this particular group because I myself have a disability and want nothing more than to be seen as more than it.
I am openly and proudly on the autism spectrum – high functioning Asperger’s syndrome to be precise – and I am constantly in search of theatre where people like me are represented truthfully and realistically. In that search I have only found three that I really connected to, all for personal reasons.
The most high profile of the plays is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Simon Stephens. Based on the book by Mark Haddon, the story of an autistic teen’s mission to find who killed his neighbor’s dog while navigating London alone is one I have enjoyed and related to ever since I read the novel and saw the National Theatre Live proshot starring the Olivier winning Luke Treadaway a few years back. I saw it on Broadway as well - the wonderful Tony winner Alex Sharp gave an excellent performance – and both times I was touched to see how accurate someone on the spectrum (a touch more affected by the social piece of Asperger’s than me, at least) was portrayed. The light-up grid set design and use of lighting and choreography really made the audience feel like they were inside Christopher’s head as he processed the events going on around him, and both Sharp and Treadaway’s performances felt real.
(Anecdote: I know that neither Sharp or Treadaway are autistic in real life, but openly autistic actor Mickey Rowe actually got to play Christopher in two regional productions I wish I could see. Inspired by Rowe’s casting, I auditioned for a production of Curious Incident before getting cast in Newsies. I didn’t even get a callback. I wasn’t upset, just disappointed that they wouldn’t consider me even for a side reading as Christopher.)
A lesser known play I see a lot of myself in is Dancing Lessons by Mark St. Germain. This quirky little two-hander is about Ever, a man with Asperger’s who arrives at an injured ballerina’s apartment in the hopes of learning how to dance for a gala he will be presenting at. The interactions that ensue between Ever and the ballerina are charming and fun and a little surprising. I never actually got to see this play performed, but there’s a wonderful audio version available on iTunes read by the original cast and the script is available for purchase. This very sweet play is a nice example of an autistic character learning to improve his social skills and empathy, and as a lovely bonus its original production starred John Cariani as Ever. Cariani is currently starring as awkward deadbeat Itzik in The Band’s Visit, but he’s most known for writing the beloved play Almost Maine and originating the role of Nigel Bottom in my favorite show of all time, Something Rotten! Cariani and I first met through Something Rotten! and my growing interest in becoming a playwright, and in the three years since it opened he’s become both a mentor and a friend to me.
All the characters with autism I’ve mentioned so far are male. It’s a pretty well known fact that more men are diagnosed with autism than women. (I wish I had statistics for nonbinary and gender nonconforming individuals with autism.) The only play I’ve seen with autism representation for both men and women was the excellent Uncommon Sense by the Tectonic Theatre Project. This limited engagement played off-Broadway at the Sheen Center in New York and told the connected stories of autistic men and women from all different walks of life and different types of autism – including nonverbal. I cried pretty much non-stop while watching this play, which was written by people who clearly did their research on autism and understood so many little details about what it’s like living on the spectrum.
So why do I mention all these plays, all these statistics, and my playwriting mentor? In my quest to find a piece of theatre that perfectly represents my experience as an autistic individual, I have decided the best way to find that play is just to write one myself! At the time of writing I am currently halfway through writing “For Leonora,” a play about an autistic young woman, her imaginary friend, her experience with first love, and learning to live outside of her comfort zone. The piece takes some inspiration from my life, as well as my experiences with friends who are also on the autism spectrum. It also involves a lot of puppetry. The majority of the play has been written in my playwriting class at Marymount Manhattan. When the time comes and the play reaches a satisfactory conclusion, I hope to submit it to as many theatre companies, festivals, and workshops as I can in the hopes of seeing my vision as reality.
I am an autistic playwright. I’ve got personality. I can do anything. I am more than my disability.
(Photo credit for Newsies is Walter McBride; photo credit for The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime is Manual Harlan; and photo credit for Dancing Lessons is Kevin Sprague.)