Last weekend I saw the off-Broadway play, Uncommon Sense, the story and exploration of four characters on the autism spectrum. Attending with me were my husband, neurotypical son and his twin sister Samantha—an actress on the autism spectrum—along with four members of EPIC Players, our neurodiverse theater company. Given the diversity of my group, we all had high expectations. I was really hoping to like this play. The Playbill’s Director’s Note said “we set out on a very personal quest for insight into a mystery.” According to the director, he and his co-author “met as many people on the spectrum as we could, along with other autism families.” Sounds like a promising—and diligent approach, right? Even more promising—and impressive—is that the director quotes Dr. Stephen Shore, an “inspirational” Adelphi professor and speaker with autism who says “if you’ve met one person on the spectrum…you’ve met one person on the spectrum.” Clearly, the author and director’s hearts were in the right place. They did plenty of homework. Such probing research should lead to a sensitive and authentic portrayal of autism, right?
Wrong. Unfortunately, the idea that characters “autistic and non-autistic alike” can be successfully created from “patchworks of several individuals mingling with our imaginations” did not pan out. As autism parents, my husband and I could both relate to the neurotypical characters playing autism moms and dads. Our brains are wired to love our kids unconditionally (with or without autism). All of our parental emotions—from sadness and frustration to hope and joy—were correctly catalogued, believably played and well-expressed on stage by those neurotypical actors. However, the same did NOT hold true for the autistic characters, who were mostly played by non-disabled actors. Whether the characters on the spectrum were high-functioning and articulate with quirky Asperger-like symptoms like Jess and Dan, or mostly non-verbal like Moose and Lali, all characters on the spectrum came across as caricatures. The experience was tantamount to watching a bad ventriloquist or puppeteer pulling strings.
Although the set design and staging of Uncommon Sense were powerful—think of a smaller, simpler version of Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night—the strong emotional impact was missing. I admired the clever lighting and pictures of cascading rice, but felt on the outside looking in. As a fellow autism parent, of course I empathized with the parents on stage. But I bet my emotional response would have been stronger if the autistic individuals had not been a mash-up of the playwright’s research on autism symptoms. What would be a better way to create compelling and authentic characters on the spectrum? Audition actors on the spectrum for the roles of characters with autism. Individuals with autism are as different from one another as neurotypical people are. Theater seeking to bring the autistic experience to life can NOT rely on the simple equation of doling out symptoms and adding streaks of quirky talent to neurotypical actors. The resulting composite character is NOT equal to a three-dimensional person with autism, whose wiring is very different from the synaptic connections of neurotypical actors, directors, authors and audience members. There are just too many degrees of separation.
As I watch an increasing number of plays, TV shows and films exploring autism, I am more convinced than ever that actors with autism should be playing the major roles (not just used as extras). Audiences deserve to experience authentic portrayals of autism that are also educational AND entertaining. Perhaps some of my readers will feel I’m biased because my daughter Samantha is an actress on the spectrum. Yes, of course I would like more opportunities and auditions for Samantha and other actors with disabilities. I’m not saying they will always be the best for the part, but they SHOULD be given the chance to audition. Inclusion allows the best actors to give the best performance for the benefit of all.
Speaking of audiences, my group of family and friends was mostly not impressed with Uncommon Sense. My son—who happens to be a screenwriter—told me he was bored and didn’t learn anything new about autism (that he didn’t already know from growing up with a twin sister on the spectrum). My husband—the toughest critic in the family—found that the only character who rang true for him was the father of the non-verbal boy (in essence agreeing with me that the parents were far more believable and sympathetic than their kids with autism). My EPIC friends also confessed to deep disappointment. Samantha—in some ways the true expert on autism because she lives in that world—was extremely blasé about the play. When asked her opinion, she said: “It was okay, but not my favorite thing in the whole world.” My daughter is rarely blasé about anything. Samantha usually expresses extremely positive or negative reactions. Translation: okay means she didn’t engage or connect with the play at all.
My best friend was the only one who actually liked Uncommon Sense. She also confessed to knowing the least about autism in the group. She laughed out loud in many places, causing me to laugh with her. There was one outrageously funny (if unbelievable) scene in which an Asperger couple eats noodles with their hands and ends up in a hilarious food fight. I laughed in the spirit of a slapstick comedy scene in The Three Stooges.
But after the curtain fell, I left with an empty feeling. I wanted to be laughing with the characters, not at them. Samantha told me before the play started that she had been invited to audition for one of the lead female parts, but we were away at a film festival that week. I found myself wondering how Samantha might have played Jessica, a woman with Asperger’s, who loved video games and science. I don’t know if my daughter would have given a better performance, but I do know it would have been very different, more coquettish and less cerebral. Still, I’m grateful to the director for reaching out and inviting Samantha to audition for the role of a young woman with high-functioning autism. It’s a good beginning, one that shows uncommon sense.