Most readers might (mistakenly!) think that performing in a Shakespeare play would be Mission Impossible for actors with autism. After all, if Shakespeare’s old English verses are a verbal stretch for neurotypical performers, how can autistic actors learn AND understand such difficult lines when ordinary communication is a life-long challenge?
The answer is that some actors with autism are capable and talented enough to perform Shakespeare, when given longer rehearsal time and creative direction. I know this to be true because my daughter Samantha has already performed in EPIC Players’ successful production of The Tempest as the goddess Juno last winter. Now EPIC is planning a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream in May (chosen by popular vote of EPIC’s neurodiverse cast members, including my daughter)!
Last week Samantha was thrilled and proud to report that she was cast as Helena in Midsummer Night’s Dream. A bit discouraged after a couple of rehearsals, she’s finding the script a far cry from “easy peasy.” In the first rehearsal, she admitted to losing her place in the text (which features original Shakespeare side by side with a modern translation). In her second rehearsal, she had trouble responding to a direction to read in a “self-pitying and jealous tone.”
“I was clueless,” Samantha complained to me. “I’m afraid I’ll never get it.”
“Really? You have over three months!” I joked, trying to reassure her.
She still looked panic stricken. “That’s not long enough!”
“I bet you only need three minutes, not three months. Want me to teach you?”
Samantha is often ambivalent about her “momager” teaching her anything, but she was clearly desperate. While I never studied acting or theater, I have a Ph.D. in handling my daughter’s anxiety and lack of confidence. So I began the process of breaking a difficult undertaking into a step by step experience that would help my daughter discover how to act self-pitying and jealous.
“Tell me who makes you most jealous in your life,” I suggested.
“My twin brother,” Samantha replied immediately. “He lives independently and has his own apartment. It’s not fair! I want to be able to move out and live on my own too.”
“Perfect!” I clapped my hands. “A+. You sound super jealous and you’re also feeling sorry for yourself. Bravo! Just use that same tone of voice in the passage where Helena feels sorry for herself because she loves Demetrius and he only loves her friend Hermia. Helena doesn’t care if all of Athens thinks she’s beautiful. She wants to look and sound like Hermia so Demetrius will love her instead.”
The relief on my daughter’s face was palpable. “Thanks, mom.”
I know this is only the first of many hurdles Samantha will have to clear. I also know with complete certainty that she will succeed. I remind my daughter of her high school experience, studying Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade English with Beth Sugerman at Winston Prep. Many of the 9th grade parents thought Ms. Sugerman was completely crazy for attempting to teach Shakespeare to autistic and learning disabled students, but she was confident.
Ms. Sugerman told us on Parents’ Night that she believed in her students and wanted our kids to hold their heads up high and tell their siblings and other 9th graders that they too were studying Shakespeare. Samantha’s class spent the whole semester on Romeo and Juliet—probably twice as long as neurotypical ninth graders. The script was as thick as an encyclopedia with large print and cartoon pictures of characters and the unfolding plot. Every Wednesday, Samantha and her classmates learned about idioms, metaphors and similes with practice sheets for homework. In the end Samantha fully understood the basics of Romeo and Juliet and fell in love with love stories. Her vocabulary grew exponentially. More importantly, my daughter gained some confidence in her ability to learn and understand complex characters and stories with subplots.
Learning Shakespeare was and (will be) a long, hard road for Samantha and her neurodiverse cast members. But thanks to Ms. Sugerman and Samantha’s experience with EPIC in The Tempest, my daughter has the tools she needs to succeed in her role as Helena. I’m truly excited for the learning and performance experience that awaits her and her fellow cast members.
As an English major who studied a year of Shakespeare at Vassar, I can assure my daughter that it was not easy-peasy for me either. Samantha LOVES knowing that Shakespeare was difficult for me and for most people. Patience is a virtue, I remind her, using one of her favorite catch phrases. I’ve advised her not to panic or give up when she becomes overwhelmed. Instead, she can turn to her momager for help tackling any of the challenges that require more individual attention than is available during rehearsals. My Ph. D. in Samantha comes in handy when breaking down larger processes into small manageable steps that she can handle, one by one. I know my daughter has the acting talent. Luckily, I have the time and the education—including a few tricks I learned from Ms. Sugerman— to explain and deconstruct Shakespeare’s language and his tangled plot twists so that Samantha can transform herself into Helena.
I can’t wait for the curtain to go up on opening night.