EPIC Players and Elevators
It was the first day of rehearsal for EPIC Player’s New York City production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and we were about to stage the opening number. AubrieTherrien, our director, was trying to figure out who would hand a prop to Carly Hayes, our Rona-Lisa Peretti.
“I was thinking someone would play a Janitor during pre-show.” Aubrie said. “Maybe they could hand it to you.”
As we got ready to begin, I raised my hand. “Do you need someone to stand in for the Janitor?”
“Sure,” she said, at which point I instantly took on the physicality of an old man with a mop and everyone burst out laughing.
I knew I was an actor before I knew I was Autistic.
I started acting at 11 years old, but I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 22. Of course, going undiagnosed didn’t mean I went without Autism-related difficulties - missing social cues, trouble making friends, and the constant and enduring feeling that everyone else received a communication handbook while mine was lost in the mail. In fact, I struggled a lot more pre-diagnosis.
The problem wasn’t that I exhibited many outward Autistic traits. Just the opposite, in fact. The problem was that my spectacular masking performance, which is typical for AFAB folks, was so good 98% of the time that the other 2% stuck out like a sore thumb. If I had a nickel for every time a mentor told me some variation of “Don’t say that. You’re so smart, how could you say something so stupid?” I would have at least enough for a sizable DoorDash dinner. Even before I knew I was Autistic, I felt like each comment was intrinsic criticism of who I was, (a discerning, tell-it-like-it-is, well-meaning person with a special knack for putting my foot in my mouth) no matter how much they insisted it was meant to help me.
“You’re so talented,” they’d say, “we’d be remiss not to tell you all the many ways you’re bad at this, so you can fix it.”
How could I explain to them then that there were some things I couldn’t fix?
My diagnosis didn’t give me Autism, it gave me the vocabulary to stand up for myself.
I’m a part of EPIC Players, a neuro-inclusive theater company based in Brooklyn, New York. And the second I stepped into the rehearsal room, I recognised that it was unlike any other company I’d worked with. Everyone had patience for everyone else’s support needs. Everyone cheered on everybody else, celebrating victories and workshopping difficulties as a team. The best idea won, no matter who it belonged to. Nobody was afraid to voice their concerns. And if somebody said something weird or out-of-turn, we all just collectively moved on. There were no long, in-depth discussions about professionalism and moral failings and knowing one’s place. (So I wasn’t afraid, as I would have been in other situations, that I’d get in trouble for offering to be the Janitor.) Working with EPIC was perhaps the first time I ever felt like I didn’t need to “fix” myself to be valued.
I no longer work with people who tell me I need to fix my Autism. Because that is, actually, what those conversations were about. People use the word “professionalism” to justify it, but when your worst offenses are one inopportune comment about Mr. Spock (the best Star Trek character, by the way) and one instance of politely and privately correcting a dance teacher on choreography - I was right, and he took it personally - you figure out pretty quickly that their real problem isn’t that you’re rude or unprofessional. It’s that you’re weird, awkward, and don’t always know when it’s appropriate to speak. Their real problem is that you have Autistic traits.
Now, there may be a few people out there who relate to the above a little more strongly than most. There may be some folks who go on to do some research and discover later in life that they were Autistic all along. And as confusing as this might be to internalize, those people deserve the same respect and accommodations now as they will once they’re diagnosed. Autism is often invisible. You never know who is on the spectrum and doesn’t know it yet. You never know who is on the spectrum and simply not disclosing it. You never know who is on the spectrum. Period.
“So,” you ask skeptically, “should we be treating everyone like they’re Autistic?”
It’s April, Autism Acceptance Month. And the path towards real acceptance involves letting everyone be weird: diagnosed or not, Autistic or not. And if EPIC’s rehearsal room is any indication, the world will be a much better place for it.
The greatest misconception of accessibility is that it only benefits disabled people. The same elevator that makes a building wheelchair-friendly also makes life easier for abled folks with strollers or suitcases. The same concept applies to neuro-inclusive spaces.
Because here’s the interesting thing - you don’t have to be Autistic to have Autistic traits. How many neurotypical artists can relate to having said something stupid in the rehearsal room? How many neurotypical actors have worked with directors who took ideas and suggestions as personal attacks, rather than attempts to improve a production? How many neurotypical dancers have bit their tongues and done incorrect choreography for fear of being labeled unprofessional? And further, how many situations could have been improved if people weren’t afraid to speak? When actors feel safe and respected, everyone benefits.
Which is what’s so wonderful about the space that Aubrie and EPIC have cultivated. In creating a company where it’s okay to be Autistic they have - intentionally or not - created a space where it’s okay to make mistakes and jokes that don’t land. To share your ideas and creativity with your peers. To be weird. To thrive. A space accessible to Autistic folks, and pretty great for everyone else, too. How brilliant - an elevator.
If you’re interested in supporting EPIC Players and an ensemble of weird folks like myself, tickets for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Mezzanine Theater are on sale now. The show goes up May 11th-22nd. See below for details:
If you decide to go, keep an eye out for me! I’ll be the one with the mop and the coveralls. (;
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