A colleague of mine in the Theatre Development Fund’s Accessibility Dept. forwarded me an email with an invite.
Subject: Square Peg, Round Hole
"It's on Valentine's Day so you probably can't make it with your girlfriend, but worth keeping an eye on. I saw a reading. They seem to really understand autism. And it's Tectonic so it can't be terrible."
Little did my colleague know that I was not far removed from being in a production of The Laramie Project, therefore loved all things Tectonic, and was a subpar boyfriend at the time. So, on Valentines Day I made my then girlfriend haul out to the BRIC in Brooklyn to see a play about autism. My first exposure to the play that would become UNcommon Sense.
It was astounding. I realized barely 15 minutes in to the performance that this was the first attempt I'd encountered at portraying the individuality of autism and not just another Rain Man impression.
After the performance I awkwardly introduced myself to the co-writers of the play, Andy Paris & Anushka Paris-Carter. These two amazing humans spent the next 20 minutes not speaking about what we had just experienced in the performance, but rather who I was and my journey to working on TDF’s Autism Theatre Initiative. By the end of the night we had made future brunch plans and I was so enraptured by the passion and genuine care of these two that I had pledged to do whatever I could to support this piece.
Turns out there wasn’t much I could do in my position at the time. Mailing lists are protected and despite the name, Theatre Development Fund, doesn’t actually produce plays. I could do little more than be a cheerleader for these two artists who had quickly become role models and friends.
Over the next few years I followed the development of this play closely (as it was renamed UNcommon Sense) and I witnessed Andy & Anushka’s commitment to the community first hand. Andy volunteered at the autism-friendly performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Where I met my soon-to-be wife) and Anushka volunteered at the autism-friendly performance of Matilda. These two were committed to the community and despite having busy professional schedules and raising two kids of their own, they carved out the time to give back and help create a welcoming environment for this community on Broadway.
I get an email from Anushka.
Subject: Another You?
I am writing because it seems we have a possibility of a run of our play in NY in Oct. We have a theater that is interested One of the issues that is so important in our decision making about the space, is being sure that the theater has a proper community outreach person. The marketing department has agreed to hire someone to do out reach, and I would love it if it could be someone who knows the autism community and the theater community. I thought of you immediately, but you already have a job. Bummer for us! I was wondering if you might have any recommendations for anyone who is as brilliant as you and might like to do some work for us? We're looking at a 5 week run and to begin advertising next month.
Thank you so much for any thought you are able to give this matter and hi Philip Dallmann!
Sending love from Andy and Anushka
My response. Yes of course I know someone.
I'll find the time and I'll make the schedules work. This piece was too important and these people too kind not to.
A month or so later I sat down for my first meeting with Tectonic Theater Project, Mainspring Arts Cooperative, and The Sheen Center. And I kept hearing this funny word after every suggestion…
We should do some Relaxed Performances.
We should have a Character Guide online and printed at the theater.
We should shoot a Video Social Narrative about visiting the Sheen Center.
There’s an Art Gallery. Can we fill it with work by artists on the spectrum through Pure Vision Arts?
We should make EVERY SINGLE PERFORMANCE inclusive and advertise that everywhere.
And we did it all. A full set of prep materials for the show including a last second video where the cast describes how they play different characters and what’s different about them to which the cast also quickly said YES!
2 designated Relaxed Performances.
A gallery filled with the outstanding work from artists on the spectrum through Pure Vision Arts.
And press releases, playbill inserts, posters, and a pre show announcement declaring:
“Uncommon Sense will be presented in an inclusive, judgment-free environment. In addition to offering scheduled Relaxed Performances, Tectonic and The Sheen Center welcome audience members of all abilities to all performances. At no point will anyone be shushed or asked to leave due to noises, movements or behaviors related to a cognitive or developmental disability.”
The show opened last week and at the opening night party everyone I spoke to I tried to emphasize how unique this was and how amazing it was. I was met mostly with “Isn’t this how it should be?” and “Of course we said yes”.
This is not often the experience in NYC theatre. It should be and it’s moving slowly in that direction, but it’s not what this is right now. This is unique. Two unique people have taken the time to create a piece of theater focused on what makes individuals in the autism community unique, have chosen to work with only uniquely caring, thoughtful people along the way, and in turn have created something quite unique:
This is theatre that opens it’s arms to the cognitive/developmental disability community by not only creating accessible performances, but making every performance inclusive in nature; by not only casting actors with autism in the show, but giving them outlets like talkback panels to be a representative for the community and someone they can connect with; and trying to reach the entire community, not just the celebrities, but parents and caregivers and adults and kids and college students who for too long have not had honest art that they could connect with.
Andy & Anushka are UNcommon.
Tectonic Theater Project, Mainspring Arts Cooperative, and The Sheen Center are UNcommon.
The feeling of being in an inclusive, welcoming theatre is UNcommon.
This production is UNcommon.
And I think after almost 4 years of following these folks and this show we could all stand to be a little more UNcommon.
I was never one to concern myself much with the most en vogue terminology in accessibility. So often it seems that the language one prefers is tightly tied to the generation they grew up in. When I was young and impressionable, physically challenged was all the rage as were like-minded labels such as vertically challenged and mentally challenged. I was fine with that, after all I'm always up for a challenge. Today person-first language is leading the charge and my in-the-know social sphere is most littered with people discussing the subtle difference between "disabled" and "person with a disability" but what about those not so savvy?
You know the people I mean, the ones who still make racist jokes and reminisce about the good old days where drinking on the job was acceptable and goosing your secretary was fine; those times we fondly look back on in shows like Mad Men. When I find myself in conversation with this type of person, I have a split second to decide if this is a teachable moment or time to take inspiration from Taylor Swift and "Shake It Off."
I envy those with the fire in them to full on fight out every little misstep they encounter in their lives, but it's just not my way. I have to protect myself from crying fits and binge eating; tempering the emotional roller coaster that simply living my life among the blissfully unaware can be and sometimes that means letting things slide. If nothing gets by you without a correction, then cheers to that. You're a stronger person than I.
I've seen and heard it all.
Being the whistle blower can be perceived as taking the fun out of things and it's an exhausting battle to fight that never ends. Sadly, the other side of that coin is you can find yourself slowly moving the line you've drawn in the sand as to what's acceptable. Move it too far and you end up feeling totally dehumanized. So how do we win the war and stay sane?
For one, that line should fall in different places for different people. What my inner circle can say to me about my disability should be different from what the corner store clerk gets to say about it. For those nearest and dearest, my best defense to a joke in poor taste is often a pointed glare. Fail to laugh at a particular jibe and I'm likely to never hear it again. I'm also proactive, I fill my social media channels with stories like this one. (If you feel so inspired, please follow suit!) Make these people see your point of view more fully. If they truly care about you they're worth the time you put into it.
I've learned that you do indeed catch more bees with honey so I prefer to take a humorous approach to correction when I can--- tossing in a bit of sass to make my feelings clear so I get to move on instead of simmering in my fury.
"Oh, I didn't know you were talking to me, you said Chair."