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Age: 65
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Location: Long Island, New York

01 Oct 2022, 9:40 am

A breakthrough autistic cast at Syracuse Stage connects to an audience – and each other

Amelia Fei holds a fuzzy yellow hat with a smiley face on it, smoothing it and flipping it in her lap as she talks.

The actress’ choice to audition for the groundbreaking musical “How to Dance in Ohio” could propel her career. It could also destroy her.

“And I was like this close to not auditioning for it, because I don’t know how my friends would react. I don’t know if it will affect my, my career … And I don’t know if the publicity or anything will affect my parents,” said Fei, who is from Taiwan.

To be in the play, she had to tell the world she was autistic. Fei is an accomplished actress and singer, but even her close friends did not know.

Fei plays Caroline in the musical that’s having its world premiere at Syracuse Stage. The plot is taken from the critically acclaimed documentary of the same name about seven autistic young adults. Each one is played by an autistic actor, which is explained to the audience at the beginning of the performance.

For the first time, the thing that threatened to keep these young people on the outside was the key to getting in. And it was being celebrated.

This is possibly the first musical to showcase autistic actors. It makes the art authentic and poignant in a way that already has earned good crowds and standing ovations, even on a rainy Wednesday night in Syracuse.

It has connections that give it a real chance at Broadway: The producers include Ben Holtzman and Sammy Lopez, who are part of P3 Productions with Fiona Howe Rudin. The partnership produced “The Kite Runner” and “A Strange Loop,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2020. Tony Award winner Wilson Jermaine Heredia plays Emilio Amigo, the doctor who is working with the young people and hatches the idea for a prom.

But it also has made a different, separate joy for the young actors who are, for the first time, able to be themselves onstage and off.

The actors have been in Syracuse for weeks now. Onstage they are telling the story. Offstage, they are living it. What a joy it is for them to be with people who require no explanation for anxious rocking or jittery hand movements, to not need scripts for small talk.

They’ve even come up with a name for themselves: Spectrum Club Seven. That’s who they are: autism superheroes of sorts, without masks.

Only two of the actors had ever portrayed someone with autism. None of them ever had a job where being autistic was required.

At the beginning of this interview, the actors say they will try not to talk over each other. But their words bubble on top of one another as they explain what this experience has been like. There’s no having to hide that they see the world differently as they work to make art. Their differences are the art.

Madison Kopec takes over as the group discusses the proper way to refer to autistic people. (This group, like many others, prefers that term, not “people with autism.”)

No one calls it Asperger’s Syndrome anymore; it’s ASD or autism spectrum disorder, she says. She begins rattling off research and what diagnostic manuals now say. Asperger’s was named for Austrian physician Hans Asperger, who did neurological research on Jewish children during the Holocaust.

In the play, Kopec is Marideth, a young woman with encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything. She, too, prefers books and research to people.

“People who know me are like, ‘Are you acting, or is that just you?’ ” Kopec says.

They often learn to mime neurotypical people’s responses in social situations. Like raising your eyebrows, or making eye contact during conversation. That’s called “masking.” For these actors, it’s been a lifetime of performing, even offstage.

The musical opened a door to a world where they don’t have to cover up.

“Caroline is just me, not masking,” Fei says, referring to her character in the play. Caroline is joyful and chatty, but she struggles to understand her relationship with her boyfriend and friends.

The reaction to the play’s authenticity has also been unlike anything the actors have ever experienced. One of the other actors in the production brought her son, who is on the autism spectrum, to see the show.

The young actors tear up as they talk about how much he loved it.

He raved to his mom about how great it was to see someone on stage just like him. I didn’t know people could make a musical about what was happening inside my head, he told his mother.

Kopec said the production has worked to accommodate the actors and crew. At the beginning there was a Google form for everyone, from the actors to the crew, asking what kind of accommodations they needed.

Is there something that stresses you out? Is there something that would calm you, an object you’d like to squeeze or hold?

Ashley Wool has been in productions for more than a decade; this was something entirely new.

“The fact that we were all able to talk about it that kind of just helped facilitate a sense of trust among the cast and crew in general, where it was OK for us to talk about stuff,” she said.

It’s also been OK to “stim.”

“People might assume I’m on drugs,” said Edwards, who plays Remy.

But opening night, he and Russell, who plays Mel, could simply be themselves backstage on opening night.

“We were like waving our arms and rocking back and forth and just like expending that anxious energy, and it feels really good. But it’s like if I did that on the train in the city, people would look at me weird,” Russell said.

And they look out for each other. At the beginning of a meeting with a reporter, Conor Tague, who plays Tommy, sat clear across the room from everyone else, looking down. Come on over and sit here, one of the seven said, pulling out a chair. He sat down and later told the stranger all about his stint on “Law & Order.”

Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman