by Steven Sabel
“It’s all a very personal saga for me,” says playwright Ken LaZebnik.
He’s speaking about his play On The Spectrum. It was commissioned by Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, where artistic director Jack Reuler directed the 2011 premiere as part of the Center of the Margins Festival. Then it tied for second place in last year’s competition for the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award.
On the Spectrum is LaZebnik’s third dramatic work dealing with issues surrounding autism, and his passion for the subject derives from his personal connection to the disorder.Having two nephews and a niece diagnosed with autism has opened his eyes to autism in a way that provides a firsthand perspective on those who fall “on the spectrum,” he says.
Jacqueline Schultz calls it a perfect fit for her. She’s directing a production of LaZebnik’s play for the Fountain Theatre, opening Saturday. The award-winning actress and director has also worked for more than 12 years as a theater director and educator with special needs students.
“Theater is about all of those things that help children learn,” says Schultz. The art form has a special way of helping autistic children learn because it “helps kids discover how to act together with others,” she says.
The overriding theme of the play can be found in the term from which LaZebnik selected his title. People who exhibit a range of behaviors associated with autism and Asperger’s syndrome are said to be “on the spectrum.” Schultz says it is a vague term that cannot be truly defined.
“This whole phrase of ‘on the spectrum’ is so broad, and includes so many things. I mean we’re all ‘on the spectrum’ in some way. Every artist I know is somewhere ‘on the spectrum’,” says Schultz with a laugh.
LaZebnik agrees that the term is all too encompassing, and says his play is meant to bring attention to a growing movement in the autistic community that seeks to find greater acceptance of those who exhibit behaviors that fall somewhere on the spectrum. The movement includes a fundamental change in terminology in referring to autism as a “difference,” rather than a disability.
“It is about the very inherent conflict of do you try to engage fully in the neuro-typical world, or say to the world — ‘I’m different. Deal with me on my terms’,” LaZebnik says.
“It’s about this other way of looking at it — a different way of thinking,” says Schultz.
Modern technology has helped paved the way for the growing movement for change. The increasing number of websites, blogs, and chat rooms created for and by people with autism “have joined people from all over the world in a community of like others who can relate to each other,” says LaZebnik. “The technological revolution has liberated people.”
Email communication and the invention of communicative devices, such as the Proloquo, have helped autistic people overcome many aspects of autism that interfere with their ability to engage in social interaction. It also eliminates many of the “gray areas” of human communication, such as sarcastic tones, facial expressions, and physical gestures, that are often difficult to interpret by people with autistic symptoms, according to LaZebnik.
The play attempts to capture this facet of communication between its autistic characters through the use of multimedia aspects of the production, including audio voice-overs and video screens.
“The play demonstrates how technology has allowed the characters to communicate what’s inside, rather than be judged on the outside,” says Schultz.
At the crux of the matter is a basic civil rights issue, say supporters of the movement. But LaZebnik says his play is designed “not to advocate, but just to demonstrate.”
Schultz says the play adequately “addresses the movement in a public manner.”
“The way in which people with autism and Asperger’s are portrayed in this script is very different” from most previous treatments of the subject, she says.
A Love Story
At the heart of the play is a love story between its two central characters. Iris (Virginia Newcomb) suffers from severe communicative difficulties due to her autism, but she finds a voice through technology and becomes an online activist in the movement for acceptance. Mac (Dan Shaked), whose mother Elizabeth (Jeanie Hackett) has provided him with years of mainstreaming and therapy, passes as “typical” in the world. When Mac and Iris meet online, a relationship develops that challenges Elizabeth’s hopes for her son, while raising questions about the definition of “normal.”“Iris has an opinion. Elizabeth has an opinion. Mac bridges both of those worlds,” says Schultz.
LaZebnik says that watching the struggles of his eldest nephew to have a relationship was an impetus for the love story component of the play. “I started thinking, ‘what is his world like?’ So I took this conflict of outlooks and layered it into a love story,” he says.
Schultz says the play “does a great a job of breaking down the myths about autism and autistic people. They can feel. They can fall in love. They can get actively involved in their own community,” she says.
“Part of the love story is a mother’s love for her son,” says LaZebnik. Elizabeth struggles with letting go of her expectations for Mac in favor of allowing him to become his own person. Mac struggles with letting go of those expectations as well.
“His mother has been his guardian and shield, his whole life. The potential of him going off with this girl obviously is hard for her, and it’s hard for him to contemplate leaving her,” says LaZebnik.
Finding a resolution in the ending was his most difficult challenge in writing the play, he says. “We went through some different options, but oddly enough we went back to the original ending.”
Choosing the Right Cast
The writer and director both agree that casting the play is a difficult part of the process of bringing it to the stage. Finding the right actors to portray autistic characters is a challenging facet of the piece. The premiere production in Minneapolis brought in an autistic woman to play the role of Iris, a concept that Schultz entertained during casting for her production.“I tried an agency that specializes in special needs actors, but it just didn’t fit,” she says.
Casting the role of Mac was the biggest struggle in the process. “It was a very extended search to find this person who is the right Mac,” says LaZebnik.
Working from a stack of resumes, Schultz called the best people in for the first round of auditions. “But it just didn’t walk in the room,” she says.
Looking for a distinct physicality, paired with the talent she sought to match her vision for the role, sent her back to the drawing board to consider additional options.
“I didn’t want to settle, so we went back [to the resumes] until we found Dan,” she says.
Early preparation included watching a lot of videos and reading multiple books about autism.
“As an actor, you try to look at what the symptoms are of the diagnosis, but there’s no blood test. It’s diagnosis by behavior, so you have this wide variety and combinations of behaviors. ‘On the spectrum’ is what they say when they don’t know what else to say,” says Schultz.
Schultz took her cast members to the school where she teaches to observe the behavior of her students, and together they also attended a high school dance to watch special needs students socially interact with one another.
“If you’re going to do a play, you have to have a concept of how you see it, but I go into rehearsal as a collaborator. It’s a collaborative art,” she says.
A shortened rehearsal schedule has also been a challenge to overcome, especially in dealing with the play’s many technical aspects, Schultz says.
“This is a tech-heavy show. It’s always a challenge getting what you’ve done in the rehearsal room to connect with the tech in actuality,” says Schultz.
The collaborative work includes video design by Jeffrey Elias Teeter and sound design byPeter Bayne as part of the effort to illustrate the central question — disability or difference?
“I don’t know that the play answers the question as much as it asks the question,” says Schultz.
“I tried presenting both sides in as intelligent a way as possible,” says LaZebnik.
Nonetheless, LaZebnik says the ultimate message of the play comes through Mac’s character in the end. “I certainly, at the end of the play, have Mac embrace who he is. Authenticity of self is what trumps everything — self-awareness,” he says.
Schultz says she hopes audiences have a similar reaction to the play that she has had.
“It’s humbled me in the sense that these parts are so difficult to play, and it has introduced me to a new way of viewing this community, and I thank it for that, because I think it’s a good thing,” says Schultz.
“I would love it,” LaZebnik says, “if people saw these characters as just two unique human beings who fall in love.”
Steven Sabel writes for LA Stage Times.
On the Spectrum March 16 – April 28 (323) 663-1525 MORE
This production is sponsored, in part, by The Help Group.