When you see On The Spectrum at the Fountain Theatre you not only get a funny and touching glimpse into a unique world rarely seen. You also witness a truly one-of-a-kind performance. The three actors in On The Spectrum — Jeanie Hackett, Virginia Newcomb and Dan Shaked — have all deservedly earned rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. Newcomb’s portrayal of Iris, the young woman with lower-functioning autism and acute physical and neurological challenges yet blessed with a deep and richly imaginative inner life, is extraordinary. Critics have hailed her performance as “astounding”, “wondrous” and “breathtaking”.
The challenges of the role are enormous. In addition to her non-stop physical ticks, twitches, movement and behavior, Iris struggles with speech and painfully wrestles with forming words and sentences. She communicates online and unseen via the written text of her blog and website (“The Other World”). When forced to converse in person with another human being, she types her thoughts into a hand-held Proloquo computer device which, in turn, “speaks” for her in a computerized voice.
This means 80% of Virginia’s live performance is achieved in tandem with Iris’s recorded voice (also done by Newcomb). For the actress, it requires tremendous focus, concentration and non-stop physical commitment to the role for the full 90 minutes of the play. Audiences watching her performance have no idea how hard it is (nor should they). But all agree it is vivid, powerful, funny, deeply moving and utterly unforgettable.
How does she do it?
Before auditioning, what was your impression when you first learned about the play? The role of Iris? Any preconceptions?
My initial response was pretty visceral. The general themes appealed to me immediately; love, courage, fear, humanity. I think I’ve said to several people some variation of, “This is one of those roles that will make me better at what I do.” Not to mention, having worked with The Fountain before, I trusted they would do the story justice.
How did you prepare for the audition?
I knew this was a role that would take quite a bit of research to do it justice. Given the nature of auditions, it was impossible to bring in all of that in just a couple days. So, I focused on those initial emotional reactions to the piece. I did some research online and found a few mannerisms that I felt would heighten my believability. Mostly, I allowed myself the freedom to express my own quirks, imagination, and fears. I think those discoveries remain the root of this character.
How did you feel when you learned you got the role?
Thrilled and terrified. It was kind of a moment of, “Oh, okay, I guess this is really happening.” That’s a funny dichotomy; feeling confidence and doubt simultaneously.
Iris is such a unique, challenging and demanding role — both physically and mentally. How did you prepare for it?
I really held on to those initial feelings. I believe if something makes you feel so strongly, so quickly, ultimately that will be the key to the character. Before this, I didn’t have any personal experiences with Autism. But there’s a very rare disease in my family called DRPLA that certainly impacted my choices. It is very different, but there are physical manifestations that I was able to draw from. It also informed my understanding of the difference between one’s physical existence and mental acuteness. Our director, Jacqueline Schultz, was able to arrange time for us to observe at The Help Group, one of the premiere schools for students with special needs. Perhaps my most valuable experience was attending their high school Valentine’s Day dance. Dan Shaked and I both remarked on feeling this sense of freedom and non-judgment in the room. Not to belittle the challenges they face, but I have certainly come to appreciate the perspective of those “on the spectrum”. Beyond that, I spent a lot of time looking at videos (of which I was surprised to find quite a few). Autistic activism is a very present community. It was not difficult to engross myself in that world. I’ve found other inspiration in studying birds, wild horses, and all the fantastical imagery already written into the play.
Much of Iris is recorded in Voice Over. What is that experience like, as an actress? Connecting your physical life with the recorded Voice Over track?
At first, it was a little like rehearsing different characters. We had rehearsals where I worked on the voice then our stage manager, Corey, would do the lines and sometimes even Jacqueline, then we recorded a temporary track so I could really focus on the physical life. We wanted to fully explore the character before committing to one version of the recording. Iris’s idealistic voice is the voice most like me and the one that really shows us her intelligence. So, it was important that it was fully explored. Our sound designer, Peter Bayne, has also done a really great job at maintaining a since of intimacy. We put it all together during tech week. It’s become a bit of a dance between me, Corey, and Iris — never being sure who exactly is leading.
The physical demands of the role must take a toll. Are you exhausted after every performance?
When we started putting all the elements together (the physical, mental, and emotional life and then technically; video, VO, audience) I went through an adjustment period. After our first previews I was a sore, sweaty, dehydrated, and an emotional mess. My body wasn’t quite sure what the hell I was doing to it. I’ve since found some sort of balance. Some nights I still leave feeling a little beaten up, but it’s something to be proud of. This is my marathon or battle.
Do you have any favorite moments in the play? As an actress?
It’s been important for me that Iris not be portrayed as a victim. She certainly has many moments of vulnerability, but my favorite moments are when she’s able to assert herself. She has moments of true heroism in this play and those are my favorite to play.
What kind of response are you getting from anyone in the Autism community after seeing you on stage?
The most validating responses have been from those who have personal experiences with Autism. I’ve had several people tell me I’m doing it justice; that it’s believable and that’s really what it all comes down to. People are very touched by the story and the characters. So, I’m just thrilled that it resonates.
What was/is your greatest fear in doing the role?
When playing a character with any kind of ‘disability’ you want it to be believable. The Autism spectrum is so broad that it gave me the freedom to really create something unique for Iris, but also made it difficult to find specific examples of someone like her. I’ve just had to trust my director and all other aspects of the collaboration. I know that it can be uncomfortable for some audience members, but I try to keep it honest. My mother sent me a beautiful letter, “Don’t be afraid of making anyone uncomfortable. Maybe through Iris you’re teaching them to accept someone different in a way they hadn’t thought of before.” It feels like a big responsibility, but that’s the beautiful thing that art can do for humanity.
What part of Iris do you most identify or empathize with? Is there any part of her character that you personally connect most deeply to?
Her imagination. I was a very shy introverted child. I would fanaticize and draw a lot. Along the way, I began to intuit that a more public form of expression was my journey. It wasn’t easy for me at first, still sometimes isn’t really, but it’s my hero’s quest. Iris’s journey into the real world is not all that different from mine. We just have different limitations. It’s kind of my thing to recognize that which scares me the most and run right through it. All of my best qualities are formed out of those moments.
You and Dan Shaked have a nice chemistry on stage together. With Mac and Iris both having communication issues — how did you and Dan find ways to connect as actors?
Dan is really fantastic. There was no trust barrier to get over; it was just so immediately comfortable. We are each other’s spring board for any frustrations we might be having about the characters. Both of our characters have some juxtaposing characteristics and that can be confusing. It helps to have someone trying to break the code along with you. Having so little eye contact with someone you’re supposed to fall in love with can be difficult, but there are so many other ways to connect that it actually heightens the experience. We have to really pay attention and feel the other’s presence by smell, sound, touch, etc. It’s really fun. He and I both love the little differences that happen night to night, too. Sometime the VO speaker goes out, sometimes his headphones break, sometimes M&M’s are going everywhere, but it’s comforting knowing your partner and you can handle it.
What was the process with Jacqueline Schultz as a director?
Jacqueline came to the table with such passion and knowledge. A true artist, she knew how to lay the ground for us to freely create. She really let me run with Iris. I never heard her say pull back. If anything she’d say, “Great, okay now more of that.” She helped push me through any fears I had. I’m very grateful to her for helping me find Iris.
This is your second Fountain production. Do you enjoy working at the Fountain? How does it compare to other theaters in LA?
The Fountain is so good at what they do. It’s a big part of why I chose to do this play. I was already familiar with how the team at The Fountain could elevate a production. I was confident they’d bring Ken LaZebnik’s beautiful story to life. They are no question one of the best intimate theatres in LA. It’s a family and you really feel a part of it when you’re working here.
Do you think the character of Iris will “stay with you” for a while, after the run ends?
Well, she’s certainly welcome to. I’ve adored playing Iris. She is my courage and fear personified.
What are your plans after SPECTRUM closes?
Take a break, if the universe lets me. I’ve been going non-stop for a while. I shot three films last year and then the play. I have plans to head back South for a bit. I haven’t seen my family in over a year. It’ll be nice. Then? We’ll see.
On The Spectrum Now to April 28 (323) 663-1525 MORE
This production is sponsored, in part, by The Help Group.