The Fountain Theatre’s West Coast Premiere of On the Spectrum has been named a Highlight of 2013 Theater by writer Don Shirley in LA Stage Times. Written by Ken LaZebnik and directed by Jacqueline Schultz, the funny and poignant play dramatized the relationship between two young people with autism.
TheFountain Theatre andDeaf West Theatrebrought their lyrical and romantic deaf/hearing updated-version of Cyrano to New York last Monday, April 29, for a special staged reading at the acclaimedNew York Theatre Workshop. The staged reading was performed for a full house of NY theater producers and invited VIP’s for the purpose of solidifying interest in a possible New York production.
Four original cast members were flown in from Los Angeles: Troy Kotsur, Paul Raci, Victor Warren and Al Bernstein. The rest of the ensemble was cast with local New York actors Matt Biagini, Robert De Mayo, Samira Wiley, John McGinty, Puy Navarro, James W. Guido, Alexandria Wailes, Richard Dent, and original cast member Maleni Chaitoo who happens to now live in NY.
The company rehearsed with director Simon Levy for only three days. Our thanks to our friends atPrimary Stagesfor providing their rehearsal studios to the Cyrano company. Also in attendance at rehearsals were playwright Stephen Sachs, Deaf West Artistic Director David Kurs, Fountain Producing Artistic Director Deborah Lawlor, DWT Founder Ed Waterstreet and his wife, actress Linda Bove.
The highly regarded New York Theatre Workshop is the Tony-winning company dedicated to developing new plays and musicals. Over their 30-year history, they have launched many acclaimed productions and have transferred several to Broadway, including Rent, Dirty Blonde, Homebody/Kabul, Peter and the Starcatcher, Once, and more. The Cyrano staged reading was held Monday in the NYTW upstairs rehearsal hall. An invited list of producers and VIP guests attended, including representatives from New York Theatre Workshop, The Public Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club, Primary Stages, 59E59 Theatres, Broadway director Jeff Calhoun, and more. The actors performed Cyrano entirely memorized and off-book and cleverly incorporated the use of captioning and video design on a large TV flat screen monitor.
Our sincere and heartfelt thanks to our Cyrano donors who contributed to our fundraising campaign and made this very important New York opportunity possible: Phillip Baron, Cal Bartlett, JB Blanc, Eve Brenner, Carlease Burke, Johnny Clark, Kyle Colerider-Krugh, Cathy Colloff, Debra Conklin, James Conley, Kimberly Cyzner Family, Lorraine Danza, Timothy Davis-Reed, Fred Dean, Donna Duarte, Susan Duncan, Michael Edwin, Mark Freund, Amy Frost, Heidi Girardoni, Jane Gordon, Gaby Gross, William Dennis Hurley, Trice Koopman, Ken LaZebnik, Robert Leventer, Dennis Levitt, Ruth Linnick, Betsy Malloy, Caitlin Marcus, Donne McRae, Susan Merson, Mills, Michelle Montooth, Joel Moreno, Russell Nore, Jenny O’Hara, Susan Oka, Z. Oppenheim, Patricia Parker, Cynthia Paskos, Patty Paul, Terry Paule, Sharon Perlmutter, Ralph Pezoldt, Allison Pickering, Lawrence Poindexter, Priscilla Pointer, Bill Pugin and The Sign Language Company, Terri Roberts, Mark Routhier, Rita Schneir, Sandy Schuckett, Susanne Spira Survivors Trust, Suanne Spoke, Marjorie Throne, Eileen T’Kaye, Zoltan & Dorcas Tokes, Andrede Toledo, Tate Tullier, Jessica Turner, Nick Ullett, Heidi Girardoni, Carol Watson, Marianne Weil, William Wilk. We could not have done it without you!
What happens now? We’ll see what the future holds for our unique, thrilling and moving ASL/spoken English version of Cyrano. In the meantime, enjoy these snapshots of the rehearsal process and the staged reading!
The final bow for ‘On the Spectrum’ at the Fountain Theatre.
The final bow for our acclaimed West Coast Premiere of On the Spectrum finally came last Sunday, April 28th, ending a wonderful run of rave reviews and enchanted audiences. Critics and theatergoers were swept away by the heartfelt vulnerability of the script by Ken LaZebnik, the vision and storytelling of the direction by Jacqueline Schultz, the honest passion of the cast (Jeanie Hackett, Virginia Newcomb, Dan Shaked) and the magic of the design team (set – John Iacovelli, lights – Christopher Stokes, video – Jeff Teeter, sound – Peter Bayne, costumes – Naila Alladin-Sanders, props – Misty Carlisle).
A Fountain shout-out to our fabulous production crew: Production Stage Manager – Corey Womack, Assistant Stage Manager – Terri Roberts, Board Operator Jennifer Seifert, House Manager – Jessica Turner, Tech Director – Scott Tuomey).
Our thanks to The Help Group for their support of this production. On the Spectrum was a deeply rewarding run that opened a window for many of us, allowing us to peer into a world we may not otherwise see.
A post-show closing party was held after the final matinee performance last Sunday. Enjoy some snapshots!
Actress Virginia Newcomb, Help Group CEO Barbara Firestone, actress Jeanie Hackett and actor Dan Shaked at the ‘On the Spectrum’ post-show reception.
Staff, faculty and friends of The Help Group attended the Sunday matinee of On the Spectrum yesterday and enjoyed a post-show reception with the cast immediately following the performance. Everyone was thrilled seeing the play and had a lovely time schmoozing with the artists and staff at the Fountain.
Founded in 1975, The Help Group is the largest, most innovative and comprehensive nonprofit of its kind in the United States serving children with special needs related to autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities, ADHD, developmental delays, abuse and emotional problems. The Help Group is a proud sponsor of the Fountain Theatre’s West Coast premiere of On the Spectrum. Among those attending the Sunday matinee from The Help Group were President/CEO Barbara Firestone, Chief Operating Officer Susan Berman, Director of Public Affairs and Special Projects Bradley Shahine, and Director of Autism Schools Pamela Clark.
On the Spectrum is a funny and touching love story between two people with autism. In the play, an online e-chat between Mac, who has Asperger’s, and Iris, who has autism, blossoms into a friendship and love story with a unique and unforgettable difference. The production has earned rave reviews and ends April 28.
On the Spectrum Now to April 28 (323) 663-1525 MORE
Our acclaimed West Coast Premiere of Ken LaZebnik’s On the Spectrum chronicles the blossoming love story between Mac and Iris, two young people with autism. Meet real-life couple David and Lindsey. They, too, haven’t let their autism get in the way of falling in love.
By Thea Trachtenberg and Lindsay Goldwert
David Hamrick, 29, and Lindsey Nebeker, 27, look likea typical couple in love,but what’s not apparent is how hard they’ve worked to be together.
Hamrick and Nebeker live together in a Jackson, Miss., apartment, yet they have separate bedrooms, eat meals apart and spend most of their time focused on their own interests.
This unusual setup is how Hamrick and Nebeker, who are bothautistic, make their relationship work.
About 1.5 million people in the United States have autism, with varying degrees of severity. Manypeople with autism strugglewith the most basic social interactions, so finding love may seem like an impossibility.
Hamrick and Nebeker are high-functioning but, since childhood, both have found it difficult to make friends and even harder to keep them.
“All of her socialization had to be learned, usually by hard experience,” said Nebeker’s father, Gordon Nebeker.
Autistic people can also be hypersensitive to touch and sound. Hamrick can’t stand when the room is too warm and cringes at certain sounds; Nebeker can’t take florescent lights; and both are profoundly uncomfortable with small talk.
Lindsey Nebeker and David Hamrick
Learning to Interact with Autism
Despite their difficulties, they both kept trying to reach out and connect with others. Nebeker learned to make friends by reading Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Hamrick had tried to untangle the rules of dating by reading self-help books.
“No one teaches you to flirt,” said Diane Twactman-Cullen, editor in chief of Autism Spectrum Quarterly. “Individuals with autism would really be at a loss. So there might be some missed signals.”
When Hamrick and Nebeker met in 2005 at an autism conference, Hamrick was smitten.
“I pretty much liked everything about her,” he said. “She was very sweet, easy to talk to, and a good listener.”
But Nebeker was unsure.
“In my early 20s, I had decided I was no longer going to seek a relationship,” she said. “I was mainly going to focus on my career and my friends that I had been able to make and keep.”
They became friends. Then one day when they were at a café, Hamrick knew he was making progress when he put his hand on hers.
“My heart was racing,” Hamrick said. “I was fearful it might not work out the way I had anticipated, but the fact that she didn’t pull back and she was able to hold my hand there for at least five minutes, I was very touched by that.”
Mac (Dan Shaked) and Iris (Virginia Newcomb) in ‘On the Spectrum’
Living Together With Separate Needs
After two years of dating, they took the huge step of moving in together, despite their unique and separate needs.
Nebeker admits that it seems highly unusual for a typical couple to agree to separate bedrooms.
“We both understood the importance of an individual with autism needing their own space,” she said.
When they are in their apartment, they are rarely together. Hamrick, a meteorologist, is often in his room on the computer or absorbed in the Weather Channel while Nebeker, a musician, can get lost for hours playing the piano and working on her music.
A romantic dinner for two presents major challenges.
“There are a number of sounds that are unpleasant to me,” Hamrick explained. “Such as chewing sounds and crunching sounds.”
And Nebeker has many complicated eating rituals. Her napkin has to be placed just so and her meals prepared in just the right way.
“Sometimes Dave will spontaneously ask, ‘Hey, you want to go out for dinner tonight?’ And I break into sobs and I say, ‘I am so sorry, I just can’t. I just can’t,'” Nebeker said.
Virginia Newcomb & Dan Shaked in ‘On the Spectrum’.
The couple’s parents have seen their children struggle with their disorder and are in awe of the way the two care for each other and express their love and devotion.
“Being high functioning is almost more difficult than being low functioning,” said Gordon Nebeker. “You are so close to there, and yet not quite — and that is heartbreaking.”
But for all the compromises, the couple’s love story is actually a pretty traditional one, one of deep understanding and acceptance.
“When I have had a bad day at work or just a bad day for some other reason — and I come home, I don’t even have to say anything, he senses it. Dave will come up to me and start cuddling up to me and that’s really all I need,” Nebeker said. “I know that I am with a partner who is not going to judge me for certain eccentricities I have.”
On the Spectrum at the Fountain Theatre
On the Spectrum Now to April 28 (323) 663-1525MORE
When you see On The Spectrumat 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.
Iris e-chats from “The Other World” with Mac.
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.
Displaying battle bruises with pride.
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.
Virginia Newcomb & Dan Shaked
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.
Virginia’s dressing table back stage.
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) 663-1525MORE
Cormac is a young man who lives with his mother, Elisabeth, in a tiny apartment in New York City’s West Village. He is preparing to enter law school and Elisabeth’s employer has cut back her hours, so money is tight. Iris, a young blogger from Queens, hires Cormac to design her website. What ensues is a boy meets girl love story unlike any other.
Dan Shaked and Virginia Newcomb
Writer Ken LaZebnik’s highly acclaimed drama, “On the Spectrum,” provides a glimpse into the minds and hearts of two people faced with autism spectrum disorders. The production, directed by Jacqueline Schultz and currently on stage at the Fountain Theatre, captures the strengths and quirks of the main characters as they navigate through life. More importantly, the play serves as a testament to the need for increased awareness about autism.
The play “does a great a job of breaking down the myths about autism” says Schultz. “They can feel. They can fall in love. They can get actively involved in their own community.”
Dan Shaked & Jeanie Hackett in “On the Spectrum”
Rave reviews are rolling in for our West Coast Premiere of On the Spectrum by Ken LaZebnik, directed by Jacqueline Schultz. The Hollywood Reporter hails it as “Incandescent!” and Broadway World calls it “life-affirming” and “engrossing theatre that should be experienced by everyone.” The Examiner exclaims “If you have the opportunity to get to one play this spring, On the Spectrum is the one to see!”
Advance LA is proud to welcome LaZebnik to Day One of the Innovate Conference on Friday, April 26th, from 12:50 to 1:50pm, where he will be giving a presentation about his celebrated production. In addition, the play’s three actors — Dan Shaked as Mac, Virginia Newcomb as Iris, and Jeanie Hackett as Elisabeth — are scheduled to perform a scene from the play for Friday’s conference attendees.
Advance LA is an innovative program created and operated by The Help Group to support teens and young adults with autism, Asperger’s and other learning issues in their transition to independence.
This year’s Advance LA conference, INNOVATE, will bring together experts and innovators from diverse fields to join in exploring the newest thinking on how best to support young people preparing for a successful transition to college, the workforce, and beyond. The conference will focus on the need to devise innovative, practical, and sustainable solutions to answer questions that arise during the transitioning period, a crucial time for young people who face challenges that differ from those confronting many of their peers.
Meet the playwright and cast of On the Spectrum at the Advance LA conference on Friday, April 26th, from 12:50 to 1:50, at the American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90077.
“As with all great love stories, there are obstacles,” says Jacqueline Schultz, director of the West Coast premiere of Ken LaZebnik‘s play “On the Spectrum,” now playing to terrific reviews at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. Quirky and unexpected, “On the Spectrum’ is a love story with a difference; in LaZebnik’s award-winning play, an online e-chat blossoms into a courtship between two young people with autism. “Ken’s play is original, charming and moving.”
Schultz is an award-winning actress and a theater director at The Help Group’s Summit View School for students with learning differences. The Help Group is the largest and most innovative nonprofit of its kind in the U.S. serving children with autism, learning differences and other special needs. She was immediately drawn to the project. “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.”
In LaZebnik’s play, Mac has Asperger’s, and Iris is autistic. Many people on the autism spectrum take pride in their distinctive abilities and “atypical” ways of viewing the world. Mac (Dan Shaked), whose mother Elizabeth (Jeanie Hackett) provided years of mainstreaming and therapy, passes as “typical.” He connects online with Iris (Virginia Newcomb), an activist who proudly champions her autism as a difference, not a disorder. A relationship quickly forms between the two.
“The play demonstrates how technology has allowed the characters to communicate what’s inside, rather than be judged on the outside,” says Schultz.
Dan Shaked and Jeanie Hackett
“Part of the love story is a mother’s love for her son,” says LaZebnik. “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.”
“Iris has an opinion. Elizabeth has an opinion. Mac bridges both of those worlds,” says Schultz. “Ken 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.”
“I would love it,” LaZebnik says, “if people saw these characters as just two unique human beings who fall in love.”
Winner of a 2012 Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award citation and a 2011 Edgerton Foundation New American Play award, “On the Spectrum” was commissioned by Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, where artistic director Jack Reuler directed the premiere as part of the Center of the Margins Festival. Ken LaZebnik has written two other plays about autism: Vestibular Sense, which also premiered at Mixed Blood, was honored with an award from the American Theatre Critic’s Association at the Humana Festival in Louisville; and Theory of Mind, commissioned for young audiences by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, has also been produced in Minnesota, Hawaii and Michigan, and was published by Dramatic Publishing.
Schultz has worked as a theater director/educator with learning disabled students for over 12 years. As a professional actress, she was recently seen at the Fountain in the U.S. premiere of Athol Fugard’s “The Blue Iris.”
Ken LaZebnik’s “On the Spectrum” is earning wonderful reviews and is currently running at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles through April 28.