Tag Archives: Proloquo

Fountain Spotlight: Virginia Newcomb is “Astounding” in ‘On the Spectrum’

Virginia Newcomb

Virginia Newcomb

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 SpectrumJeanie 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.

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. 

Iris 1

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.

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

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.

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. 

Virginia ghost image

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.


Finding Love ‘On the Spectrum’

Virginia Newcomb & Dan Shaked

Virginia Newcomb and Dan Shaked

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.

Ken LaZebnik

Ken LaZebnik

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.

Jacqueline Schultz

Jacqueline Schultz

“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.”

Dan Shaked and Virginia Newcomb.

Dan Shaked and Virginia Newcomb

“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.

Dan Shaked and Jeanie Hackett.

Jeanie Hackett and Dan Shaked

“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.

Dan Shaked

Dan Shaked

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.