DES MOINES — In the theater, acting is all about building relationships with the audience. But what if the characters – or even the actors – were autistic? What if they have trouble communicating or expressing emotions?
Those are the first of several murky questions a new show called Uncommon Sense will raise at its upcoming world premiere at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
The show’s co-writers, Andy Paris and Anushka Paris-Carter, were inspired to launch the project after their daughter was placed on the autism spectrum in 2008. Her diagnosis was a cumbersomely titled condition called Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), which only prompted more questions: What is typical behavior? When their daughter seems to drift in and out, where does she go? What does she hear? And how will all of that shape her future?
With support from the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project (the company behind The Laramie Project and I Am My Own Wife) and a grant from the Iowa Arts Council, Andy and Anushka hooked up with the UNI theater department to organize what turned into an almost five-year collaboration. They interviewed people in the Cedar Falls area who live and work with autism, as well as family members and health-care professionals.
They also recruited more than a dozen UNI students to help shape the play into an experiential story they hope will resonate with viewers both on and off the spectrum. The script’s characters are composites of Andy and Anushka’s real-life interview subjects, Iowans who shared their stories about everyday life with autism – at school, at work, at the check-out counter at Hy-Vee.
In rehearsals, the results have been promising.
“I am on the spectrum, and this show has really reconnected me in a way that I didn’t think possible,” the actor Andrew Duff said in a video posted to the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center's website.
Early support for the project has come from folks in theater, education, health care and even politics.
“Autism speaks softly, but does not carry a big stick. Perhaps that’s the problem,” state Sen. Jeff Danielson of Cedar Falls wrote on the performing art center's blog. “Autism is too often a lower priority when push comes to shove in the legislative agenda.”
After the show’s premiere, plans are in the works to take make it available nationwide, for other schools and community groups that could use it as a tool for social progress.
“If a production like this can help change the stigma and encourage acceptance, it might even change kids’ lives,” said Candice Baugh, a behavioral psychologist and clinical coordinator at the New York University’s Child Study Center.
The play looks “at the inner workings” of autism, co-writer Andy said. “On the surface, (it) maybe seems dangerous or off-putting, (but) if you pull the curtain back from that and understand what’s underneath it, then you can start a conversation.”
And that, of course, just opens up more questions.
“How is this a human condition?” Andy said. “How do we all share in this, and how can we take care of each other?”