Theatre on the Spectrum

On Monday, May 18, 2020, Actors’ Equity Association’s Equal Employment Opportunity and Membership Education Committee presented its first event of its 2020-21 event series. Events in the annual series are selected by EEOC membership from proposals submitted by fellow EEOC members from a national call. This year, the EEOC selected “Theatre on the Spectrum: A Discussion on Neurodiversity,” proposed and facilitated by EEOC member and actor/writer Anton Spivak and Equity’s National Strategist for Diversity & Inclusion Bliss Griffin.  
In the panel, a neurodiverse group of theatre makers and disability rights advocates, which included those on the autism spectrum, shared their experiences in working in theatre and suggested ways to increase neurodiversity. The panel also discussed how to make acting and auditioning more accessible to those with neurological disorders. Panelists included stage manager Emily Paige Ballou; actor Samantha Elisofson; LaChan V. Hannon, M.Ed., Executive Director of Greater Expectations Teaching and Advocacy Center, an advocacy organization for the creation of equitable and inclusive environments for children with disabilities in schools, and mother of Avery, an autistic child actor and Equity member; actor Miranda Lee; actor Ava Xiao-Lin Rigelhaupt; and Aubrie Therrien, Executive Artistic Director of EPIC Players, a nonprofit, neuro-diverse theatre company dedicated to creating professional performing arts opportunities and supportive social communities in the arts for persons with developmental disabilities based in Brooklyn, NY. A program of the event, including panelist biographies can be found here.

Spivak began by asking the panelists for a defnition of neurodiversity and what might a neurotypical person notice about a colleague friend or fellow audience member who is neurodiverse. Ballou first noted that, “Nuerodiversity isn’t just about autism. Nuerodiversity is about all kinds of neurological diversity and neurological disability, including like people with ADHD and epilepsy and dyslexia and intellectual disabilities. Those people are also all part of our professional theatre community.” Ballou emphasized that, “Neurodiversity is about recognizing the diversity that does exist in humanity, and that we belong here, we should have a future, and that it it's wrong to try to eliminate that diversity from humanity.” Lee and Rigelhaupt also discussed the concept of “neurotypicals,” and that the key to understanding neurodiversity is that there are people who are “wired differently from what's considered normal or standard.” Elisofson added, “Neurodiversity means that every single one of us learn differently, which is not a negative thing.” 

The conversation then turned to toward the differences between the medical model of understanding neurodiversity, which views disability as an affliction that must be cured, versus the social model of understanding neurodiversity, which proposes that what makes someone disabled is not their medical condition, but the attitudes and structures of society. As the mother of a child on the autism spectrum, LaChan shared a personal story about how her child Avery is able use his skills to navigate the demands placed on him as a professional actor. “He has autism and he still has the same symptoms that he had,” said LaChan, “He’s just learning how to cope with them.” Lee added, “Instead of this constant push to meet certain expectations, there can also be resources provided that can help guide neurodiverse people along any type of path. The more I see the social model applied, including in theater spaces, the more I see empowerment.”  
Then, Spivak turned the discussion toward challenges neurodiverse people have working in theatre, with the actors on the panel sharing stories about their experiences, as well as a debate on whether to disclose or not disclose their neurodiversity in an interview or audition setting. Ballou offered her concern that, “If you tell somebody in the employment sector that you're autistic that's much more likely to make them question your ability to do the job than it is to give them a good idea of what your support needs or what your unique abilities might be.” Griffin added, “There are lots of variables for which you should make the determination to decide really what's going to put you in the best position.” 

The discussion next turned toward common accommodations that are necessary to make theatrical workplaces accessible to neurodiverse professionals. The panelists discussed several solutions for employers seeking to make a more inclusive workplace, including the accommodation of different learning styles through increasing rehearsal times and a production schedule that provides smaller sections of material to work on. Therrien described the working process of EPIC Players as a possible model, stating that, “We realized that artists on the spectrum and living with their diversities have limited access to careers in the arts. So, we wanted to create a pathway, not as a blueprint, but what works for us in our community. And it begins with asking the question, ‘What do you need?’” 

Spivak also asked the panel about initiatives for “relaxed performances” and “sensory friendly performances” that accommodate for the needs of autistic audiences members. Lee found them a necessary resource, but noted, “There are some neurodiverse people who don't necessarily want to have attend to show that has any modifications. Personally, I attend shows that don't generally have modifications. But, you know, I would like to know in advance about you know what to expect.” 

"The disabled community is the largest minority in the world. Neurodiverse artists should be represented more broadly so students and kids living with autism or other neurodiversities can see themselves on stage and screen and say, I can be that."

Griffin asked the panel about actions Equity can take to make workplaces more inclusive of neurodiversity. Ballou pointed out that after she, “Wrote a list about what my dream like autistic friendly production would look like,” she realized, “Almost every single thing on it was something that should just always be true, all the time for everybody. Things that make more accessible workplace are actually things that everybody should be able to expect in the workplace.”  

Griffin also asked the panel about recommendations or hopes for how theatres approach casting roles of neurodivergent characters. Spivak said, “They should focus on casting actors who are actually neurodiverse. I mean, there are very few neurodiverse characters and most of them are played by neurotypicals.” Therrien concluded, “You can't be what you can't see. Representation is super important for any community; the disabled community is the largest minority in the world. Neurodiverse artists should be represented more broadly so students and kids living with autism or other neurodiversities can see themselves on stage and screen and say, I can be that. I don't need to be pigeonholed into a labor job or retail job or whatever it is. I want to be an actor. I can do it. And that can't happen unless we start seeing more of it.” 

Equity members can access a video of the panel discussion in the member portal.