“Curious Incident” and Autistic Actors on Broadway

Ian Barford and Alex Sharp in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Only the most insensitive person could ignore the subject line of the email:

Thousands of Autistics Protest ‘Curious Incident’ Broadway Replacement

I was only tangentially aware that Alexander Sharp, who won the 2015 Tony for Leading Actor in a Play, was leaving The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (the 2015 Tony-winner for Best Play), but he is, having played the lead in Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel since September 2014. Not only Sharp but Taylor Trensch, who subs for Sharp at some performances, is leaving as well.

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Ian Barford and Alex Sharp in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Ian Barford and Alex Sharp in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

If you’re unfamiliar with the play (or the novel), it’s a vivid, engrossing, often electrifying work about a 15-year-old named Christopher with Asperger’s-like traits who comes upon a dog, slain with a fork, and is suspected, initially, of committing the crime. After his innocence is established, Christopher begins his own investigation of the killing, leading to episodes that reveal family secrets, forces him to confront his own psychological and emotional limitations, and instills in him the confidence he needs to navigate the world.

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The production’s success is due, in part, to its kinetic staging by Marianne Elliott (who won the Tony for Best Direction of a Play). In the spirit of the novel, it unfurls from Christopher’s point of view, which is why Curious Incident is a distinctly sensory theatrical experience:

The irony here may be that Christopher — never called autistic in the play but “different” — is averse to touch; he resists both emotional expressions made toward him as well as any emotional expressions toward others. I haven’t read much to argue that Christopher’s character, or Sharp’s portrayal, offers anything but fidelity to, and respect for, the experience of the world that someone like Christopher might have. It’s also critical to note that neither Sharp nor Trensch nor Luke Treadaway, who originated the role of Christopher at the National Theatre in London, happen to be autistic. Which is why the subject line of the email startled me: Why would “thousands” of autistics protest Sharp’s replacement?

Photo courtesy: David Noles Photography.
Photo courtesy: David Noles Photography.

The replacement’s name is Tyler Lea. From the photos on his website, he looks like a Christopher: young, lean, sweet-faced, brown hair, penetrating blue eyes. I’m not privy to the exact process by which the Curious Incident casting director, industry veteran Cindy Tolan, placed Lea in the talent pool, nor privy to the exact manner by which the true decision-makers — director Elliott, the producers — cast him. But cast him they did, and for all of Lea’s ostensible talent, it seems that the one attribute Lea can’t deliver on is being autistic. And that, said the email, has “thousands” of autistics upset.

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“Thousands” is an awful lot of people. Short of the decision made nearly 25 years ago by Actors’ Equity to stop British actor Jonathan Pryce from recreating his performance as the Engineer in the musical Miss Saigon on Broadway because he wasn’t a star and wasn’t Asian (the Engineer is actually Eurasian), it’s hard to recall many Broadway casting announcements bringing “thousands” of people to action. Back in 1990-91, the issue was cultural and ethnic appropriation. If “thousands” are indeed furious at the cast of Lea, that’s news.

So I replied to the sender of the email, a woman named Carolyn Ledesma. Did she lead these “thousands”? What was her stake in this? Was she an actor? A lawyer? Her email, excerpted below, didn’t say:

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I would not describe myself as an activist but would describe myself as a self-advocate. I was an actress in college. Representation on stage is just something I (as well as most autistics) are very passionate about and this show is hitting a nerve with me (as with most autistics).

Theater is often diagnosed as therapy for autistics so many autistics pursue theater until they realize how ‘important’ small-talk and off-stage wooing is to receiving roles from auditions. Again, autism does not often effect [sic] actors while they’re on stage.

There has been an exceedingly large movement in the autistic community calling for Curious Incident to cast an actor who has autism, of which there are many…

While I am SO happy for Tyler Lea…the decision also feels like a slap in the face to the autistic community and feels like a huge missed opportunity for good. I know casting a show is hard but what is not hard is listening to those with the disability that you are profiting off of and making some small acknowledgment, even if not through casting, that you have heard them.

Whoa. Did Tolan, Elliott and the producers really “slap” autistics “in the face” by casting Lea? I also had more questions for Ledesma. What does “exceedingly large” mean? Had I missed pickets, Times op-eds, civil disobedience at curtain calls? Have the producers been truly spurning and slighting the autistic community even as they “profiting off of” them? I learned there had been a petition: where was it? Could I sign it? No, Ledesma wrote:

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The petition was deleted a little bit ago because so many of the comments took to accusing particular people involved in Curious Incident…or particular actors and that is not what we are about. Many of the comments that were not hurtful or naming specific people were moved here.

I clicked on a link. When I did, I came upon many comments like this:
Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 12.21.13 PM“Offensive material”? “…control over the character-building process as actors”? Did the autistic community really believe that the production, and Sharp’s portrayal, represented something reprehensible?

Ledesma helpfully provided me with links to stories on Sharp’s work and, crucially, the autism community’s view of the play. Certainly the theater industry has been all over the topic. Last May, for instance, American Theatre ran a piece on stage work by, for and with autistic young people; it noted that Curious Incident “partnered” with Theatre Development Fund’s Autism Theatre Initiative “to present an ‘autism-friendly’ performance of the show.” This is not the only example of the production forging links to the community.

Still, the article noted that some autism advocates…

…have voiced their frustration that an actor on the spectrum was not cast… Still, many kids with autism and their families have said that they see their own experience in the show…

I might point out that the link featured in that pull-quote above really is worth reading. It will lead you to a piece on Howlround that asks directly whether an autistic actor must play Christopher:

….The consensus opinion, though, seems to be a feeling that it is not proper in some way for the part to be played by a non-autistic. That seems to touch on a desire for not just authenticity, but a deeper truth. Let’s turn that into a question.
Is it appropriate for a non-autistic to play the part of an autistic?

And then Howlround, going further, exploded the question:

A parallel which has been suggested more than once, and which puts this question somewhat into perspective, is this: Is it appropriate for a white actor to wear black-face makeup to play a black character?

Honestly? Now my guard went up. If we learned nothing else from Miss Saigon 25 years ago, we learned that cultural and other appropriations are risky at best, full-on terrible at worst. In terms of writing, directing, creating and performing a character, appropriations need a dramaturgical underpinning. You can’t just put a white actor in black-face because we feel like it. Or, generally, ever.

Arguably a terrible screen capture of Jonathan Pryce, taken from YouTube.
A screen capture of Jonathan Pryce, taken from YouTube.

Yet I feel we should acknowledge a slippery slope here. Regardless of who we are, we belong, or feel we belong, to certain groups. We therefore may take deep offense when we come upon depictions and illustrations of those groups that put them in ignorant and stereotypical lights. I’m Jewish. If I believe a Jewish actor must play Eugene Jerome in Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues or Broadway Bound, I may protest if a non-Jewish actor gets the part. I’m gay. If I believe a gay actor must play Prior Walter in Angels in America, I may protest if a non-gay actor gets the part. If you’re not Jewish, gay, five-foot-six, a Democrat or a native New Yorker; if your forebears don’t happen to be British, French, Dutch, German, Polish or Russian like mine, then offenses (real or perceived) against those groups may not rile you as they may rile me. I’m not suggesting that autistic people angered by the casting of Lea is the same thing as short people upset by the casting of Tommy Tune. Nor do I suggest moral equivalence between black-face and autism, autism and Jewishness, or Jewishness and sexual orientation. Rather, I’m making the observation that our tendency to defend our groups is understandable and, let’s note, subjective. Subjective, to be even more clear, on a continuum. On that continuum are questions, such as whether white actors may wear black-face, for which consensus seems fairly easy to reach. Other questions, meanwhile, are harder to answer. Despite my own subjective feelings, we cannot all agree that Jewish actors must play Eugene Jerome. Despite my own subjective feelings, we cannot all agree that gay actors must play Prior Walter, no matter how sick I am of straight actors still playing gay characters in 2015 America. We cannot all agree that autistic actors must play Christopher. We can all agree that it would be nice, that it would be validating, that it would be, if possible, preferable. We can all agree that the stakeholders of Curious Incident have a professional, ethical and moral responsibility to create a level playing field that allows autistic actors to vie for the role. Unless we’re ready to demonize the stakeholders, the rest is — well, the rest is the rest of the story.

In another email, Ledesma wrote this:

We would like for the national tour to consider casting an autistic, or for Tyler Lea’s secondary or understudy Christopher to be cast using an autistic actor. We don’t mean to call anyone out in a negative way, we know that all involved are doing very difficult jobs and doing them very well. We simply want to put great pressure on them to consider casting artistic actors of which there are many.

Ledesma doesn’t know I spent over 10 years as an editor and critic at Back Stage, the trade publication for American actors, and that I know at least the basics of casting for the theater; as a recovering director and playwright as well, I’ve also been in plenty of audition rooms. So again, while I’m not privy to the casting process for Curious Incident, I know that employment is employment; employers not only must heed the law but must exhibit, ethically, certain sensitivities. It seems to me that it would be impossible, not to mention unwise, for casting director Tolan, director Elliott and the Curious Incident producers not to consider casting an autistic actor for the role of Christopher. But if they wanted to fully limit their choices only to autistic actors, how would they legally, ethically, morally go about it? Can they really ask every actor if they’re autistic — and, if they are, where they are on the spectrum? Is that practical? How many actors have auditioned for the play and explicitly outed themselves as autistic? I’m not suggesting that actors should or shouldn’t do so. Maybe many actors do self-identify in the audition room all the time. I’m suggesting that discrimination is a multi-headed hydra — and discrimination is discrimination. I believe in equality.

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If no one connected to Curious Incident has ever had a conversation with an autistic person ever, that’s incomprehensibly wrong. But it seems to me that the production has gone to great lengths to reach out to, respect and interact with the autism community. Maybe not to everyone’s liking, OK. But that is not nothing.

Nor am I saying that an autistic actor can’t play Christopher. It may very well be that an autistic actor can and will play Christopher. It may also be true that such an autistic actor hasn’t walked into the audition room yet. So all of this returns me to the beginning of the conversation: Is the casting process of Curious Incident fair? If it’s not, it’s not enough to say it’s unfair. You need proof.

So I called Adrian Bryan-Brown, the publicist for Curious Incident and a recipient of one of the 2015 Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre. He was aware of the upset in the autism community but would not comment on the now-defunct petition or whether, as Ledesma told me, each signature generated an email to the show, many of which contained scathing messages. He wouldn’t comment on whether there is an email campaign underway right now to pressure the director of the national tour of the play to cast an autistic actor, or, as Ledesma further claimed, whether the producers shut off Facebook comments about the play because so many of those comments were infuriated screeds.

Nor would Bryan-Brown disclose how many actors were in the process that yielded Lea or how many of those actors were autistic or self-identified as such. But he did provide me with this statement:

There has always been a policy of inclusion in the opportunity to audition for Curious Incident. Actors who identify themselves as being on the autistic spectrum have auditioned for the role of Christopher in the play. The production would like to reinforce that professional actors who identify as being on the autism spectrum are encouraged to submit their headshot, resume and any relevant information about their actor training or experience for consideration to audition. Submissions can be sent to CuriousIncidentCasting@gmail.com.

I ended my call with Bryan-Brown feeling that Tolan, Elliott and the producers are probably not only open to casting an autistic actor as Christopher but are indeed serious about it. So my response to Ledesma and the “thousands” of protestors is this: unless you plan to accuse the Curious Incident team of bigotry, phobia, hatred or ignorance, we really ought to assume that the decision-makers are being fair in their assessment of the talent pool. I don’t know that they are; you don’t know that they’re not. I do know that crying “unfair” is not in itself a strategy for change.

I began to think of all this increasingly from the actor’s viewpoint, too. Daryl Hannah, Courtney Love, Tim Burton and Dan Aykroyd are all autistic — or at least they’re public about it. For a rising actor in the business, however, it’s unclear to me that they’d want to self-identify before auditioning or even afterward. And this isn’t due to shame: I abhor shame. Rather, I’d like to think that any actor wishes to be cast because they’re the best person for the role and not because they fulfill some quota. When producer Cameron Mackintosh canceled the Broadway run of Miss Saigon — that was his tart, short-lived response to the Actors’ Equity fracas involving Jonathan Pryce — he explained that he wouldn’t allow his shows to be cast by quota. He got his way when the union backed down, and while his “quota” remark was, to be sure, disingenuous, I really don’t want theater in which we cast by tally, not by talent. What an insult it would be if we did that. And if any actors who self-identify as autistic wish to describe their experience auditioning for Curious Incident, the CFR will publish what they have to say with no questions asked — so long as they allow their names to be used.

The other day I received an email from “Avery Jaeger, Autistic.” She asked me to publish this statement:

Theater is so powerful and so important because it helps people feel empathy with others. You see someone onstage acting well for two hours and when you leave you understand them, you feel they are capable, and this is why theater has the power to change the world. Curious had the opportunity to do something truly amazing, which was to consider casting an autistic and change years of stigma and misconceptions about autism. If they had explored the possibility of doing this and found it wasn’t possible that would have been acceptable, but for them to choose to not even enter into a dialogue with autistics about this possibility after we have reached out to them so many times in so many ways letting them know how important this is to us is a shame.

I wish them all greater understanding and common ground.