'Autism Isn't Something to Fear': How to Dance in Ohio Is Breaking Grounds in Autistic Representation | Playbill

Special Features 'Autism Isn't Something to Fear': How to Dance in Ohio Is Breaking Grounds in Autistic Representation

The cast of the new coming-of-age Broadway musical discuss why their show is unprecedented, and how Hal Prince was an early champion.

Cast of How To Dance In Ohio. Clockwise (from bottom left): Amelia Fei, Liam Pearce, Desmond Edwards, Imani Russell, Madison Kopec, Conor Tague. Center: Ashley Wool Marc J. Franklin

Something remarkable is afoot at the Belasco Theatre.

For the first time, a company led by openly autistic actors is coming to Broadway in How to Dance in Ohio, a heartfelt coming-of-age musical that follows seven young autistic adults as they prepare for the spring formal dance.

Adapted from the award-winning 2015 documentary of the same name, the musical, which was once championed by Hal Prince, begins previews November 15 and will open December 10. Featuring direction by Sammi Cannold, music by Jacob Yandura, and a book and lyrics by Rebekah Greer Melocik, the new musical is an idiosyncratic jewel designed to display the multifaceted reality of existing in the world as an autistic individual. 

All seven actors playing attendees of the dance are autistic themselves, a monumental achievement considering that autistic characters have never before been played by openly autistic actors on Broadway. Unlike many properties, which flatten the autistic experience into an easily digestible and palatable stereotype for neurotypical consumption, How to Dance in Ohio showcases the diversity within autistic identity—how it intersects with race and gender expression, as well as physical disability.

In celebration, Playbill brought together the autistic actors of How to Dance in Ohio—Desmond Luis Edwards, Amelia Fei, Madison Kopec, Liam Pearce, Imani Russell, Conor Tague, and Ashley Wool—for an in-depth round table interview, documenting their journey as they stand on the precipice of their collective Broadway debuts.

Conor Tague, Amelia Fei, Imani Russell, Liam Pearce, Madison Kopec, Desmond Edwards, and Ashley Wool in How to Dance in Ohio Curtis Brown

While the majority of the company found out about the show through its extensive social media campaign asking autistic individuals to audition, Amelia Fei had a remarkable introduction to the piece.

"I was an usher at the Majestic Theatre, and they were doing a private performance for Hal Prince's Memorial," Fei remembers, referring to the December 16, 2019 industry event. "I was lucky enough to be invited to do that shift; I was, like, all the way in the balcony, I was so far away from stage. But I was so starstruck because Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, all the big names were in the same room. And suddenly, three very friendly people were on stage, and they were saying, 'Oh, this is actually the last show Hal worked on before he passed away.' And they brought Rebekah and Jacob [How to Dance in Ohio's writing team] on stage." 

Like many of her future cast mates, Fei had hidden her autistic identity from public view. "Back then, I was kind of in the autism closet. I didn't tell anyone that I was autistic." Still, something moved her to submit for the continued development of the show, in spite of the fear attached to publicly identifying as autistic within the theatre industry. "It was such a liberating and powerful move for me, as a person."

Fei plays Caroline, one of three characters within the musical that are directly based on individuals from the original documentary: Caroline, Jessica, and Marideth. Through Caroline, Fei has steadily found her own sense of identity. “My character, Caroline, grew up in a family where they openly talked about autism, and she grew up to be this very bubbly, happy person.” Contrastingly, Fei was raised in a household that considered autism to be something she had to “overcome,” which led to immense amounts of internalized ableism. “She has a way better understanding of who she is as an individual than I, Amelia, could ever have. When people come to the show, I want them to see how beneficial it is to just talk about it, for everyone that's involved. Autism isn’t something to fear.”

The Company of How to Dance in Ohio Curtis Brown

Imani Russell, a trans singer-songwriter, poet, and playwright, also struggled to find their way out of the autism closet. "In 2021, I used my tax return to get an autism assessment," Russell explains, referring to the formal (and expensive) diagnosis process many have to go through to receive medical confirmation of their neurodivergence. "I was scared to go to the open call, because I was 'new to autism'—which, obviously, I've been autistic my whole life, but I didn't know how to navigate that. I got the callback, and then the very same day, I was cast." Russell plays Mel, a goal oriented young adult who yearns to establish their independence in their chosen career. Throughout the development process of the musical, it is perhaps Mel that has evolved the most, in part because of the grounded truth Russell brings to the role. 

“What you see, more often than not, is a cis-het white teenage boy," Russell states, referring to the homogenized autistic representation presented by the media at large. "Their experiences are important, but they're not the only ones.” The lack of diverse representation for those on the autism spectrum was a significant part of why it took years for Russell to realize that they were autistic. “I didn't understand that I could be autistic because, when it came to representation, there was no one who looked like me." A biracial Black Boriqua, Russell is one of several BIPOC actors in the company who are using How to Dance in Ohio as a way to uplift other neurodivergent BIPOC individuals.

Liam Pearce, Ashley Wool, Amelia Fei, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Madison Kopec, Desmond Edwards, and Conor Tague in How to Dance in Ohio Curtis Brown

“I felt a lot of shame growing up. There's so much ableism within the Black community and within the Hispanic community, but there's also ableism within the gay community, and within the trans community,” says Desmond Edwards, whose intersectional identities were written into the new character of Remy, a cosplay-loving pop culture fan who resists the societal pressure to mask their identity. "Neurodiversity and physical disabilities are not the same. We stand together as a community, but we are not the same."

Edwards has worked incredibly hard to unpack the secretive trauma that often haunts those living a marginalized existence, including the pressure to hide one's true identity behind a more publicly palatable mask. "For the longest time, I didn't want to be seen in general. I tried so hard to not be perceived by anybody; I always wore my hoodie at school, I wore my earplugs, and people were surprised when I spoke. One time I answered a question, and the kids in the class said, 'Oh, it speaks'—referring to me as it. Not a person, an it. Now, here I am, an autistic, queer, trans, intersex, disabled, Black and Hispanic person, on stage for everyone to see. So many people are gonna see themselves represented in me, in one way or another, for the first time, which is just so amazing.”

A former summer camp student of Ohio composer Jacob Yandura, Edwards was there when it was decided that the show would make the leap to Broadway, during its world premiere at Syracuse Stage in upstate New York. "Jacob put the phone to his ear, and he just started screaming, and he ran out of the room." Edwards laughs. "I put my hand on his shoulder, and I was like, 'Jacob, I will not tell anybody. If I do, you are 100 percent allowed to fire me.' So, I had to go on that night and perform my number from the show, 'Nothing At All,' in front of a huge theatre who had no idea. No one knew but us." 

Darlesia Cearcy and Haven Burton in How to Dance in Ohio Curtis Brown

"That is professional integrity right there, and I hate you for it!" responds Ashley Wool, jokingly. She plays the vividly confident Jessica in the show. “I got diagnosed because my younger sister was watching America's Next Top Model. There was a model who had what was, at the time, called Asperger's syndrome. My sister mentioned it offhand to my mom that [the model] reminded her of me. I had all the old harmful stereotypes in my head, because when you Google autism, the first thing that pops up is Autism Speaks.” Wool is referring to the organization that, for many years, spread the idea that autism was a life-ruining disease that needed to be eradicated. “They made me think I was always going to be broken, and that I was never going to be able to do the things that I love the most in the world.”

Wool is now part of the expansive online movement for autistic equity, often shortened to the hashtag #ActuallyAutistic. The community is made up of autistic individuals who are pushing directly against the ideas put forward by organizations like Autism Speaks, and against the idea that neurotypical individuals should speak for and over the neurodivergent community. For her, working on the development of How to Dance In Ohio has been a huge part of her activism. 

Though she admits that it wasn't until the COVID-19 pandemic that she started becoming more open about her autistic identity. "I was kind of dipping my toes into those advocacy circles, and figuring out how best to use my voice in those spaces. I just had a good feeling about this show. I sent in my callback materials the same day that we buried our dog of 16 years, and I was a pretty emotional. I did not feel like doing a self tape, it was the last thing I felt like doing. But I did that final call back, and when I came down the stairs, I felt this cosmic energy shift. It was like the voice of God or something saying, this is the thing."

Several of the company members echo Wool as she continues on. "I feel like it's upgraded my advocacy in certain ways, because it's forced me to deconstruct a lot of my own internalized ableism, and the things that Amelia and Dez and Imani were saying: The things that have kept us undiagnosed and undisclosed for so long, and then apologetic when we do tell people—just really coming to terms with those. Those doubts and those stigmas that are just ingrained in our very being...I'm really excited that this show is going to open the door to more of those conversations, and more of that learning and unlearning amongst people of all neuro types."

Nick Gaswirth and Madison Kopec in How to Dance in Ohio Curtis Brown

Of the seven core actors in the show, only two, Madison Kopec and Conor Tague, openly presented themselves professionally as autistic actors before beginning work on How to Dance in Ohio. 

In 2019, Kopec led a staged reading of a show called Indigo, in which she played a 16-year-old autistic girl working through child custody and dementia issues. "If I have a typecast, that's completely fine with me," Kopec chuckles. In Ohio, Kopec plays Marideth, a bookish autistic girl on the brink of romance. Getting to be a part of a collective group, rather than playing the token neurodivergent, has been a welcome change for the actor. "This show means so much to me, and it's made very clear in our show, once you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person. We are all individuals with completely different experiences. I hope that this show helps to showcase that to those that try to box us in."

Video: See Madison Kopec Sing 'Unlikely Animals' From How to Dance in Ohio

Also on the "out and proud" side is Tague, a comic bari-tenor who plays the passionately nerdy teenager Tommy. Diagnosed at the age of 2, Tague has lived his entire life with his autistic identity at the fore, working closely with multiple neurodiverse theatre companies throughout New York City, including EPIC Players and ActionPlay, with whom he kickstarted his career. "This show is everything that we have been working for, and now that it is finally here, I couldn't be more excited," Tague states, his supportive enthusiasm infectious.

How to Dance in Ohio has evolved from Zoom auditions to Broadway, with an extensive pre-Broadway tryout at Syracuse Stage in 2022. Along the way, much of the company has also gone on a multi-year journey to self acceptance. For many, it was difficult to overcome decades of comments about how revealing their autistic identity would damage their career.

“Doing this show has really cracked everything open for me,” says Liam Pearce, the actor who plays Drew, a college student. “Up until two years ago, I was never really around other autistic people. I knew that I had this this diagnosis, but I think it was a little bit forgotten about in my family. Doing this show has affirmed in me why I think and work in spaces the way that I do."

When Pearce thinks about what the future of the show might hold, he can't help but become a little emotional. "There's so many autistic people who love musical theatre...And to be a part of this renaissance, doing something that has never been done on Broadway before, is really, really cool. Ever since the announcement, my DMs have been flooded with people who are reaching out to thank us. We're just actors, but by sheer necessity, we are kind of the face of autism on Broadway now. It is so special and important to me that this exists. And it is just the beginning.”

Cast of How To Dance In Ohio. Top row, from left: Ashley Wool, Desmond Edwards, Conor Tague, Madison Kopec, Amelia Fei. Bottom row, from left: Imani Russell, Liam Pearce Marc J. Franklin
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