There are few things more intoxicatingly intriguing and terrifying as change. Human beings are naturally curious creatures, constantly turning over new stones, yet we are also creatures of habit, yearning to hold tight to our routines. This dichotomy is heightened for autistic individuals, who often struggle to balance between being overloaded with information and craving new input.
In How to Dance in Ohio, the new neurodivergent coming-of-age musical coming to the Belasco Theatre November 15, this tension is personified by Marideth, a bookish autistic girl played by Madison Kopec.
Kopec visited Playbill at Alchemical Studios to perform Marideth's solo song, "Unlikely Animals," with composer Jacob Yandura accompanying on the keyboard. In the video above, they provide a taste of the important representation How To Dance in Ohio is giving to autistic individuals for the first time in Broadway history.
"I'm very excited for audiences to get a glimpse into just a small part of what the autism spectrum looks like," Kopec states proudly.
In the musical, Marideth is persuaded to join the Amigo Family Counselling group by her father, which forces her out of her isolated comfort zone. Naturally introverted, she struggles to find balance in the new socialization, turning to the comfort of her special interests when the changes become too much to bare.
"Marideth is a little standoffish, I think, but it's for her own safety," Kopec explains. "She's a very anxious person. Her special interests are geography and animals. She loves to learn about different countries in different places, particularly Australia." Australia, and its relative isolation from the rest of the world for millennia, offer comfort to Marideth, who in many ways feels walled off from the outside world herself.
While everyone can experience enjoyment and pleasure from a hobby, special interests provide a profound sense of meaning for autistic individuals. These interests, which often manifest as an intense focus, that can be misconstrued as an obsession. They captivate an individual for indeterminate lengths of time, with some interests lasting a lifetime. For many autistic individuals, their special interests offer them the key to understanding the outside world, and how it relates to their internal sense of being.
How to Dance in Ohio's writing team, composer Jacob Yandura and lyricist Rebekah Greer Melocik, brought this passionate aspect of autistic life to light in the song "Unlikely Animals," where Marideth lays out the logical connections she has observed between herself and the uniquely evolved animals of Australia. In a society that often directly rebuffs access needs required by autistic individuals, the idea of Australia's divergent evolution offers Marideth a chance to fantasize the act of belonging.
"This is something very new for her," Kopec explains, referring to the storm of emotions Marideth is forced to sort through once entering the center. "Navigating adulthood, navigating romantic feelings...she's only able to spit out facts in response to these questions," Often called "infodumping", the instinct to unload information in the face of emotional overload is a common protective technique utilized by autistic individuals, as well as a common method of communication. Put two autistic individuals in a room, and chances are they'll start bonding over connected information, surrounding themselves with the comfort of their special interests as insulation. "I really relate with some of her arc: she's a lot more book driven than I am, but she and I are similar in a lot of ways."
Kopec is one of seven autistic actors starring in How to Dance in Ohio as autistic characters. Getting to be a part of a collective group, rather than playing the token neurodivergent, has been a welcome change. "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."
"Unlikely Animals," performed by Madison Kopec with Jacob Yandura was also showcased in Broadway Backstage: Fall Preview from ABC 7, which features interviews with the stars of this season's hottest shows, and hosted by Eyewitness News Anchor Michelle Charlesworth and Spamalot cast member Michael Urie. Any New York resident can watch the broadcast October 22, 2023 at 5:30 PM. The special will rebroadcast October 29 at 5:30 AM. The special is also available to stream at abc7ny.com/broadway.
See photos from Kopec's shoot with Playbill below.