Off-Off Broadway and on the Spectrum

Nicholas, Elizabeth and their director, Kelly

Nicholas, Elizabeth and their director, Kelly Wisneski

It isn’t unusual for students in the Performing Arts Program at Holy Spirit School in Pequannock, NJ to rehearse in the science lab. With all the desks and lab stools pushed against the walls there is just enough room for a small group of cast members to run through a scene, a song or a dance number. On this particular afternoon Elizabeth and Nicholas, cast as Belle and Beast in this year’s production of Beauty and the Beast Jr, are working on perfecting a waltz under the guidance of their gifted choreographer, Rosemary Rado. Nothing at all unusual.  What is unique is the casting; both these eighth graders are “on the Spectrum” having been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Asperger’s  is a high functioning form of autism characterized by high intelligence, difficulties in social interactions and highly specialized areas of expertise. Often considered quirky by family and friends, Aspies, as Nicholas refers to himself and his co-star, often use formal language and fail to read non-verbal communication. Some may experience repetitive behaviors such as rocking or the flapping of hands. Also notable is a focus on one area of specialization: Elizabeth is an expert on faeries while Nicholas specializes in Disney animation and the history of Nintendo.

Elizabeth and Nicholas’ disability has enhanced their creativity, a characteristic that they share with many other Aspies. In addition to acting and singing, Elizabeth has written a book and many short stories and plays three instruments. While Nicholas is a visual artist who has designed posters for the school plays over the past two years in addition to creating his own series of cartoons. There is no scientific explanation for the connection between creativity and Asperger’s though there is some speculation that since they don’t pick up on the common social cues in their early school years that make children feel that they aren’t artistic, Aspies haven’t learned not to be creative. Others suggest a link between acting on stage and the way Aspies often act to get through daily life. For example, they will often laugh at jokes they don’t perceive as funny because they understand they should in that social situation.

Even with their creativity, acting does pose some difficulties for both Nicholas and Elizabeth, as well as those who work with them. The show’s director, Kelly Wisneski,  has observed that problems are often found where they are least expected: “Simple things that would not bother most kids can become big problems for them, such as the need to wear eyeliner or endure the sound of certain costume fabrics rubbing against one another.” Cathy Prior, co-director, puts their disabilities in perspective by considering them in light of their neurotypical peers “It’s hard to get children to really become a character in a performance. [But] these two children really put themselves into the part and thus their success as the two stars of the show.”

While the world may be struck by two leads in the same show on the Autistic Spectrum, this is nothing unusual to Nicholas and Elizabeth who Wisneski notes “do not know there is any other way to portray a role other than to completely become the character.” They are more than their disabilities, they are actors.

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Staying Alive: A Love Story

One of the most exciting parts of being in a writer’s community is the publication of a friend’s book. A unique comaraderie develops as we work out the kinks, draft after draft, with our trusted readers and friends. We come to feel that while we aren’t haven’t birthed or nutured the book, that we are its godparents, standing by it’s side and supporting it as it is eventually sent out on the world.

Recently my friend, Laura B. Hayden, has delivered her book, Staying Alive: A Love Story to the world.

Staying Alive: A Love Story is a tale of hope and renewal that centers on Hayden’s search for meaning after the untimely death of her 49-year-old husband. Coupled with other experiences of loss in her life – including one of her kidneys to cancer — she is determined to, with her children, persevere.

Like Annie Dillard, Hayden draws on the rhythms and rituals of the natural world to explore her Brooklyn roots and New England adulthood. Wild creatures and domesticated critters, seasides and hillsides proffer comfort and understanding as she comes to realize that ‘no more than a hairline and no less than an eternity’ separate her from the man she loved. Even with the wear and tear her faith endures, it rarely diminishes.

Her purpose – to usher her two grieving children through a difficult adolescence to a well-adjusted adulthood – resonates through her own struggle. With the precise objectivity reminiscent of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates A Widow’s Story, Hayden recounts the day her husband died and the rituals and obsessions of the bereaved. Forced to look at death straight in the eye, the author stares back, wide-eyed, without blinking through her tears.

Hayden also manages to be seriously droll – in an Anne Lamott way.  Never is her humor more honed than in the portrayal of her deceased spouse, whose devotion, antics, and
wisdom remain ever-present to those who are staying alive without him. His death becomes not only the family’s heartbreak, but the loss of a well-executed life for all who knew him or will get to know him through her memoir.

Whether Laura B. Hayden’s writing deals with herself, her children, or her cadre of loved ones, it is clear that she, her daughter, and her son emerge from their tragic loss survivors, not victims of Larry’s death, an outcome of which he would be very pleased. In a culture of intentionally exposed and celebrated self-victimization, the story of this family may be considered a quiet triumph.”

This is a wonderful book, and I’m not just saying that as a proud godparent.

Click on the cover of the book to purchase Staying Alive: A Love Story from Amazon.com.

It’s All in the Blanks

I’ve graduated and now I’m facing the “real world.” Or at least that would be the case if I were a twenty three-year-old graduate finishing her first masters immediately following undergrad. But as it is, I’m a forty-something, having just completed my second masters in a low-residency program that required my participation in the “real world.” So let me rephrase: Now I’m facing the un-real world of publishing.

I’ve worked hard for years and written a super book. At least I think so, and so do my husband, best friend, best friend’s spouse, a couple of classmates and my proofreader. Now that I think of it, my mom and grandmother would probably really like it too. And now that it’s done, I’m ready to send it out to get the representation it, and I, so richly deserve.

I’ve talked with my classmates who already have agents for suggestions and advice. One particularly loyal and kind soul even referred me to her agent – kisses, darling, you know who you are. I have spent hours reading profile after profile of agents on agentsquery.com and even more hours on searching through agency websites. By the time my children started wondering who the woman was in her dalmatian-spotted pajamas sitting in front of a computer at the dining room table mumbling something about membership in AAR I had compiled a preliminary list of 44 agents to query.

And so it began. I sent emails. I stuffed envelopes. Then I did something completely out of character. Something that warmed the cockles of my industrial engineering/operations research husband’s heart (yes, even engineers have hearts). I created an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of who, what and when. In addition to names, email addresses and dates contacted I also included a column for notes “This agent will only respond in two weeks if you have typed your manuscript in a sans serif font in chartreuse ink on genuine sheepskin under a waxing moon.” But for me the most important column is the last one. The one that started out blank and has been increasingly filled with a date and a lone word: rejected.

Don’t feel sorry for me, I’m in good company. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was passed on more than a hundred and thirty times, Good Night Moon – thirty three. Twilight – fourteen (though a few more rejections may have been a service to the reading public).  Do you know how many times Harry Potter was rejected? No, really, I have no clue; but it was a lot. See, there’s hope for me yet.

A hope represented by blank cells on an Excel spreadsheet. And when those cells are full, I will add new entries and hang my hopes on new blanks. That’s just my un-real world.