12 Ways Community Theatre Is Perfect for Folks on the Autism Spectrum
Community, (or amateur, or volunteer) theatre has been a significant part of my life for years. I was of course on the Autism Spectrum long before I took up acting, but I took up acting long before I KNEW I was on the Spectrum.
It’s not for everybody, and it’s not for everyone on the Spectrum. But I wanted to share some ways in which stage acting on the amateur level has melded nicely with some of my Autistic qualities.
(Note that I cannot speak to the experience of Unionized professional acting, which requires very specific rules and regulations which may or may not include the things I list here.)
- Structure. When a production is done well, and people care about what they are doing, the process is a structured one. There’s always going to be chaos and confusion in a volunteer process, and the arts are no exception. Even the most well-run of theatres will experience their share of frazzled nerves and contained (barely) lunacy. And of course, some shows and some companies are just not very good. But when it works, it really works, and a structured approach to achieving a multifaceted goal is tops for me.
- Repetition. Many standard occupations are out of my reach, because of how quickly I am expected to adjust to so many moving parts in so little time. (Retail. Serving. Hospitality, etc.) My executive dysfunction doesn’t allow me to get thrown right into the water and swim to shore. But with a theatre production, all aspects of production are practiced. Repeated. Broken down into smaller bits. Over and over and over again. By necessity. For up to eight weeks! To me, that’s a paradise of time to get it right, even if any given night at the theatre is a bust.
- Specified Duration. As mentioned above, the average non-professional stage show rehearses between six and eight weeks, and performs a show on one to three weekends, (almost always consecutively.) While there is plenty of time to get burned out if you don’t take care of yourself, there is a definitive end game here. No wondering how long you may be stuck in something that isn’t a good fit for you. Not working for ways to “get out” after X time. The show closes on a given day, and you know what day that is when you audition. I thrive on knowing how long I will be committed to something.
- Masking/Unmasking. On stage, you obviously pretend to be someone else. Many of us on the Spectrum are familiar with masking, wherein we consciously or unconsciously hide personal traits associated with our Autism so as to “fit in” with the rest of the world. Depending on your comfort level, you’ll still be doing that in a show. The difference is, at least when on the stage, there is no need to be “normal” as it were. You are a character as written, not the altered version of yourself the world wants you to be. And in this I have found an irony; you can actually be more of your true self while pretending to be someone else than you can be when pretending to be a “sanitized” version of you. Masking put to productive use.
- It Takes All Kinds. The stereotype of people on the Spectrum loving mechanical things and being adept at same doesn’t apply to me at all. But if it applies to you, you are in luck in more ways than one. Set building, painting, set dressing, costume design, sound effects are all part of theatre. In most companies at least one or two of these departments can use an extra hand. Sometimes they even need someone in charge of same. If you are more into the sciences and engineering, the theatre is another outlet.
- Meeting Like-Minded People. As you know, many people on the Spectrum who want to meet others have a difficult time doing so. For me, and others I have talked to, this process becomes much easier when we engage in common activity with others. Don’t have a job, or don’t have any friends there? Putting on a show is a great way to get to know people without having to “get to know people.” (If of course, you want to meet new people.) But if not, if you pay attention to your part and do the work expected of you, it’s also perfectly possible to do a show and maintain your privacy much of the time.
- An Element of Fantasy. Not all scripts tell a fantasy story, it’s true. But even the most straight-forward dramas provide an alternate world to enter for a few hours every evening for two months. The “real” world may not go away entirely, but you may find the pocket-universe of a script’s world a compelling escape.
- It’s Often Dark and Quiet. A bit of a fudge here, as it is often neither, at least early on in a rehearsal process. Yet it may be the case more often than in most endeavors. True, on stage you will be under the lights most of the time, and if you are photo sensitive this may not be the hobby for you. But if you merely find the darkness appealing or an hour of quiet comforting, there is plenty of it backstage in the wings. Eventually, out in the audience seats as well, once the lighting plot is in place.
- It Puts You In Contact With Emotional Expression. Some of us have difficulty with this. And while exploring, (and being coached through) creating a convincing character is not therapy, it can be for certain people therapeutic. Even if the real you never feels or acts the way your character does, learning how to present that character’s emotion may help you express yourself. It can also make recognizing the nuance of how other people are feeling a little easier at times.
- Also Puts You In Contact With You Body. Again, being on stage will not cure you of verified medical conditions. But, if like many people on the Spectrum you find you are often just clumsy, repetition and some instruction in moving about on stage may increase your awareness of your bodily motion in everyday life.
- Theatre Types Tend to Be Very Tolerant of Quirks and Idiosyncrasies. Need I say more?
- When You Think About, Isn’t Theatre Itself a Bit Autistic? We call it “the Fourth Wall.” Literally it refers to the space between the performance and the audience. Where there would in fact be a wall, or some other obstruction if the scene were actually playing out in the described setting. In most cases, the actor is aware of the audience, and in certain cases responds directly to it. But most of the time performers go about their internal creating, feeling the presence of the audience but not engaging them. Like the thoughts many of us on the Spectrum have when out and about in the world, we acknowledge the rest of humanity, take part in it when we want, but much of the time have our own drummer to march to. And the audience, (if the actors are talented and committed) sit in the dark and watch a tale unfold that is somehow in the same room as they, yet worlds away from them. Speaking for myself, I know the feeling, even when I am not in a theatre.
Remember of course that the theatre is a particularly human collaboration. In no way is it immune to assholes. There is no guarantee it will be done fairly, correctly, or in a manner any given person can tolerate. (That goes for NTs as well as those on the Spectrum.) But if my dozens of shows and years of experience as an actor count as anything, I can tell you that volunteer theatre has a higher probability of offering a home to the sensitive individual with ASD than a lot of other communities and hobbies. By its nature it is often tolerant of myriad diversity, and it may be worth looking into if you haven’t yet.