My company Actionplay is an inclusive group that relies on ensemble-based performance to build social communities that rise above the feeling of being excluded. We embody the notion that in difference there is great strength. The meaningful and supportive relationships that are formed in our rehearsal room are essential for those of us who don’t quite fit the norm.
We’ve had some tremendous highlights: Our Actionplay Chorus performed this past year with Weird Al Yankovic and Jodi Di Piazza on Comedy Central’s Night of Too Many Stars, and we recently performed our original musical comedy production of Revenge of the Godz to multiple standing ovations. It is incredible to see performers of difference celebrated by a mostly neurotypical audience.
But sometimes, an audience member approaches me and complains about a performer that doesn't fit the mold.
A couple years ago, our chorus performed onstage at an esteemed venue for an audience of autism advocates, self-advocates, diplomats, and disability advocates. The performance featured a funny song about sensory overload in New York City. Our chorus was confident as an ensemble, taking turns for solos, and working to support each other on stage for an audience of about 200 people. On the whole, the audience was incredibly supportive.
There was a boy onstage in our group who was not doing the same thing as the rest of our inclusive group of young performers. Our group was singing the song in key and performing the choreography. This boy was spinning, dancing, mouthing his own words to the song, and marching with his back to the audience. He was performing with the ensemble, but at the same time it was almost as if he was in his own world. The young performers and his family were supporting him on stage, and the grin on his face would let you know that he was having a blast. He was an essential part of the performance.
Yet at the end of this performance, a couple of people who are esteemed in the Jewish community approached me with questions. “How could I let this performer on stage? He was distracting. He clearly wasn’t autistic, or ready for an audience.” My jaw dropped. How could folks be so callous to this boy, in all of his vibrant individuality?
My reply was as respectful as possible, “He has a disability that sometimes makes it difficult for him to process new environments. The performance was different than the rehearsals, but I thought his soloing was exceptional.”
As we approach the new year, we need to think about the story of the Baal Shem Tov, who let a non-speaking young boy play his flute amidst the routine Rosh Hashanah prayers, and proclaimed “The Gates of Heaven are now open!” We must ask ourselves: How can the Jewish community continue to adapt, accommodate, be respectful of the challenges and provide tremendous opportunities for new experiences. How can we promote growth and create joy for all people- regardless of how we may classify them? The answer is right in front of us, perhaps performing with their backs to the audience: The real angels are always in our midst, playing their music in their own unique way. We only have to tune our ears differently to listen.
Aaron is the Executive Director and founder of Actionplay, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals on the autism spectrum, their families, and the community at large. Aaron is also a film director and is currently directing a feature length documentary film, Big Daddy Autism.