Autistic adults in the United States are unemployed at estimated rates of more than 80%. Those who find stable work are just as likely to be underemployed. According to the Ruderman White Paper on Disability in Television, fewer than 1% of television characters are written as disabled or having a disability, and of those, only 5% are portrayed by actors with disabilities. To combat this combination of inequality, EPIC Players in Brooklyn provides educational and employment opportunities for Autistic and other neurodivergent actors, playwrights, etc.
EPIC Players is a neuro-inclusive, non-profit theatre company that offers classes, supportive social communities in the arts, and professional performance opportunities to autistic and neurodiverse persons. They perform two main stage productions per year, as well as cabarets and original productions. Classes are free for EPIC company members, well-staffed to ensure all students can access the courses fully, and available both in person and online. The cost of classes is offset from donations and grants, like a recently awarded grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. This award will allow EPIC to continue its mission to pay its actors for their work, while keeping classes free for their members. If you want to support EPIC’s efforts, readers can donate, sponsor, or sign up to volunteer here: https://www.epicplayersnyc.org/support.
Last week, I spoke to two of the players, Sarah Kaufman and Conor Tague, and to Aubrie Therrien, the Executive Artistic Director and founder of EPIC, via Zoom about their company and about their recent production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which ran through May 22nd.
Many characters in literature and drama are autistically-coded or neurodivergent-coded. This means they exhibit autistic or neurodivergent behaviors without being explicitly labeled as such by their author or playwright. These characters may be interpreted in the way they are coded, but they can also often be interpreted in other ways.
The nerdy, socially-awkward, middle-school-aged contestants of Spelling Bee are clearly meant to represent neurodivergent character tropes. As Kaufman pointed out, there is a stage direction in the script that suggests one of the contestants might have “a touch of echolalia.” Ecolalia is the repetition of words and phrases, either immediately after they have been said or later. Echolalia is not unique to autism, but it is one type of autistic communication. It is often misunderstood to be lacking in intention or meaning.
EPIC’s production of Spelling Bee featured autistic and neurodivergent actors in several of the show’s iconic roles, like Tague’s performance as William Barfé and his “magic foot,” allowing their identities and personal experiences to inform their character choices and create authentic autistic and neurodivergent performances, which Therrien believes heightened the experience of the show for the cast and the audience alike.
Kaufman and Tague are both diagnosed autistic but their experiences with diagnosis are quite different from each other.
Tague was diagnosed in early childhood and was told that he was not expected to talk or read. Those expectations were inaccurate, and Tague began acting at age 10. He eventually earned an important role for autistic representation in Season 19, Episode 10 of Law & Order: SVU, playing autistic character Cody Hill in 2017. The episode, based on the Gypsy Rose Blanchard case, aired in 2018. Young male-presenting children are more likely to receive early diagnosis, especially if spoken language is delayed. Often their prospects and prognosis are viewed dimly by those who view autism mainly through the deficit-based medical model.
Kaufman, who played multiple adult roles in Spelling Bee, is a nonbinary, AFAB (assigned female at birth) actor and playwright who was not diagnosed until their 20s. When a college friend shared their own autistic experiences, the similarities were too striking to ignore for Kaufman, though diagnosis did not come until much later. There are often financial and other barriers to diagnosis for adults. Female-presenting and nonbinary autistic people are often misdiagnosed or completely missed due to gender biases in the diagnostic process.
Kaufman experienced several unhealthy experiences with theatre companies before their diagnosis. When a friend congratulated Kaufman on their diagnosis, they also suggested auditioning for EPIC. From the initial contact through the audition process and all of the rehearsals and performances, Kaufman shared that EPIC creates a truly welcoming and accessible space for both the audience and the members of the company. It was impossible to mistake how powerful the support and acceptance of EPIC has been for Kaufman, who wrote about their experiences in a blog post.
Like many educational theatre programs, EPIC pivoted their classes and performances online after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Their online and hybrid classes have been so successful, that EPIC will continue offering online and hybrid options, alongside the return of in-person courses. New classes will become available soon. Keep checking their website for updates.
Company auditions to become a member of EPIC Players will be held in July. Use the form at the bottom of the linked page to submit your interest. Auditions for both the next cabaret and the next main stage production, Tartuffe, will be held in August. More details will be available soon.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.