Reflections on my experience with accessibility in an apprenticeship theatre program at Williamstown
In 2009, one of my writing mentors suggested I apply for a scholarship through VSA, which every year allows two to four disabled actors to attend the Williamstown Theatre Festival Apprenticeship program. VSA is the international organization founded by Jean Kennedy Smith to focus on arts and disability. The Apprenticeship program is designed to be a bridge between educational and professional theater.
As an actor on the autism spectrum I decided to give it a shot, and to my amazement I got in, so I spent two months in Williamstown among other young actors taking improv classes and assisting in the prop shop. It was a good experience overall, being able to work on stage plays behind the scenes and even attend them, as well as developing connections with other apprentices and actors.
However the two things I most remember are not what one might call positive.
One event was Apprentice Night, where apprentices were allowed to stage short plays. I chose a scene from my play Mixed Messages, where a college advisor threatens a student with Asperger’s Syndrome with expulsion.
I based the play directly on my own experience, as the college I attended, a very left-of-center one where you addressed teachers by their first names, was unaware of autism spectrum disorders. The director and producer, other apprentices in the program, kept saying they wanted the advisor to be more sympathetic, so I rewrote the scene several times, but still they weren’t satisfied. They wanted the advisor to be aware of Asperger’s and want to help, only his hands were tied, so he would be, as they put it, “part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”
When I pointed out what they had in mind wasn’t what I had experienced, they said that was years ago and people were more aware of autism now. They had me and the other actor improvise scenes based on this premise and wrote a new script based on these scenes, which I found to be too melodramatic, so they used the scenes verbatim.
When I pointed out how there wasn’t any real structure or conflict they said “conflict isn’t necessary, realism is.” As for my concerns that their version had basically made the advisor the hero and the neurodivergent student an “other,” which was not at all what I had in mind, they claimed they wanted to “balance out” the conflict so it would be “more accessible” to neurotypicals.
What did they mean by “more accessible?” Was there a barbed wire fence keeping NTs out of the theater? NTs have their own perspective, why should I have to diminish mine?
So I ended up having to go with a script I hadn’t written or approved.
My father insisted I should just go along and not come off as difficult to work with, pointing out how often he, himself a composer, often had to make compromises. Creative differences are one thing—it’s every writer’s pet peeve that you put your heart and soul into your work and some bigshot behind the desk yanks it out. It’s something else to take the experience of a marginalized group and replace it with that of the dominant culture so the audience won’t have to identify with an “other.”
Yet my father, being of the “take the best, leave the rest” mindset (like car dealers and political spin doctors) kept saying not to bring it up. Instead focus on I had gotten my work presented at Williamstown. As if it hadn’t occurred to him that 1) it was only a minor event and 2) what got shown was not my work.
The performance went well and the audience seemed to like it. After the festival, when I incorporated their changes into next draft my father, the first to read it, read the scene and insisted I change it back. So these bright ideas weren’t so bright after all. When I pointed this out their reply was along the lines of “we were just trying to help, sorry you didn’t like it,” as if they had done nothing wrong.
The second thing I remember was that I had signed up to take a class in Viewpoints. After a few classes I was informed I would not be allowed to attend class any more because some of the women in the class got the idea I was hitting on them.
I honestly had no idea (and still don’t) as to who had an issue with me or what I did, only that I had to miss out because someone got the wrong impression of me. My mother, a dancer, insisted that it was no big deal because she doesn’t think highly of Viewpoints. Such a stance did not lessen the sting of being excluded without anyone hearing me out.
In the twelve years since my time at Williamstown,I have not had the former incident happen again. As for the second, it has happened all of my life, even to this day, and my efforts to be understood have been met with failure.
I don’t wish to come across as ungrateful, I know I am fortunate to have been a part of a prestigious summer theatre event. I have other stories from that time period, many happy ones.
All I am saying is that as someone on the autism spectrum, I feel as though I was not as well accommodated as I could have been.
Anton Spivack is a native New Yorker who writes, acts, sings, and cartoons. He hold a BA in theatre from Bard College at Simon’s Rock and has also performed with the sketch comedy group MONKEYS TYPING SHAKESPEARE, plus has been a member of EPIC Players for two years, where he has played the leads in The Tempest and The Little Prince. Anton has written the play Mixed Messages, which has had several readings over the years. He has also written a full-length musical, THE AMBER CRYSTAL, with his father, musician Larry Spivack, and they are working on another, Let Down your Hair!, based on Rapunzel. Read more about Anton here.