As an Autistic Playwright, I Don’t Mind If Autistic Characters Are Played by Non-Autistic Actors
Anthony J. Piccione
If you’re reading this column as someone who is already familiar – to some extent or another – with my writing, then you are probably aware that I have Asperger’s syndrome, a high functioning form of autism that has occasionally caused me to have some struggles throughout my academic life (despite the stereotype that exists for people with Asperger’s, I am TERRIBLE at math) and – far more significantly – has admittedly contributed to issues I’ve had over the years with both making and sustaining friendships and relationships over the years. It’s also led me to develop certain obsessive behaviors at times, which I’d like to think I’ve turned into a plus as an adult, as I focus my obsessions on my work as a writer – most especially my playwriting – nowadays.
Anyway, it’s for this reason why I’ve noticed that, in recent years, the topic of autistic characters being played by autistic actors – as well as the importance that some people say it has – is something that has gotten more and more attention, as more shows, films and television shows emerge that deal with autism and Asperger’s, and highlight how people on the spectrum deal with it. Indeed, I can’t help but notice that – for some people – it may even be controversial for characters in theatre, film, TV, etc. who are autistic do not always end up getting portrayed by autistic actors.
However, as someone on the autism spectrum disorder who is involved in the arts, I personally don’t think it should be seen as an overwhelmingly negative factor that the actor playing an autistic character is not on the spectrum himself.
To be clear, I certainly understand the arguments that are made by those who disagree with that sentiment. These people – who might seem to think, at times, that it’d be the equivalent of casting a white actor as a black character – often tend to look at it as a civil rights issues, and on other issues pertaining to the autism community – such as the negative stereotypes often perpetrated by organizations such as Autism Speaks – I tend to side with them. However, given that I also have quite a bit of background in theatre, both as a young actor and now as a playwright and independent theatre producer, I think to say that it is terrible to cast a so-called “neurotypical” actor in an autistic role would be to miss the larger picture.
Since autism is primarly a mental condition – as opposed to something that physically affects you or your appearance – it would still certainly help to have autism, when preparing for a character that is on the spectrum. Obviously, someone who has never lived with autism can never fully understand what it might be like to live in the shoes of someone who has. Having said that, there has been a long, long history of actors portraying characters with mental illness – despite those actors not having any known history of mental health problems – and doing a superb job at doing so. If the actor is talented and able to turn in a convincing performance, that should be what matters most, as it would with nearly any other actor in any other role.
I will say that something that might be more worth thinking about is the role that autistic writers might play in telling these stories, since they are the ones creating these characters and putting these stories out into the world, in the first place. Maybe I’m a little bit biased, given that I not only have Asperger’s, but am also a playwright. However, I happen to believe that the perspectives that autistic playwrights might offer on plays of this topic happen to be especially valuable, when considering the plays being written that deal with what it might be like to have this condition. Same goes for the screenwriters working on the films and TV shows that also. It also might be nice to have directors working on some of these projects, as well, since their own perspective might be helpful as they guide the actors who will need to be familiar with such perspectives, during the rehearsal process.
Now, would it be preferable to have an actor on the spectrum playing such a character? Absolutely! I think it’s certainly an admirable goal to strive toward, and that directors should make every possible effort to make sure that it’s achieved for the show, just as when Mickey Rowe was cast in the The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime earlier this year. I’d love to see more stories like that happen more frequently, in the future. However, if we’re being honest, there are still many obstacles that prevent actors on the spectrum from making it too far in this industry. I long for a day where that’s not quite the case, but for that reason, if it so happens that there are no autistic actors available that also have the talents necessary to play the character, then the directors or producers of the show should not be faulted for the fact that a “neurotypical” actor was ultimately cast in the role.
So as someone on the spectrum who has chosen to dedicate his own creative career to this art form, I would especially hope that we get to a point where more and more actors, directors, playwrights and other artists on the spectrum have the chance to succeed and have some great opportunities in the theatre industry. I welcome further discussion on this topic, and suggestions on how we could get there. For now, though, I believe those who either have autism or have a loved one with autism should be patient and understanding of why it’s not always easy for the roles of autistic characters to be filled by autistic actors, if they aren’t already. Furthermore, I think we should also be considerate of the realities of casting, the talents of all individual actors in the industry, and also the other ways that might also be more helpful in ensuring that these important perspectives are included in anything in the arts covering this topic.
Anthony J. Piccione is a playwright, producer, screenwriter, activist, essayist, critic, poet and occasional actor based in New York City. His plays have previously been produced in NYC at various theaters and festivals such as the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the NYWinterfest and Manhattan Repertory Theatre, as well as Connecticut venues such as Playhouse on Park, Hole in the Wall Theater, the Windsor Art Center and Windham Theatre Guild. Additionally, his short comedy “Ebol-A-Rama” was recently published this year by Heuer Publishing (www.hitplays.com), and he has also previously worked as a teaching assistant at Hartford Children’s Theatre and New Britain Youth Theater, in addition to his work with OnStage Blog. He received his BA in Theatre from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2016, and is a member of the Dramatists Guild. To learn more about Mr. Piccione’s recent and upcoming productions, please visit www.anthonyjpiccione.com and be sure to follow him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and Instagram (anthonyjpiccione).