Imagine you are at a party on another planet. You have a guidebook about alien behaviors. (It is far less comprehensive than the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) The first alien you meet is female. You introduce yourself, as the guidebook suggests. Her skin turns a pinkish tinge. She looks away, then looks back. She blinks rapidly. You check the guidebook, but it’s hard to tell whether she is “Looking For Lost Offspring,” “Initiating a Business Transaction,” or “Making Sexual Advances.” She makes an odd repetitive squeaking noise while bobbing her head up and down. It is incredibly difficult to hear her over the din of the party; some alien in the corner is wailing on a guitar and it sounds like nails on a chalkboard. You keep getting distracted by the bizarre arm motions that an alien to your right is making, and the lights from the disco ball are blinding. Suddenly the girl alien’s mouth opens really wide, and she reaches toward you and grabs your shoulder. It burns like a slap, and you yelp and jump backwards into another alien, whose touch also stings. All the aliens in the room turn and stare. You wish you were back in your quiet spaceship.*
That’s something akin to what people with Asperger’s Syndrome experience on a daily basis.
Strange Faces, the original thesis musical by Andrea Grody that debuted last weekend at the Lewis Center, follows three families with Asperger’s children, each with varying degrees of dysfunction and embodying different aspects of the humor and frustration of living with Asperger’s. Carolyn Vasko ’13, who played Laura, a teenager with the disorder, didn’t know much about it before she got the part. Grody, who wrote, composed, and directed the show, had Vasko and the rest of the ensemble cast read research books and complete two two-hour workshops to inform their acting.
“We had to try having a conversation while Andrea was talking to us, or having two conversations at once and keeping track of them,” Vasko said. “Or we imagined trying to brush our teeth while construction was going on in the bathroom. A lot of overstimulation. Too much.”
The entire six-person ensemble cast practiced walking, identifying facial muscles while smiling, and dissecting conversations. Two of the actors would get up and improvise a brief scene about something inane, and then the two actors sitting down had to give them instructions to redo the scene: lift your right eyebrow, turn your head to the right, inhale slightly but don’t gasp, lift the left corner of your mouth at the same time as you lift your left shoulder, say “Why, yes!” with a rising tone in the middle of the word “yes.”
Grody, who is bird-thin, blond, and chirpy, also smacked actor Brad Wilson ’13, and then tried to hug him; he jerked away, viscerally affronted. Grody said, “That’s how someone with Asperger’s might feel about being touched.”
Matt Prast ’12 played Jamie, a child with Asperger’s who grows from toddler to teenager over the course of an hour and a half. He said, “Probably the hardest part was learning how to communicate without using any of the social idioms that were usually second nature to me—everything I did with my voice or face had to be totally deliberate. When I was having conversations with people I’d think to myself, ‘How is this person feeling? How do I know that?’ Then I’d study the way I walked—what muscles I moved and when, where my body weight was. And I realized there’s a lot going on in stuff I do every day that I just take for granted—but I can’t take that for granted when I’m playing Jamie.”
Grody’s lurching, spontaneous musical score had cast members switching rapidly between time signatures in addition to concentrating on their physical mannerisms. “Pretty much every person in the show has their distinct musical style,” said Grody. “Peter’s songs are sort of a waltz, but the rhythm keeps getting off.” Tadesh Inagaki ’14 and Miyuki Miyagi ’12, playing Jamie’s parents Tom and Jill, sang a tripping duet that listed the common symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome. They were practicing reciting the “big, ugly” psychology terminology in 7/8 time until opening night.
The music gave some of the actors room to interpret, while others were confined within a more limited range. Vasko sang only three notes, over and over; she decided that her character, Laura, would be tense and jerky. Sean Drohan ’14, who played Peter, watched videos for inspiration. The tic he chose was spreading his fingers wide and rubbing his hands up and down his sides.
“With Peter we explored more monotony, with Jamie we played more with extreme inflection,” said Grody. She noticed that Prast tended naturally to gesture outward with his hands, so she asked him to try pushing his arms backwards from his body as a tic. The walk he developed was bouncy, on the balls of his feet.
“My character, Laura, was sitting almost the whole time,” said Vasko. “I decided she was going to want to be touching as much of the chair as possible, which creates a lot of tension in the body. By the end of the show my arms hurt because all the blood was in my hands, and my legs had lines from the chair. The other thing I was thinking was about being hyper-focused. Kids with Asperger’s can pick one point on a picture, a door, a beach, and stare at it for hours—it just becomes so beautiful. That could translate into studying a room. If you look at a room and find a spot you would normally notice, and then look slightly to the right or to the left—I decided that’s where I would look.”
Grody worked on the first inklings that would turn into Strange Faces back in the spring of her sophomore year, two years ago. She knew someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, and she found it a particularly pertinent theme for musical theater because it was about giving people a way, through music, to express emotions they could not otherwise express. She spent much of her junior year researching and conducting interviews, and then during this past summer, experimented with writing the book and the songs. During fall she rewrote the show nearly four times, testing it on her advisor Robert Sandberg, groups of actor friends, professors, and her two dramaturges, who supported her as editors and consultants. She began rehearsing with the cast at the end of January this year, and during February scrambled to finish orchestrating the music parts.
Some of the show’s most compelling moments explored the experiences of parents and siblings, not just kids with Asperger’s. Inagaki’s character Tom sang about the first time his son Jamie held his hand. Holly Linneman ’13 performed a solo as an older sister envying the artistic talents of her little brother Peter, Drohan’s character.
“Everyone cries the whole time, which I did not expect,” said Grody. “Especially that song Holly sings. I think that the reason people connect is because it is unique to no one. It’s just about wanting attention and feeling guilty—which everyone at some point has done. It’s not just about Asperger’s. Asperger’s is a tool for looking at relationships, communication, love.”
Grody felt that the audience’s reactions also added to the performance: “On the first night there was a mother sitting next to my mother, and the daughter, who had Asperger’s and was thirteen, occasionally made audible comments during the show. At first people want her to be quiet, but then they think about how it’s just a social convention that we are quiet in shows, and she just didn’t understand that.”
After the opening night performance, a girl with Asperger’s approached Vasko. “She didn’t say anything, she seemed shy. It was a really strange role reversal for me because I didn’t know what to do. I was like, ‘Do I shake your hand?’” said Vasko. The girl’s mother said to think about Harrison, Brad Wilson’s character, when she thought of her own brother.
“It meant a lot to me,” said Vasko. “It was important that the show was right for the people who were touched by it personally. You don’t want to have told someone’s story unfairly. If you do it wrong it would be incredibly offensive. If you portray the group in a way that’s not truthful, you’re illegitimating the fact that they shouldn’t be marginalized.”
Grody hopes the show will have a life beyond the Lewis Center, though she intends to make some serious revisions first. The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive. The Friday and Saturday shows sold out last weekend; I sat in an extra chair so far to the right that I was practically blocking a means of egress. As I left the theater, a woman with tears in her eyes stopped me to ask if I had been in the cast. “It was remarkable,” she said, grabbing my hands. “Thank you!” People who were able to get a ticket gushed about it, and a lady in the Italian grocery, D’Angelos, stopped a friend of mine in line: “Are you a student? You must go see the new play. It’s going to be sold on Broadway, I tell you.”
__*Rewind, play the scene over again: You’re out on the Street. You walk up to a girl you’ve seen in precept a few times. You introduce yourself. She blushes and giggles; she’s already quite drunk. A “Bad Romance” remix booms from the dance floor. Some dude to your right is trying to do the Soulja Boy dance—that’s so 2007. The girl smiles and puts her arm around your shoulder.__