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'How to Dance in Ohio' is a Broadway musical starring 7 autistic actors

The cast in <em>How to Dance in Ohio</em> in its World Premiere at Syracuse Stage, 2022
Curtis Brown
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How to Dance in Ohio
The cast in How to Dance in Ohio in its World Premiere at Syracuse Stage, 2022

Even before the action of the Broadway musical How to Dance in Ohio starts, its seven autistic actors walk onstage – as themselves – and tell the audience about what they're going to see.

"If you've met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person," one says. The audience laughs.

"That is a moment that I love so much," said director Sammi Cannold. "Because I think that in a culture, in a world where so often saying 'I'm autistic' can carry embarrassment or shame or stigma...it's a moment of undoing."

The Ohio connection

Both the show's creators, librettist Rebekah Greer Melocik and composer Jacob Yandura, are originally from Ohio themselves. They met at New York University's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program in 2009 and became fast friends and collaborators. Then one evening several years ago, Yandura wanted to watch a movie on HBO and looked at the list of documentaries.

"I saw the title, How to Dance in Ohio," said Yandura. "And I thought, I'm from Ohio. Click that. And I then saw in the synopsis 'Columbus,' which is my hometown, and then my sister was recently diagnosed with autism around that time. So, I started it. And in the first five minutes, it just sang to me."

So he sent an email to Melocik.

"And I watched it immediately," she said, "and I totally agreed to it because of what Jacob said about the themes of human connection. And also, I just loved the community."

Based on a true story

The community in the documentary is a life skills program for youth at the Amigo Family Counseling Center. The writers flew to Columbus to meet the psychologist who runs the program, Emilio Amigo, as well as several of the participants, who asked a lot of questions.

"The most profound question was 'Are the characters going to have an autism accent?'" said Yandura. "And we had never heard that term before. And what they meant [is] a stereotypical, like, monotone voice. And so, we assured them no; the whole purpose of the show is to defy stereotypes."

The team initially worked on the show with legendary director Harold Prince, who had an autistic grandchild. It was Prince who encouraged the writers to take the material from the documentary and craft their own story.

"We got his last round of notes the week before he passed" in 2019, said Yandura. Then Cannold, the director, came on board – just before the pandemic shut down live theater.

"The subject matter of the show was so meaningful to me," said Cannold, whose brother is autistic.

Casting autistic actors in autistic roles

The creators say every member of the production team was committed to casting autistic performers to play the autistic characters.

Cannold said that the team took great care to create a rehearsal space that catered to the actors, both autistic and neurotypical.

"For example, we know certain members of our company need to be able to step out every hour or so. We make that possible," she said. "Certain members of our company need to have fidget toys with them when they're rehearsing. We make that possible."

Liam Pearce and the cast in rehearsal
Andy Henderson / How to Dance in Ohio
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How to Dance in Ohio
Liam Pearce and the cast in rehearsal

Liam Pearce, who plays the character of Drew, said that it felt good to play a character he recognizes.

"Everything feels very natural and real because of the care that the writers have put in and our autistic consultants have put in to make sure everything feels very natural and true to like these stories," he said.

Pearce's character is a high school senior who is struggling to decide if he can find the courage to ask Marideth to the dance.

In the first act, Marideth sings a solo called "Unlikely Animals," based on a short exchange in the film, where the real Marideth talks about animals from Australia.

"She loves geography, she loves Australia, and we're using it quite literally to tell the audience that this is what this character loves," said Melocik, the lyricist. "I thought, there's a really beautiful metaphor here about the isolation that this character feels and the geographic isolation of Australia."

Madison Kopec, who plays Marideth, explains that how her character speaks tells the audience a lot about who she is.

"She's a very factual person," Kopec said. "That's one of her special interests. She likes to learn about things that are real, lives her day-to-day life based on what the factual outcome of something might be."

Marideth frequently ends a statement by saying: "Fact."

Making something authentic

Creating characters like Marideth and Drew, who feel true to the autistic actors playing them and to the autistic members of the audience, has been at the forefront of librettist Melocik's mind.

"We really wanted to make sure that the show didn't veer towards being too saccharine or, you know, like, 'Oh, autism is my superpower!'" she said. "That's not the point of our show. It's about showing that, yes, there is struggle, but also there is community and also there is hope and there is joy. And honestly, there is autistic culture to learn about and to respect and to celebrate."

Pearce said it's not only the company of How to Dance in Ohio that celebrates its authenticity.

"Every night at the stage door, every time I go out there," he said, "I talk to so many young autistic people who are coming to see the show...who tell me, 'I have never seen myself represented on the stage the way I just was.'

He said he's excited for even more people to see this story and feel seen and celebrated.

Story edited by Jennifer Vanasco; audio story produced by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden
Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.