Relationships are fraught in Catya McMullen’s drama AGNES, and not only because one of the characters, Charlie, is on the autism spectrum. In fact, every adult in this story—whether they live with Autism Spectrum Disorder or not—seems to be struggling with communication in one way or another. Trapped by a storm, the characters in McCullen’s new play paint an intimate portrait of the many ways in which we all strive for human connection, even when it seems unattainable. It’s a story about vulnerability, relationships, and our limited understanding of what it means to be neurologically atypical.
The Off-Broadway premiere of AGNES, directed by Jenna Worsham and co-presented by theatre company Lesser America in association with Hugh Hayes, opened to critical acclaim at 59E59 Theaters this week where it continues its sold-out run (performances continue through September 29 with waitlist room available). Both the cast and the creative team feature artists who identify as being neurologically atypical—a conscious hiring choice made on behalf of the playwright, director, and the producers from the outset.
“I think there’s so much well-intentioned theatre that ends up being tokenism,” says Worsham. “It’s not just about telling these stories, it’s about who’s telling them and how you’re telling them. When Catya and I teamed up with Lesser America, there was a shared mission of radical inclusivity. We wanted to make theatre not just for a community, but with a community, which I believe is an important distinction in activism art.”
When Worsham and Lesser America began auditioning actors for the role of Charlie—specifically calling on performers who have ASD (Asperger’s is now a medically retired term and considered under the umbrella or “on the spectrum” of ASD, though still used colloquially)—they were “overwhelmed and excited” by the response. “Once we’d heard from actors who understood the character in a fundamental way—there was just no going back,” says Worsham.
We spoke with a cast member and a creative team member. Both chose to stay anonymous for the purposes of this article due to the stigma that is associated with the diagnosis of ASD—read more about this decision, the play, and the radical inclusivity of AGNES below.
What was it about the script that drew you in?
Member of the cast (A): I recognized myself in the play. It made sense to me because I’ve been in those situations and said those things. I thought it was a very accurate portrayal of somebody with Asperger’s.
Member of the creative team (B): I saw myself in this, too. I saw the isolation of this character, but, he also has this support system around him and those people have their own flaws. That’s what makes this play stand out; often in commercial theatre you see characters with disabilities and they’re the ones with the issues. But in AGNES everyone has problems.
Is Asperger’s considered a disability?
A: I don’t consider it a disability at all. If anything, it’s the opposite. I think it’s a huge advantage to be an actor with Asperger’s or on the spectrum. One, learning lines is very quick. Secondly, acting is like a gift to somebody on the spectrum. My entire life I’ve been trying to figure out what to say so that I appear “normal.” In a play, I am told who I am, what to say, and how to respond; it’s socializing within structure and I know exactly what’s going to happen.
B: I’ve struggled to focus on things. But generally, the advantage of someone with autism is that they can focus a lot of energy on something specific. They’re able to channel it towards what they’re passionate about. I know what I want to do with the rest of my life and I’m able to focus on it constantly. It’s a reminder that I’m grateful for and allows me to make the most of every opportunity.
Why did you choose to do this interview anonymously?
A: I only recently discovered the word for how my brain works. Before that, I had my own preconceived notions of what Asperger’s or the spectrum was; I didn’t really know what it was. When I told friends what I had, the reactions were along the lines of: “No you don’t. You seem pretty normal.” There are all these preconceived notions about it—that if you have ASD then you are all the stereotypes. If you meet one person on the spectrum, you’ve met one person on the spectrum; we’re all individuals. But the preconceived notions can be a hindrance (in a professional sense). People assume that certain things will be a problem.
People might assume that an actor with ASD could struggle to feel empathy, which is essential to a performance. How have you addressed that with your collaborators?
A: By bringing in research. There are two types of empathy. There’s cognitive empathy, where you’re talking to someone and you can understand what they’re going through because you can see it. Then there’s affective empathy where you feel whatever they’re going through. I could be talking to somebody and they could be saying things are tough and I might be blanking. But if somebody is going through something and they’re really upset; I start to feel that emotion [in my body]. So in a scene, if my acting partner is really channeling their emotions, I start to feel waves of that emotion in my core. It affects me, as well. It’s a different kind of connection; it’s visceral.
Can you think of any other moments during the making of AGNES in which your experiences as having ASD helped take the show in a new and interesting direction?
B: It’s a challenging time in this political-correctness era for people with any form of ASD to really find a comfortable rehearsal room because there’s so much tip-toeing. You don’t want to offend anyone or to be labeled as being difficult to work with [by calling something out or making a point]. But you also don’t want to just rely on this idea that if you identify as having Asperger’s and use that as an excuse, you’re only going to get those roles. There’s a balance that you’re constantly juggling with as a performer.
Lesser America producer Laura Ramadei (who also performs in the play), spoke to the value of being open to having difficult conversations in the rehearsal room. She says, “Radical representation goes well beyond optics. Like any process when you’re being inclusive, it means asking some hard questions and asking for a certain generosity towards the people in the room who need to be educated. We wanted to give artists their own agency in how they wanted to be included.”
B: Now, all over the country, you’re seeing people who were afraid to take that first step. It’s about being brave enough and that doesn’t just apply to working with people with special needs. When you say yes to that, just because it’s hard at first doesn’t mean it can’t grow into something that’s better for you and the people around you. The goal now, instead of generalizing and putting people with ASD together, is just allowing them to exist among neurotypical people.