by Toni Wilson Wood
Theater has a long history of working for social and political change, as demonstrated recently by the Hamilton-Trump debacle in November, all the way back to the theater of ancient Greece and Rome. Uncommon Sense, the newest work by New York City based Tectonic Theater Project continues that long history as it brings its Gallagher Bluedorn commissioned work on autism to its stage, Saturday, January 21, 2017 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, January 22, 2017 at 2 p.m.
This collaboration was a result of The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project Ten Years Later being performed at the University of Northern Iowa in 2002 and 2010 respectively. According to UNI’s website, it was after this that the two groups came together to explore autism. Andy Paris, one of the authors on The Laramie Project and a longtime member of Tectonic Theater Project, and his wife, Anushka Carter-Paris, are the developers/creators of Uncommon Sense.
Tectonic Theater Project was founded in 1991 by Moises Kaufman and Jeffrey LaHoste. The name ‘tectonic’ represents the way this theater creates their works: by emphasizing the structure of theater and how theater is made, and how it could be created differently. Paris describes it as an inverted process. “We go in with ideas and stuff and figure out the narrative and script from there,” he said. “We mine theater for new form and help in forming the narrative.”
Tectonic Theater Project specializes in the created on social, political and human rights subjects “that haven’t been properly explored,” Paris-Carter said. Their most well known work is The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, written about the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998.
Both Paris and Carter-Paris have had experiences with people who have disabilities and with autism throughout their lives. Carter-Paris remembered growing up with a father who had polio and they would go down to the harbor to swim. “There were all these other World War II vets, who were missing limbs. We were surrounded by disability and it was normal for us.”
Early conversations about what would eventually become Uncommon Sense started in early 2011, with interviewing people all across the autism spectrum in Fall 2011 and the first actual workshop for the work began in January 2012, continuing on into the UNI workshops in the 2012-2013 school year.
Paris found the dialogue around autism to be unsatisfactory. Beyond the unsatisfactory dialogue in existence, the issues surrounding a better understanding of autism is a human rights issue, said Paris. “There’s a struggle with the need to hide due to the stigma versus being open and honest and to push things forward,” Paris said. Tectonic Theater Project, with its background in creating works about human rights issues that haven’t been properly explored, made it the perfect group to mount a work like Uncommon Sense.
Paris and Carter-Paris began their work on Uncommon Sense by interviewing people, starting with people in their own theater community in NYC and others in New York City, moving into Florida and North Carolina and Iowa, among other places across the globe. They did research online and came in contact with Alex Plank of Wrong Planet and Jack “Cubby” Robison, son of John Elder Robison and Mary Robison. “Once you talk to one [person involved with autism], you get three [more],” Paris said.
The commission with Gallagher Bluedorn was “a huge boon” for the project, according to Paris. He particularly cites Amy Hunzleman, Director of Education and Special Programming for Gallagher Bluedorn, as particularly helpful with introducing Paris, Carter-Paris and company to the community. “It was inspiring,” Paris said, “how the community in Cedar Falls operates. They advocate to legislators…it’s a very strong active community.” One of the things Paris remembers the most about the time spent in Cedar Falls was the time he and the other members of Tectonic Theater Project visited with the community at North Star. While there, they played theater games, and “had so much fun,” Paris said. “Getting to know them…such wonderful people.”
“Autism is a great social equalizer,” Paris-Carter said, when talking about how their research on autism took them around the globe from the United States to India, Africa, Saudi Arabia and Japan, among others. “At the heart of it, it’s very basically human,” Paris said. “Once you begin noticing autism, once you realize it’s there, it’s everywhere.”
Unlike The Laramie Project where the characters are real people and the lines the characters speak are based precisely on actual interviews with the people involved in the work, Uncommon Sense takes something from every person interviewed, every place visited, every moment worked, and creates a composite of them. The show, from the creators to the actors to the designers have a deep connection to the autism world, either via friends and family living on the spectrum or by actually being on the spectrum themselves. Because of this, Carter-Paris said, “they have a deeper understanding.”
“We want to make the world a better place through Uncommon Sense,” Paris said.
Based on what I personally know from being a participant in the workshops at UNI, I have no doubt Uncommon Sense will be a thought provoking piece of theater.
During those two semesters in the 2012-2013 school year, the students were given readings to read and videos and movies to watch while not working on making moments. During the actual workshops, the students gathered with members of Tectonic Theater Project and explored both form and topic. The moment work they did focused on the things that make theatre theatre: costumes, props, lights, sound, movement, pretty much everything but an actual script. The rest of the work was focused on autism, on asking questions about what autism is, what it isn’t, what it could actually be, what it’s like to have autism, and what someone on the spectrum might hear, see, taste and feel, and how that is different from people who are neurotypical. As the workshops went on, the moment work began to merge the form of theatre with the answers the participants were coming up with, and a form began to emerge: a play.
As a member of that workshop, I saw first hand the care and depth of thought that went into this work. Paris, intimidating at first, turned out to be a deep and a thoughtful man, who has laughing caramel colored eyes and a genuine and easy laugh. He and Paris-Carter, a beautiful bouncing ball of Australian energy with a heart as wide as the distance from here to New York City, ran the workshops, along with a number of Tectonic Theater Project actors and designers, including Andrew Duff and Scott Barrow, who are also in Uncommon Sense.
I was excited and terrified of this class, even though I have a bachelor’s degree in theatre arts, am a playwright, actor and director. I was the only person in the workshop who had been out of school already for a few years, and who worked full time and was over the age of 25. I also suffer from a bit of stage fright that years of improv training hadn’t completely taken away. The ‘moment work’ pushed me out of my comfort zone and into a place where magic takes place: where the moments are created. The feedback about the moments was most important. It was less about the worth of the moment, and more about what worked about what it was trying to communicate and what didn’t, and how that moment might be worked differently to create a moment with more strength.
This is all sounding very esoteric, I know, and it really kind of is. It’s hard to understand, and even harder to explain, but I will try. From the Tectonic Theater Project website page about process http://tectonictheaterproject.org/our-process/.
Barbara Pitts McAdams, original cast member of The Laramie Project, speaks about creating the opening Moment of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later:
“Seated downstage, the opening speech wasn’t landing. We tried different edits and various acting notes, but it remained static and un-engaging. So I thought about the non-text elements that could help the storytelling. I asked myself, ‘What is Wyoming like? Windy, sunny, cold, prairie-covered. What is this speaker like? She’s intellectual, but also loves to hike.’ And through that exploration, I made a Moment.
I put on a puffy Northface jacket. I began offstage, and said, ‘Lights up on the wide, blue Wyoming sky. Sound cue: the Wyoming wind.’ I then moved slowly through the space, amidst chairs, as if hiking on the prairie, taking in the sun and wind, deep in thought. I paused, looked to the audience and spoke.
Using Moment Work, a theatrical world emerges and story unfolds, with or without text.”
While not every moment worked well, each moment worked to inform each subsequent moment. The other students in the class were all UNI theatre students and they were brave, smart, intelligent and thoughtful, and all of this came through in their work in the class.
Uncommon Sense is a work that is a composite of everything that went into creating it; all the actors, designers, workshop students, interviewees, materials has come together to create the work that will grace the stage at Gallagher Bluedorn.