Onstage at the Beck Center of the Arts, we see Caitlin overwhelmed.
The 11-year-old is attending the funeral of her older brother and protector, Devon, who died in a school shooting. As the memorial continues, something is off. Family members approach Caitlin, but they press in too close. Their voices crescendo to unnatural volumes. Bright lights begin to pulse and flash toward the audience.
The shift reflects Caitlin’s perspective as a person with Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder often categorized under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder. She’s sensitive to light and sound, and has difficulty navigating social interactions.
Mockingbird, the Beck Center Youth Theater play debuting Feb. 28, follows her journey after the death of a brother who guided her through an uncertain world. The show taps a cast of 18 actors ages 12 through 17 to present viewpoints not often portrayed in youth theater.
“Younger actors are capable of so much more than many people give them credit for,” says Sarah Clare, the play’s director. “I’m always impressed, enthused and in love with what teens and even younger students bring to the table.”
To prep, the production is leaning heavily on candid conversation, educational resources and firsthand accounts. Today’s students are all-too-familiar with the realities of school shootings, and rehearsals include periods for students to take breaks and discuss their own experiences.
“It’s creating a safe, open environment in which they feel they can speak their own truth,” says Clare.
Cast and crew members have family and close friends with Asperger’s, including Clare, whose partner has the disorder. During the audition process, the production team talked with the actors about dynamic, fact-based portrayals, and how important it is not to present autistic characters as caricatures. In addition to consulting with an adult who has autism, the cast is working with the Beck’s creative art therapy department, that often works with students and artists on the spectrum.
“We’re talking a lot specifically about: ‘What is autism?’ ” says Clare. “What would you see with it, but also the fact that it is a spectrum, in many ways. One person’s experience is going to be completely different from someone else’s.”
For Mockingbird’s Caitlin, she often takes words at their literal meaning and struggles with nonverbal cues. She objects when someone refers to her brother as “lost,” stating that no, he is dead. Eventually, she gains some clarity through a school counselor, who guides her through the aftermath.
“That’s a really important aspect of the play,” says Clare. “Showing that she’s not alone in this process of learning to navigate the world.”
Despite its heavy themes, the fast-paced production rides on a bright undercurrent of hope. The shows feature available written resources, or pre- and post-performance audience talkbacks to unpack Mockingbird’s portrayals and themes and hopefully foster a level of empathy viewers can carry into the world.
“If families are able to come to the show together, they’re able to process those things together,” says Clare. “They’re able to see the world a different way, just as we see Caitlin see the world a different way.”