Understanding autism through theater

Understanding autism through theater
Michelle Marie Trester and Andrew Gumm in “Dancing Lessons” at Scripps Ranch Theatre. Photo by Ken Jacques.

Understanding autism through theater

OCEANSIDE — The Oceanside Theatre Company has teamed up with the Autism Society San Diego to help raise awareness and educate the public about autism through a play.

“Dancing Lessons,” written by Marc St. Germain and directed by Meg DeBoard, is a play about Ever, a young man with Asperger’s syndrome who asks his neighbor Senga, an injured Broadway dancer, to help him learn how to dance to get through an upcoming awards dinner.

The director, production crew, cast, costumes and sets are shared as a co-production with Scripps Ranch Theatre in San Diego, where the play first opened in February. The play opened at the Brooks Theater in Oceanside on March 1 and runs each Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. until March 17. 

The Autism Society calls autism, also referred to as autism spectrum disorder, a “complex developmental disability.” Asperger’s syndrome falls under the autism spectrum disorder umbrella diagnosis.

The general public often misunderstands autism, which is what the play aims to tackle.

“We hope every attendee walks away with a better understanding of autism and an appreciation for the many talents that autistic people possess,” said Amy Munera, president of the Autism Society San Diego, in a news release.

Ever and Senga, played by Andrew Gumm and Michelle Marie Trester, lead very different lives, have different interests and process things very differently from each other. Throughout the play, they not only learn about each other from one another but about themselves as well.  

“’Dancing Lessons’ gives a glimpse into how, when people genuinely try to understand each other, we can always find a way to connect, to work together in harmony, and to make life worth living,” DeBoard writes in her director’s note.

The play is laced with witty, often sardonic humor as well as touching moments and heartache. Audience members will likely find themselves reflecting on how they understood — or misunderstood — autism before watching the play.

According to Oceanside Theatre Company board member Leann Garms, there was a 69-year-old man who said he “finally understands the way I am” after watching the play.

“He was on the autism spectrum and didn’t know it,” Garms said.

The Brooks Gallery is also featuring an art exhibit called “Dance & the Heart,” featuring 18 local artists on the themes of being different and making connections to complement the play. Additionally, the gallery collaborated with The Art of Autism project to display works by four artists on the autism spectrum. Those who attend the play at the Brooks Theater can check out the art exhibits on the walls right before they walk into the theater.

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