I found him crouched in a corner laying in a fetal position.
The kids told me that is the way he is. Let him go, you don’t want to have him blow up on you. He does that when he gets angry, no one can talk him down. It’s just the way he is.
I remember the day I first experienced a young man’s trials amongst his peers. He had needs that weren’t addressed easily, and had developed a reputation as someone who lost it with a huge temper that exploded when things didn’t go his way. Everyone just left him alone. I had seen him perform in a school play in junior high school and I knew I wanted this young man on stage. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but the story turned into one of the most positive experiences in my career.
One day in the middle of a scene, Sam disappeared and didn’t return to the stage. I asked my student director about him and she said that’s normal for him, he just has to blow off some steam. I said I wanted to go talk to him, and she gave me a look like we’ve done that before, good luck. I found him lying in the choir room. He was crouched in a corner laying in a fetal position. I stepped in closer and said his name out loud a couple of times and he didn’t respond. I knew this guy was going to play a lot of roles in the future. He was in 9th grade at the time. I asked him if I could talk to him and without looking at me, he adjusted himself to a sitting position. I told him we were going to have a lot of conversations like this in the coming years and I saw a smile come across his face. At the moment I didn’t know if it was a sarcastic grin, or an honest appraisal of his moment. After a few minutes of conversation I realized it was the latter and he probably heard me breathe a sigh of relief. We made it through that moment and he returned to the stage and we finished his scene. The night ended and he grabbed his book bag and left without saying a word. I thought to myself it was a start.
Over the next three years I watched Sam come to life on stage. With each role he would hit me with a barrage of questions, the common one being he didn’t think he deserved to be on stage. He deserved every moment. He was good. I got to know his parents well and knew them to be supportive of his son’s efforts on stage. In his junior year we traveled to New York, he was part of a group of students that went on a theatre crawl together. At one point during a production of, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at intermission, Sam got up and shouted, “This play is about me!” We knew each other well and he turned to me with another smile. This time I knew what was on his mind. I was happy watching Sam grow over his four years on the stage, and graduate school with high marks in every class.
We are given the opportunity as theater directors to work with students from every walk of life. In this circumstance, the degree of autism Sam was experiencing helped him dive into the characters he played on stage. Not only did he find himself on stage, that also carried over into his experiences in life. In all my years directing it was hard to know anyone else as passionate as he was with his craft. So many times he walked off stage with a quit attitude in his mind and then returned shortly after and rocked the room. He just needed to trust the outlets around him. I was honored to work with such commitment.
© Thom Amundsen 5/2022