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OSHS senior Mara Kelley plays Siobhan in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at Old Saybrook High School. (Photo by Lenore Grunko )
Joe Bradley, Nick Salemi, and Maggie Maselli in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at Old Saybrook High School. (Photo by Lenore Grunko )
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Is it possible to gain some understanding of what it’s like to be on the autism spectrum by going to see a play? The members of Old Saybrook High School (OSHS) theater program hope so. The school is partnering with the community to promote autism awareness by staging The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, with two public programs leading up to the performances.
The play, based on the book of the same name by Mark Haddon and adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens, is both a mystery and a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy on the autism spectrum.
Curious Incident made its debut on London’s West End in 2012 and opened on Broadway in 2014. In his New York Times review, Ben Brantley called Curious Incident “one of the most fully immersive works ever to wallop Broadway,” and provided insight into how seeing a play can transform into being drawn into the play, beyond just passively watching.
“[M]ore than any mainstream theater production I know, it forces you to adopt, wholesale, the point of view of someone with whom you may initially feel you have little in common,” Brantley wrote. “That’s Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old mathematical genius for whom walking down the street or holding a conversation is a herculean challenge.”
OSHS Drama Advisor and Curious Incident director Lenore Grunko has worked to make manifest the overwhelming stimuli that assault Christopher on a continual basis. The thoughts that pop into Christopher’s head, for instance, originally conveyed to the audience via off-stage voices, have been transformed into physical, onstage roles. These student actors cross the stage at various times, uttering lines that are overlapping and in no particular order. Occasionally, those “voices” physically bump into Christopher.
Using actors instead of disembodied voices is “showing versus telling,” said Mia Sinibaldo, a freshman and member of the ensemble. “You’re showing this is what it feels like instead of this is what it sounds like.”
“[I]t really adds to the...chaos of his mind and how he’s seeing and hearing what’s going on around him,” said Lindsey Franco, also an ensemble member and freshman. “To anyone else, it would be normal background noise, but to him, it’s just overstimulating. He’s freaking out.”
Light projections were an enormous part of the Broadway play and will feature in the OSHS production to a lesser extent, said Grunko.
OSHS senior Eva Hirst is “creating all the projections...and that’s been incredibly challenging, technically,” Grunko said. “We’re doing [projections] on a limited level, but for us...it’s kind of huge.”
Lighting is by senior Jampel Dorjee, who will be responsible for eight pools of light on stage that take on a new formation for each of the 58 short scenes.
Also prominent in the production is sound, another stimulus that affects Christopher more intensely than most people. Sets are minimalistic, mainly “just a few stage blocks,” said Grunko.
Two elements are at odds with each other throughout the play, she pointed out: reality and Christopher’s reality.
“Sometimes we’re totally immersed in Christopher’s head and he’s just going nuts with stimulation: visual, auditory—and I’m using [the actors] to help create that,” she said.
OSHS senior Mara Kelley plays Siobhan, Christopher’s special education teacher, confidante, and trusted ally.
“I’ve sat and I’ve watched the scenes where [Christopher’s inner voices are] in it and I’ve felt that overwhelming thing, which you might not get [with] voiceovers,” Kelley said. “Sitting in the audience, I’m in Christopher’s head, [and] know what that feels like. You see the world as he sees it. And it’s this cacophony.
“[I]t gives you stress and it gives you anxiety but then you’ll remember that this is his constant,” Kelley continued. “This is what he’s going through all the time. So you deal with small bits of it” during the course of the play.
Junior Joe Bradley has the challenging task of portraying Christopher, a role that places him on stage for the entire play. Over the summer, he read the book, which is told in first person from Christopher’s point of view. This gave him insight into his character’s thoughts as well as how he experiences the world around him. The play takes place in the greater London area; Bradley found that taking on an English accent helped him find the essence of the character.
“It was interesting to me because I’d read the book and I was doing my best with the character,” he said. “I was still trying to work it out as to where I was coming from, because everybody that has autism or is diagnosed with autism is different. So I was trying to figure out what persona of that really embodied Christopher.
“[A]s soon as we adopted the British accents and started working with them, his character came faster to me,” Bradley said. “Once I knew that this is the voice I’m going to have to show the character in, it kind of helped me put all the pieces together.”
Finding the point on the autism spectrum where Christopher resides is a challenge, said Grunko.
“[T]he author claims that he knows nothing about autism and has no experience with it, which I found very interesting,” she said, adding that Haddon has described the “character as having a behavior disorder.”
“We played with some ideas,” she explained, such as Bradley speaking in “a voice and tone that didn’t have an affect, that was kind of monotone,” but Bradley eventually decided to add “a little bit more expression,” she said.
“I didn’t want it to be [so] far from theatricality to be unwatchable,” Bradley said.
Grunko, who started teaching in the 1970s, said that students then were thought to have behavioral problems when many of them might have been on the spectrum. It wasn’t until the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was published in 1994 that autism was categorized as a spectrum disorder, and the DSM-5, published in 2013, was the first edition that used the term “autism spectrum disorder.”
For Grunko, life experience has come into play in helping Bradley find the right physical and vocal mannerisms for the character, but she’s also reached out to the community for help.
Jillian Noyes graduated in 2015 from OSHS, where she was involved in the theater program.
“Being on the spectrum myself, I found that the arts were the perfect way for me to connect with my peers in profound ways,” she said by email.
Noyes went on to earn a B.A. in film studies from Connecticut College. When she heard about the Curious Incident production, she “jumped at the chance to contribute.
“One of the biggest takeaways I got from studying film...was the importance of representation, especially when it comes to marginalized groups,” she said. “Seeing the realities of your life accurately reflected on screen, or onstage in this case, is one of the most validating experiences you can possibly have.”
Noyes primarily watched scenes and offered “insight into why Christopher was acting a certain way. A lot of autistic tells, like stimming [hand flapping, rocking, or other repetitive motions], weird eye contact, aversion to touch—it’s often difficult for neurotypical people to understand why people on the spectrum do those things.
“I wanted to act as an interlocutor of sorts,” she continued. “[E]ven if Christopher’s experiences are completely his own and I can’t claim to know exactly what he feels like, I can at least do my best to find the parts that resonate with me and elaborate on them.”
Behaviors like rocking, Grunko pointed out, might serve as a “comfort zone that goes along with all the numbers and the counting—because that’s what his character does,” she said.
Christopher doubles, cubes, and lists prime numbers up to 281, among other mathematical gymnastics.
“I recite [numbers] when I’m anxious because it’s something that’s constant,” Bradley said. “And I can think about it instead of whatever’s going on.”
“He might not be good at social situations ,but he’s good at math,” said Kelley.
Christopher returns throughout the play to “that comfortable space of numbers [that] aren’t changing...It’s this constant that he holds onto. So whenever things get too much—and they do a lot in our show—it’s a nice, comfortable space to return to.”
Siobhan, the teacher played by Kelley, reads from a book that Christopher has been writing, thereby relieving Bradley of carrying the entire weight of the main characters’ voice. The fact that Christopher’s thoughts are conveyed through 21 additional actors is a unique aspect of this production.
Siobhan is “the only person who he really trusts full heartedly,” said Kelley. “[E]veryone else...has this fall at one point or another in his standing.”
That’s especially important because the play is a mystery, which opens with a neighbor finding Christopher alongside her very dead dog. She is convinced Christopher is the killer. He sets off on a forbidden journey to find the real culprit.
Grunko and the cast are exceedingly careful when talking about the plot, as they don’t want to give anything away. Those can’t wait to find out what’s curious about Curious Incident can read the book in advance. But it might be more exciting to see the play without knowing what’s around the corner.
“He gets in trouble,” Grunko said. “Let’s just say he seizes his own destiny in spite of his limitations. And oh, my God, does trouble ensue.”
“There are a few moments where, should you not know [what’s going to happen], we hope you’ll be surprised,” said Kelley.
Tickets for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are $10 and available at the Old Saybrook High School main office or at the door, 1111 Boston Post Rd, Old Saybrook. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 7, Friday, Nov. 8, and Saturday, Nov. 9, with a sensory sensitive production on Saturday at 2 p.m. There will be talk-backs after the Friday, evening and Saturday afternoon performances.
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