Portraying Autism with Empathy on the FST Stage

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To say that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, currently onstage at Florida Studio Theatre, has struck a chord with Sarasota audiences would be an understatement, as the theater has now extended the show’s run twice, due to popular demand. Part underdog adventure, part murder mystery and part character study, the Tony and Olivier award-winning production follows young Christopher Boone as he investigates the tragic end befallen a neighbor’s dog, of course unwinding into greater mysteries and more personal discoveries as he does. But it’s not the machinations of the plot that drew actor Alexander Stuart to the role, but rather the rarity that Christopher Boone represents—an autistic lead on the theater stage.

“Representation matters,” says Stuart, who is on the spectrum himself and makes his FST debut with this second performance as Boone, following a production at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville this past fall. “There’s a very strong misconception of what it means to be autistic,” he says, “and we only see it as it’s portrayed in the media.” And between Rain Man and “short bus” stereotypes, the humanity and fullness of characters with autism is often sacrificed in favor of plot devices and easy, and unflattering, jokes. “We don't tend to think of people like Dan Aykroyd and Daryl Hannah,” says Alexander, “yet there they are.”

But in Boone, Alexander finds something different—a character with autism, as opposed to an autistic character. Boone’s autism is certainly an important part of who he is, and the play goes to great lengths to embrace this, but is not the single trait that defines the character. Written with empathy, the role contains certain stereotypes, Alexander admits, but transcends them as well, to form a “layered, emotional human being” that the actor could sink his teeth into. “This is one of the only narratives I know of that can do that,” says Alexander. “I instantly fell in love with Christopher.”

The empathy doesn’t stop with Boone, and the production as a whole is designed to help audiences identify with and understand Boone as he makes his way through the story. Even the technical aspects bring the audience into Boone’s mindset, with light and sound amped up at certain points to evoke the sensory overstimulation that people with autism can sometimes experience, or visual effects in the backdrop mirroring Boone's at-times unconventional thought processes or connections. “It’s theater at its truest,” says Alexander, “where all elements are combined for the purpose of one thing.”

Currently onstage at Florida Studio Theatre, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs through March 17.

Pictured: Alexander Stuart as Christopher Boone in Florida Studio Theatre's production of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." Photo by Matthew Holler.

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