Former University of Iowa audiovisual specialist Barry Morrow helped introduce moviegoers to autism through his Academy Award-winning screenplay for “Rain Man.”
That was in 1988, when the general public knew little about the autism spectrum, Dr. Christopher Okiishi of Iowa City said.
Fast-forward to “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a 2013 play that puts audiences inside the world of a teen boy on the autism spectrum. His quest to find out who killed his neighbor’s dog takes him outside of his sheltered comfort zone in south-central England and into big-city obstacles in London.
The Broadway hit swept up five 2015 Tony Awards, preceded by seven 2013 Olivier awards for its earlier British debut. City Circle Acting Company of Coralville is among the first community theaters to present the play, which runs from Friday (9/28) to Sunday (9/30) at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts.
“Autism spectrum disorder is barely 40 years old,” said Okiishi, 49, a psychiatrist in private practice in North Liberty and at Tanager Place in Cedar Rapids. He also is a frequent actor and director on Corridor stages.
“It showed up in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatry in the early ’80s, so this is not an ancient illness, and acceptance of the diagnosis and prevalence of its understanding is recent,” he said.
“‘Rain Man’ was the first depiction of anything like this. And people are still in many ways stuck with that being the archetype of what an autistic person is like. This play is leaps and bounds beyond that presentation.”
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The local production team and cast of 11 actors, some of whom play a variety of characters, are approaching the material “in a completely realistic and respectful way,” said director Bo Frazier, 31, a second-year MFA directing candidate at the UI. “In no realm did I want any sort of mimicry or caricature of anyone who is on the autism spectrum. Just because they see the world differently and experience things differently than we are does not mean that they are ‘an other.’ They are not different than us, they just experience thing differently. That’s how we see it.”
Michael Dierdorff, an advocate and board member from the Iowa Autism Society, served as a consultant for the production, facilitating a discussion and workshop at the first rehearsal. He also worked on character development with UI acting student Ben Sulzberger, who is playing the lead role of Christopher, and met with the actors playing other key characters in Christopher’s life.
“One of the things that really struck me,” Frazier said, “is that Mike said on the first day, ‘If you met one autistic person, you just met one autistic person. There’s no way you can say every autistic person is this way and this way and this way. ... You cannot have a blanket description. Everyone sees the world differently.’”
The play is based on a 2003 award-winning mystery novel by British author Mark Haddon, in which Christopher describes himself as “a mathematician with some behavioral difficulties.”
The script builds on Christopher’s math genius, which helps him understand the world in predictable, consistent, understandable ways. He employs that kind of logic as his quest for the truth takes him on unexpected paths.
“That requires him to do some things that other people in his life don’t think he should or can do,” Okiishi said, “like travel across the expanse of London by himself on the subway, or interact with people he’s never met before, or make emotional deductions about people in his life and outside of his life that the adults in his life don’t think that he’s capable of making. But he is.”
As his curiosity grows, so does his confidence.
Even though it’s not a musical, the London and New York productions both received award nominations for choreography. Director Frazier has worked with the teams doing the show’s extensive stylized movement that transports audiences into Christopher’s imagination, including when he talks about being an astronaut, and his feet never touch the ground.
“About 50 percent of the show we had to think more as a choreographed piece than as an acting scene,” Frazier said.
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He hopes the entire production creates a new theatrical experience for viewers, through perhaps a new kind of storytelling.
As someone who has ADHD, which isn’t part of the autism spectrum, some of the play’s themes hit home for him.
“I also hope that they can see that autistic people are not so different, and that they are people, and just because they need to take extra time or that they see things in a different way or they have different interests, that they are not so different than ourselves. ,,, Seeing a new story about a person who is not so different is so important in your upbringing in society,” Frazier said.
“I just hope (audiences are) moved. It’s a beautiful story. There are times when you laugh and times when you cry and times where you’ll be in shock and hopefully times where you’ll be like, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’”
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WHAT: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”
STAGED BY: City Circle Acting Company of Coralville
WHERE: Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, 1301 Fifth St., Coralville
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday (9/28) and Saturday (9/29), 2 p.m. Sunday (9/30)
TICKETS: $14 ages 10 and under to $29 premium, center box office, (319) 248-9370 or Coralvillearts.org; $10 student rush tickets 6:30 p.m. Saturday only
EXTRA: Preshow discussion 6 to 7 p.m. Saturday (9/29) with Dr. Christopher Okiishi, mental health professionals, parents and cast members. Interactive discussion about the play’s themes — how people on the Spectrum encounter the world and what families do to help and encourage their loved ones; navigating our own community vs. the community presented in the play; free and open to the public