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Penn State Centre Stage Discusses Neurodiversity Through New Performance

Penn State Centre Stage will open this year’s performances with a production of Simon Stephen’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

Until Saturday, October 9, the Playhouse Theatre will welcome audience members to see the incredible story of 15-year-old Christopher Boone and the courageous journey he sets out on.

This show is mainly focused on the neurodivergent aspects of Boone’s life. He is wickedly intelligent, can’t tell a lie, and must never be hugged or touched. In this show, the characters uniquely portray that neurodivergence is when a person’s brain does not act “typical.”

On October 3 and 6, viewers can attend sensory-friendly shows that will refrain from using strobe lights. They will also remove loud sounds and use closed captioning. The lighting and sounds used within the show are applied to mimic what being overstimulated might be like. The theater does not want to exclude any communities that might also feel overstimulated.

Director Rick Lombardo was very adamant that when producing a show about someone on the spectrum, it has to be done with respect.

“We started [show preparation] with very deep and detailed discussions about neurodiversity, disability, and representation that we very quickly involved intensely personal sharings,” Lombardo said. “That is inevitable in telling this type of story.”

Lombardo also stated that when representing such a vital societal topic, every running piece within the theater needs to live up to necessary expectations.

“I’m just so proud of the way everyone has stepped forward to tell this story with such honesty. From the acting company to the design team and the technicians, everyone has felt the need to ‘get this right,'” Lombardo said.

The theater brought in actors and knowledgeable professionals to speak to the cast about neurodiversity. The first full week of their rehearsal was based on reading the script to understand Boone’s perspective, having inclusive conversations, and inviting their own staff to speak on experiences with spectrum details.

Fifth-year Lauren McKee, cast as Boone’s teacher, Siobhan, said the figure she represents in the show is “the audience’s way into understanding the emotional journey.”

“I also believe that Siobhan provides emotional support for the audience because there are really intense topics that this play hits,” McKee says. “It hits pretty intense highs and lows. Because Siobhan is narrating the play, I think she is a way in.”

McKee says she feels honored to tell the story alongside Noah Silverman, who is cast as Boone. She also says there is a lot of trust guided toward her to relay neurodivergency.

“We have had a lot of conversation to make sure we are creating a safe space for the audience and for the team in the room,” McKee said. “This play works alongside the neurodivergent community and needs to be handled with extreme care and accessibility.”

Photo: assistant director Sam Sincavage

Because Penn State professors are also the students’ leaders when rehearsing for a show, McKee says that the group has such an incredible educational aspect to its preparation.

“We work with our teachers during the day, and then they are in the room with us helping us put on a show,” McKee said. “That is what makes Penn State so different.”

Choosing this show originated from their Season Planning Committee. Staff and students form this committee and submit anonymous show proposals for the semester.

“With great opportunities for our students in design, stage management, and acting, I decided to step in as director since it is exactly the type of technically complicated, challenging plays I enjoy staging,” Lombardo said. “Additionally, being able to tell this story of Christopher Boone, a character apparently on the spectrum, was important for us to represent on our stage with sensitivity and empathy, and I was inspired by the challenge.”

Senior production state manager Kayla McConnell is calling “‘Curious Incident” the first real Centre Stage show to return since COVID-19.” Because of the circumstances the theater has introduced, performers are able to be unmasked when on stage.

Not only is McConnell excited for the big opening, but she has the opportunity to incorporate what this show means to her.

McConnell has several family members who are neurodiverse, including her brother. She happens to also minor in disability studies. After graduation, McConnell hopes to open a theater company for those who are neurodivergent.

“My dream is to have neurodiverse individuals perform as main roles in a show or help with stage production,” McConnell said. “This show is a perfect bridge to that.”

Photo: assistant director Sam Sincavage

Working alongside McConnell is senior music composer Michael Smedley, who has written original music to mold into the play, which is very uncommon for stage plays. His job is to “bring music into the stage space for the audience to understand what emotions are on the stage and when.”

“Within the pre-production process, we talked about how things can be overstimulating, especially for Christopher,” Smedley said. “A lot of my compositions ask, ‘What would this environment or feeling sound like to someone like Christopher?'”

Smedley said it has been a lot of composing through the eyes of someone living that experience. At the end of the day, we can empathize with how Boone handles overwhelming situations. Smedley says that society “can resonate with the themes of Christopher.”

“It is my hope that through this show, at least one person in the audience feels less alone,” McKee said.

You can attend “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” until Saturday, October 9. Student ticket prices for all shows are $12.50. Regular-evening ticket admission is $25. Tickets for the sensory-friendly performances are $12.50.

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Larkin Richards

Larkin is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. The only words that leave her mouth are "yinz" and "dippy eggs." Luckily, her writing has much more substance than that. As a Steelers and Pirates fan, sports can become a hot debate. Share your thoughts on dogs (specifically Boston Terriers) with her at: [email protected]

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