'Dancing' on the spectrum, at 2nd Story

By F. William Oakes
Posted 6/12/18

Star crossed lovers and the attraction of opposites; now that’s a story as old as stories itself. In the play “Dancing Lessons”, now at 2nd Story Theatre, this age old trope is …

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'Dancing' on the spectrum, at 2nd Story


Star crossed lovers and the attraction of opposites; now that’s a story as old as stories itself. In the play “Dancing Lessons”, now at 2nd Story Theatre, this age old trope is given a new and timely twist. In this poignant, quirky heartwarming play a Professor with Asperger’s syndrome needs to learn to dance. He finds instruction from a dancer with an injured leg. From this unlikely meeting springs romance, insight and mutual understanding.

When I attended a recent rehearsal 2nd Story, Theatre Artistic Director Ed Shea explained that “these two characters are etched mired in the vast expanse between  left brain and right brain.” The teacher is very literal minded, focused on the facts of the matter. The dancer, as artists are wont to be, has little concern for such mundane matters. This dichotomy is inherent in the plays meet in the middle between the joy of ‘dancing’ and the hard scholarship of ‘lessons’.

   Learning can and should be a joy as well and language connects us all. Talking can be like learning to dance. But we are all each wired differently and perception varies widely. Onstage language is action itself, it is freedom. But learning to listen and decipher is the key to that freedom.

   At the rehearsal I attended considerable insight was provided by Nick Gallop of the Asperger/Autism Network. “The thought process of existence takes over the body”, he explains, to live on the spectrum is “to be overwhelmed by the intensity of thought.” A friendly and gregarious man, Mr. Gallop was generous enough to come and share his insights and experiences with the cast of “Dancing Lessons.” This proved to be an illuminating and wonderful experience.

   Mr. Gallop aided and assisted the actors on the realities of living, and thriving, with the Asperger’s diagnosis. Much of this consisted of “trying to do what ‘neurotypicals’ expect and  the struggle to “imitate neurotypical behavior.” This is, he explains “often a choice between being more lonely and being yourself.”

   “Assimilation”, he expounds, “is a mask.” Diagnosed at age eight he recalls his life “on the spectrum”, an Asperger’s diagnosis that affects one in 68 Americans. He describes a hyper-awareness that shapes his ends and notes the struggle to imitate "what neurotypicals expect.” “I have a lot of social anxiety,” he continues, "I can come off as antagonistic without meaning to." The act of processing the phenomena of life and assuming “transitions between modes of thought without logic can be difficult” and Nick describes the internally “manual and not automatic way” he has had to catch himself to react in ways that he is not familiar with. Learning to add vocal inflections to indicate a joke he’s making, for example, and overcoming “expressing empathy with an almost robotic feel and the impulse to explain everything he’s feeling to everyone.”

    Eventually he studied psychology in college with an aim to understand and to help, got his degree and now works for the Asperger/Autism Network. “Removing the mask in order to explain the mask” and provide a greater understanding. “I’m a rebel for not agreeing to other classifications” of what one might assume the life on this spectrum is all about. “It’s not hard, it’s not easy. It’s how I process.”

   The human mind/body connection is a myserteous thing and that is something that is deftly explored in Mark St. Germain’s pithy and insightful play “Dancing Lessons.” The professor Ever Montgomery and dancer Senga Quinn “each teach each other and grow from characteristics the other lacked in the beginning”, Ed Shea explains. How we perceive and process this world we live in is an important issue for this playwright who penned a play seen a while back at 2nd Story: “Freud’s Last Session” in which Freud met C.S. Lewis and issues of faith and reason were much discussed. With this play, the internal conflict between science and imagination is explored. There is a intersection between their concerns that does not exactly match up; much as music and mathematics are intrinsically linked but an equation is not a sonata. “Truth is more than data”, Senga exclaims, to which Ever replies, “yes but it is only the chemistry of the brain that creates imagination.” In the midst of the budding romantic relationship we see a microcosm of the big questions that civilization has always wrestled with since Aristotle warned in his Poetics that the dramatic arts “are a lie that tells the truth.”

   In the course of this play each character’s train of thought operates on different schedules; Ever’s makes a lot of stops to halt and process while Senga's takes a more direct route. The characters are lovingly and endearingly played by the talented young actors Cam Torres and Rachel Tondreault. To watch their initial courtship dance is to fall in love. This is so wonderfully  painful”, Senga exclaims and Ever notes that “I want my brain to stop it but my body won’t listen. I’m confused but not disturbed.” Watching these talented actors rehearse Nick Gallop exclaims about the play that “the dialogue brings them together is amazing.” These words ring true and Mr. Gallop brought considerable verisimilitude to these proceedings, remarking and consulting exactitude of the reality  presented here, right down the mechanical details of sensory issues such as the difficulty Ever might have in making eye contact while delivering a particular line.

   Theatre is an art form both literal and figurative. Through very specific words and actions it can convey the ineffable and help us understand ourselves, and each other, in ways we didn’t necessarily grasp before. Our daily conundrum is that while truth is stranger than fiction we sometimes need a little fiction to explain that truth. Quirky, funny, engaging and just plain lovely, “Dancing Lessons” promises promises to help us all understand ourselves and each other a little bit more.

At 2nd Story Theatre, 28 Market St., Warren; though July 1. For tickets and information call 401/247-4200 or visit 2ndstorytheatre.com.

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