How To: Examine How to Dance in Ohio Through A Critical Disability Lens

Issue Three: How to Dance in Ohio
Sydney Zarlengo
December 15, 2023
Sydney Zarlengo

Sydney Zarlengo (they/them) is an openly queer, disabled, autistic, & trans non-binary actor, composer, YouTuber, disability educator, and media analyst. They received a BA from Mount Holyoke College in 2023 with a double major in psychology and theater as well as completing a semester-long physical theater intensive at Accademia dell’Arte in Arezzo, Italy. Their undergraduate thesis focused on accessible arts education, culminating in the world’s first all-neurodivergent cast and crew production of The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time and subsequent documentary. Now based in New York City, Sydney is composing for a new musical, making public access reviews of shows for disabled theatergoers, teaching educators how to create accessible classrooms and accessible art, and recently dramaturged a Shakespeare workshop. Regardless of medium, their work focuses on looking at the world differently and appreciating every aspect of what it means to be alive - through the beautiful, the messy, and the beautifully messy - with the goal of integrating accessibility and inclusion into mainstream theaters and educational spaces. When they’re not working, Sydney can be found reading disability representation, talking about vintage fashion, photographing wildlife, and pulling things apart to learn how they fit back together.

For my first commissioned Broadway review, I felt a strong need to follow the traditional structure. I would tell you what performances were outstanding (all of them), what song stood out (“Building Momentum”), my favorite line (when a character named Mel mentioned that disabled folks make subminimum wage), and maybe even the accessibility of the show (though you can find my review on that here). But, at my core, I am a disability scholar, media analyst, and the person who staged the first all-neurodivergent production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. So I think a slightly different look at the new, history-making Broadway musical How to Dance in Ohio makes more sense.

My other inclination was to talk about how much I loved it as an autistic person as a way of proving how important it is. But I have been a media reviewer long enough to expect that people will be afraid to critique Ohio for fear of coming across as ableist or ungrateful that we have explicitly autistic representation on Broadway for the first time. I also know this industry well enough to expect lots of reviews claiming that this show means we have fixed the problems with representation and accessibility in the industry. All of which makes honest critique sorely necessary, regardless of how much I liked the show.

The Cast of HTDIO. Photo Credit: Curtis Brown

How to Dance in Ohio does not thoroughly center its autistic adults as advertised. I expected that on my way in. After all, it was not long ago in 2022 that the show As We See It premiered on Amazon Prime and all of the advertising discussed how it centered the perspectives of three autistic young adults. But the show was instead half about the autistic adults and half about their group home aide as well as their parents and family members. The primary critique? It fell into the caretaker narrative. This use of disability fits under the umbrella of David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder’s concept of the “narrative prosthesis,” where the disabled character exists to prop up a wider narrative about what it means to be human. Without disability, the story and conflict would not exist, but it is in no way central to the actual story itself. And while yes, the experiences of the family members and care workers around disabled people are important, that is, typically, the only disabled representation we get. And it is representation that makes me, as a disabled person, feel less like a human and more like a bug being observed through a magnifying glass.

“Centering” disabled folks without actually centering them may not seem like a major issue, but slightly one-dimensional disabled characters, especially when authentically cast, can cause real harm. People have a tendency to see disabled actors playing disabled roles and assume that they are not, in fact, acting. Most discussions of this phenomenon find themselves rooted in the history of the freak show, where people primarily assumed that they were just disabled people on display, not performers often deliberately exaggerating their disabilities to get money out of spectators. People are often surprised when I tell them that, as an autistic actor, playing an explicitly autistic character is one of the hardest things I have ever done, especially in comparison to playing non-autistic characters. They just assume that all “visible” autism, especially on stage, is interchangeable.

If we put disability aside for a moment and pretend that Ohio is about literally anything else, the show was not entirely sure who its core players were. We get more exposition on the therapist Dr. Emilio Amigo (Caesar Samayoa) who leads the group and his daughter Ashley (Cristina Sastre) than we do for half of the autistic characters. The same frustrating parallel is true for many of the character’s parents.

Much of the dialogue in book writer Rebekah Greer Melocik’s script involves natural conversations between characters to teach the audience about what it means to be autistic. One might argue that the show is therefore primarily meant for a non-autistic audience, but when I was first diagnosed, seeing characters with heavy exposition as to how their identity fit them  helped a lot with figuring out how to describe myself and my needs. Yes, no one is owed an explanation of an identity and our media should try to reflect that a bit better, but the inclination to over explain, particularly within a medium that never sees that identity, is logical.

The Cast of HTDIO. Photo Credit: Curtis Brown

I liked how Ohio taught its lessons in a friendly way where you did not realize you were learning, but the byproduct of its focus on autism exposition was that, unfortunately, the autistic characters’ stage time was typically dedicated primarily toward using their lives and experiences to teach about autism rather than using their lives and experiences to teach about every dimension of who they were. Meanwhile the identical stage time of, say, Dr. Emilio and Ashley focused primarily on describing their lives and struggles as people.

My second critique, one that may be more important than the first, has nothing to do with the show but rather the audience seeing it.

The simultaneously beautiful and terrifying thing about creating art is that you have no control over what an audience  gets out of it. Hearing people around me talk at intermission about how “cute” the autistic adults were and how they were “very high functioning” and “doing a great job”, watching them clap when the parents onstage sang about how they never expected to see their kids hit a certain milestone, and watching their cheering reaction to an autistic person dumping their boyfriend gave me pause.

The beautifully written ableist moment in Act II, where the words used are all ones people think are compliments about disabled people but are patronizing and disgusting gave people around me pause — I could feel them learning, realizing that what they said as a “compliment” during intermission maybe was not very nice, and I heard their language shift when they discussed things after the show.

But the thing that has stuck with me most about seeing this show is how the audience responded to me. When I consume autistic media representation I often get very overwhelmed. This is common for many autistic people — it makes me hyperaware of how much I mask and how exhausting that is. I get emotionally involved in the plot because I feel a closer kinship to the characters. As an analyst, I am always waiting for something to go wrong (the statistics on how often we get completely non-harmful representation are not great; you learn to expect it). Especially if it is a project I had really high hopes for. As a result, I often seem “more autistic,” in that you will see me stim more, struggle more with organic speech, and often will generally move differently than I typically do. I was once told I needed to stop watching autistic representation because it was “making me regress,” and so I try to avoid consuming it around others if I can help it. Obviously, in this case, that was not possible.

As I moved around the Belasco Theatre, processing how my brain and body were reacting to consuming autistic media around others for the first time in years, I expected to be either ignored or given the quick glance-and-look-away as I generally am when I stim in public. Instead, the people around me were watching me. Not in a judgmental way, but in a sort of disbelief, like they had just come across a rare creature in the wild. It was clear that people did not expect to see autistic people existing off of the stage. And that, since they had just spent a few hours staring, in a socially acceptable way, at autistic people being “visibly” autistic, they assumed it was okay to stare at me that way too.

Madison Kopec (Center) and the cast of HTDIO. Photo Credit: Curtis Brown

As much as seeing people around me learn about people like me in real time gives me hope for where this industry can go, as much as seeing access options explicitly available that I have always had to help other people DIY in order to get through shows gives me hope for future theater accessibility, my fear for this show has always been that it would give people a false idea that we have come farther than we have. And I think the way that the audience members looked at me, as if I was only meant to exist on a stage or tv screen, as if someone like me was only palatable from a careful distance where the interplay between someone like me and someone like them is clearly delineated with no actual direct interaction between the two, really showed that to be the case.

I know how hard this team has had to work to make things accessible under immense pushback, and I know how many of these things are not going to carry over to the wider industry without deliberate effort from many different angles. As a historian, given the fact that people tend to view disabled performers in disabled roles as not being actual performers, having the first openly autistic actors on Broadway* playing autistic characters, primarily fairly unidimensional ones, will very likely further hurt our chances of being cast for mainstream non-autistic roles. Despite contemporary Broadway commercial success standing on the backs of autistic-coded characters such as Elphaba in Wicked, Dawn in Waitress, and Orpheus in Hadestown just to name a few.

At the end of the day, How to Dance in Ohio is an incredible show. I intend to go see it again now that I know what to expect so I can enjoy it more. And there is a lot from it that I want the industry to learn from and hope it can learn from. But what scares me about it is that people are looking at this show uncritically, thinking that it solves all the problems in the industry, and thinking that we don’t have anywhere to go from here. Patting themselves on the back for a job well done at going to see one show about disability all while looking at me like some exotic zoo animal.

As I said with my Curious last year, this is just a step. An important step, a step that took a lot of work and a lot of breaking down barriers, but at the end of the day, it is a small step. We still have a long way to go. Yes, Ohio is building momentum. But it is the audience’s responsibility to make sure that momentum actually turns into something positive that centers and highlights the disabled community because we matter. And not because we are interesting to look at.

**this has technically happened once before in 1974 with Sir Anthony Hopkins in Equus, but he was not diagnosed until decades later

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