Celebrating Neurodivergence In The Arts: ‘Aladdin’ Actor, Musicians, Artists Offer Insight

by Emma Blankenship

CHATHAM – People of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities packed the sold-out Chatham Orpheum Theater last Thursday to celebrate neurodiverse representation with “Heroes of My Imagination: Celebrating Neurodiversity In The Arts.”

Uncanny impressions, personal anecdotes, and live music all offered the audience an entertaining and insightful glimpse into the world of neurodivergence in performing and visual arts.

The Monomoy Regional Middle School chorus delivered a beautiful performance outside of the theater as guests arrived. Once everyone settled in, Liam Campbell, a recent college graduate with autism, offered a moving introduction to the panel’s discussion.

A visual arts major, Campbell said that there is nothing that will keep him from creating — definitely not his autism. A talented visual artist, he was non-verbal until he was 5 years old. In that time, and he found his voice through his drawings. The first character he worked to master? Kermit the Frog. Years later, Campbell has also mastered an incredible impression of the beloved amphibian, which he shared in a portion of his speech. Between his art, his impressions, and his rich approach to life, Campbell is proof positive that, as he said, “Creativity is not only through the brain; it is through the heart.”

Alan Rust, artistic director of the Cape Cod Shakespeare Festival in Chatham and former artistic director of the Monomoy Theatre, moderated the panel for the evening, shared advice he gives to each of his theater disciples: “The journey you are about to embark on is going to be really hard.” Despite these inevitable challenges, Rust drives home the importance of perseverance, chanting “Don’t quit!” It was through the research Rust conducted before moderating the event that he became more informed on the experiences and additional struggles of neurodiverse individuals in the arts, and that led him to the work of panel member Ron Suskind.

A Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author, Suskind is known for his book “Life, Animated; A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism.” Written about his experience raising his son, Owen Suskind, who has late-onset autism and, similar to Campbell, found his voice through the arts. Having a lifelong passion for Disney movies, Owen would watch and rewatch classics such as “The Little Mermaid” and “The Jungle Book” with his family, slowly finding speech again through impressions of his favorite characters. Quickly, the family realized that engaging with Owen through impressions of their own encouraged him to engage on a higher level.

“This is how we ended up living with Disney characters for 10 years,” the elder Suskind said.

It was his son's love for Disney that led Suskind to reach out to his fellow panel member, Jonathan Freeman, the voice of Jafar in Disney’s “Aladdin,” in the hopes of securing a phone call from the villain himself for his son’s birthday. Freeman happily obliged, and later went to a Halloween party with Owen and his friends, where he was quite the celebrity.

“You haven’t lived until you are in a room with 25 kids who know more about your life and career than you do,” Freeman said. To this day, Freeman is a good friend of the Suskinds and an advocate for neurodiversity in the arts, all thanks to Owen’s love and passion for animated classics. Owen’s illustrations and more are featured in the documentary “Life, Animated,” based on his father’s book.

A highlight of the night was the reenactment of a scene from “Aladdin,” with Owen taking on the role of the ornery parrot Iago alongside Freeman’s Jafar.

Isabeau Miller and Tedi Marsh, a mother-daughter duo, acted as co-producers on “How to Dance in Ohio,” a Broadway musical centered on neurodivergent representation. As a professor at Berklee College of Music, Miller found herself moved by her neurodivergent students.

“[Neurodivergence in the arts] felt so underrepresented to me,” she said. It was through this work at Berklee and her part in producing “How to Dance in Ohio” that highlighted to Miller, as she put it, “how alike we all are. We all struggle, some more than others, but we are all on the same journey.”

Dani Davis, producer of the “Shrek the Musical” on Broadway, also recently came to understand and appreciate the importance of neurodiversity in theater. During the most recent incarnation of “Shrek the Musical,” currently touring the U.S., the casting process applied a blind technique.

“We were casting them on talent alone,” stated Davis. At the end of the day, out of the 24 artists hired through this process, six are neurodivergent. “I couldn’t be more proud or more honored to be doing this right now,” Davis said as she reflected on the growth and opportunity these young neurodivergent people are experiencing on the road.

A former educator, panel member Nina Schuessler, former artistic director of the Cape Cod Theatre Company/Harwich Junior Theatre, has worked with neurodivergent kids for decades, before there were even labels or functional support systems in place for neurodivergent individuals in school. Schuessler learned through her work with neurodivergent students in the arts just how talented, passionate, and capable they are. She is now the proud grandmother of a musically talented 13-year-old grandson on the autism spectrum. It is Scheuessler’s experiences with her students and grandson that have allowed her to see just how similar everyone is, regardless of neurotypicality.

Local artist Nick Heaney, co-owner of Artnova Gallery in Chatham, shared his experience growing up with autism. Heaney recalled a teacher, recognizing that he was displaying signs of dyslexia and encouraging his parents to get him tested. The difficult experience of being told he had a learning disability has stuck with Heaney into adulthood.

“Being explained that there is something different about you, that is a hard experience,” said Heaney. “You feel like you are doing something wrong.” Despite the added challenges faced due to this disability, Heaney conquered his education head-on. “Ms. Baker told me I would be graduating at the top of my class, and she was right.”

Nate Olan, an educator and artist with autism, and his interpreter, Lauren Kalita, captured the hearts of his audience, sharing tales of his abuse and bullying as a child and the ways it fueled his love for art.

He recalled being a rambunctious, difficult to contain child, a trait which led his family to tie him to a tree on a long rope. Under that tree, he had sticks and dirt, the tools of a young blossoming artist. The escape art offered him through these traumatic years, the support of his sister, and the inspiration of his “master house painter” grandfather, allowed Olan to develop into the communicator, educator, and activist he is today. Despite his cavalier and easy disposition, Olan is no stranger to angst and difficulties.

“Every night is a struggle,” Olan said as he describes the “tape-loops” of his difficult life that play on repeat in his head as he tries to find rest. Staying awake until the wee hours, “trying to find a place where sleep feels like sleep,” Olan fills his time with his art.

While he was young and in school, this art might have been commissioned by classmates or assigned as supplemental schoolwork, but as an adult, Olan has learned to claim his craft as his own, saying to all who don’t appreciate his artwork, “I gotta say this, and I don’t mean it in a snarky way… but I didn’t paint it for you!” As Olan put it, “You can buy the artwork, but you can’t buy the soul.”

To conclude the panel, vocalist Matthew A. Newcomb, an autistic artist himself, performed the iconic classic hit “The Candy Man” before Rust opened the floor for a brief audience Q&A.

Kim Roderiques, the organizer of this event, emphasized that every dollar raised from ticket sales will be donated to Cape Abilities, “supporting vital efforts to make an inclusive community for all.” Without her efforts, or the contributions from the Gardner Family, the event would not have been possible. The evening was recorded and will be made available online shortly.