The first-ever public performance of “Mockingbird,” a new play by Julie Jensen, took place on Thursday in the Browning Center’s Eccles Theater.
WSU theater professor Tracy Callahan directed the play, which centers on an autistic child named Caitlin. In the play, Caitlin is learning to cope with the recent and violent death of a family member. As the story progresses, the audience sees what things frustrate Caitlin and what strategies she uses to get through everyday activities.
Callahan chose the play as part of the theater department’s year of only performing original works because of how it personally related to her. Callahan has a 22-year-old son who has been diagnosed with autism, so young Caitlin’s struggles hit close to home for her. Through directing the play she sought to give viewers a new perspective of autism.
“Hopefully it is going to create a more humanistic and more realistic view of people with autism,” Callahan said.
Callhan said the play was a perfect opportunity for her to raise awareness and understanding of a disability that is often misunderstood.
“If we are talking about it, then people can go and get diagnosed,” she said. “It can’t be as taboo as it used to be. We’ve got to start talking about it and having dialogue, because there are going to be kids (with autism) in every classroom.”
Camrey Bagley, a sophomore and musical theater major at WSU, plays the role of Caitlin. Bagley said she didn’t know anyone with autism, so she had to research the part by reading books and watching documentaries on the disorder.
“I think the biggest thing is they just view the world differently,” she said.
Bagley said she felt a tremendous responsibility to accurately portray an autistic person. She said her goal was to make Caitlin as realistic as possible, not a caricature.
WSU musical theater student Becca Lichfield plays Caitlin’s school counselor. In an email interview, Lichfield said she had to do a lot of research for her role. She read books on social work and studied different methods for helping autistic children cope with the world around them.
“I think it is a good thing for us to recognize and address how common and distressing this disability can be,” Lichfield said. “By doing this show, we have all been given a big insight on how general school structures can make it difficult for children with autism to be understood and for their needs to be met.”
Lichfield, Bagley and Callahan all said they believe in the great value and humanity of those with autism.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that someone with this disability is just as capable of learning, growing and progressing as anyone else is, to whatever degree that may be,” Lichfield said.
Callahan said her theater students could relate to some of Caitlin’s struggles.
“Some of the things that are hard for Caitlin are hard for them as well,” she said. “(The play) might just put a human face on the idea of an autistic child and (show) that we share a lot of the same struggles as we are growing up.”
Bagley continued that line of thought, adding that she believes those with autism are a benefit to their community rather than just a consideration that needs to be taken.
“I hope (the audience) leaves knowing (autism) is something that needs to be worked with rather than pushed away,” she said. “(People with autism) have talents that other people don’t.”
“Mockingbird” will play March 28-29 and April 1-5. More information is available at Browningcenter.org and 801-626-7000.