As World Autism Acceptance Month comes to a close, we asked Mary Hopkins, local theater technician, about life with autism and what we should know about embracing autistic theatre practitioners in our community.
We are all given gifts in life. Some people are gifted talents, good health, privilege, family and friends, et cetera. My name is Mary Paige and I was gifted many things in my life. One of these gifts is having autism.
As a kid, I performed in a number of operas and musicals. I was a great singer, a tolerable actor, and I could manage a jazz square without falling on my face. I loved singing, the rehearsal process, the costumes - eight years later, I can still recount details of every single costume I wore, even down to the tear on the underarm of the green dress I wore in Ragtime.
Despite loving theatre, I struggled with all of the stimulation. The bright lights, the loud orchestra, the crowds of people who always wanted to talk and congratulate after the shows… Even the costumes, which were beautiful and made me feel like a princess, but they were always so itchy and tight and hot that I felt like I was suffocating. All of that was too much for me to handle. Having autism made performing difficult for me.
When a friend asked me to help on the running crew for The Pajama Game, I said yes because I am a ‘yes girl’. I wasn’t expecting the turn my life took with that ‘yes’.
Tech theatre was my golden ticket. As a techie, there wouldn’t be any bright lights. No one would want to congratulate me on my performance. I didn’t have to worry about the loud orchestra. I would miss the costumes, but I wouldn’t miss the crying and begging for someone to help me unzip my dress before I cut it off because I could feel the seams tearing into my skin.
My favourite job in theatre is being an assistant director and ASM. I love being able to be there throughout the whole process, and being an ASM allows me to work backstage.
Two of my most favorite shows that I’ve worked on were Sweet Tea and Baby Dreams (WTF) and Curious Savage (Forest Moon). STaBD and Savage were amazing because directors Maribeth McCarthy and Mike McGee, respectively, managed to include me in every possible way, even though sometimes I tend to 'uninclude' myself. Because of my autism, I sometimes isolate even though I really do want to be a part of the group. Both of them made sure I couldn't do that and I love them for it.
I think that one way the theatre community create more space for autistic women (I sorta identify as non binary, but it is so much harder for autistic women than men because it is soooo misunderstood in women) would be to honestly just give us a chance. People judge me for being autistic before they even meet me, but if I have known someone for years and say "I have autism,” they are amazed.
Having autism shapes who I am and I am so proud of that, but having autism doesn't mean I can't do anything that I want to do - because I can.
The most important thing for neuro-typical theatre friends to know about working with women on the spectrum would be to understand and recognize that we really just want the same things as NTs. We have the same feelings and passions, but we might not be able to express it as well. Theatre is an incredible place because it is so open to everyone of all races, genders, sexuality, and religions. People often forget that neurodiversity is also a thing, and that some of us can't always work the exact same way. We all have different paths we follow to get to the same end result: an incredible show.
Thank you Mary for your insights. Women’s Theatre Festival encourages all neuro-diverse technicians and artists to disclose their needs and preferences and any accommodations they may need to feel successful and safe on the job!