Upcoming Broadway Musical Puts Autism on Stage
October 03, 2023
By: Ben VanHook
How to Dance in Ohio, a new musical, will open on Broadway on December 10, 2023, at the Belasco Theatre, with previews beginning November 15. The show follows seven autistic adults in Columbus, Ohio, as they prepare for their first dance. They spend 12 weeks practicing their social skills as they get ready for the big event, to be hosted at a local disco. Working with their trusted psychologist, they deconstruct their fears and social anxiety one step at a time by picking dates, dresses, and, ultimately, a King and Queen of the Prom.
According to a New York Times article, the show is based on a 2015 documentary by filmmaker Alexandra Shiva. That documentary followed autistic participants in a social skills therapy program.
Authentic representation of autism is often challenging in plays, musicals, movies, and TV shows. There have been several portrayals of autistic characters in the entertainment industry, from The Good Doctor’s Shaun Murphy to Rain Man’s Raymond Babbitt to Atypical’s Sam Gardner; however, many of these characters lack authenticity, often because a non-autistic actor is playing the role. Atypical, for example, has been heavily critiqued for its lack of autistic representation, from selecting a non-autistic actor to play Sam, an autistic character, to hiring only two autistic people in the entire production (one cast member and one on the social media team).
How to Dance in Ohio, however, is different. Autistic actors and actresses portray each of the autistic characters in the show, and the show has many autistic collaborators. Several members of the production team, including the assistant producer and assistant music director are autistic. Additionally, the producers hired Ava Rigelhaupt, an autistic creative consultant, to review the show’s script and dialogue. She aimed to remove harmful stereotypes around autism and portray the reality — that every autistic person is different.
As Rigelhaupt noted in an article on the WRVO website, “Sometimes when people are crafting an autistic character, they use a lot of tropes like, ‘doesn’t make eye contact at all,’ ‘isn’t interested in making friends at all,’ and that’s not really true. In the show, you meet seven autistic characters, young adults, and they’re all very different.”
Rigelhaupt was also tasked with creating a language guide for the production that focused on identity-first language. She described the need for identity-first language in the WRVO article as similar to a producer saying, “I’m a producer,” not “I’m a person of producing.”
How to Dance in Ohio first premiered in 2022 in Syracuse, N.Y. at the Syracuse Stage, which created a welcoming, accommodating, and inclusive environment for people with sensory sensitivities. The theater sent information about the theater experience in advance, developed sensory toolkits, and offered a sensory trigger list that noted loud sounds and lighting that may be overwhelming. The theater also dedicated a room as a cool-down room with a live stream of the performance so audience members could step out of the performance at any time.
How to Dance in Ohio differentiates itself from other productions through its authenticity, dedication to representation, accommodations, and care for its audience members. As Rigelhaupt noted in an article on the Broadway News website, “accessibility benefits everyone.” Ben Holtzman, a producer on the project, agreed, saying in the same article that the development of the musical was successful because of the production’s attention to accessibility and representation: “There’s a lot of reasons, but what we’ve found is that when you set up a room like this and you invite this sort of conversation and transparency to your process, the work gets done way more efficiently and with a lot more joy.”