Inside EPIC Players’ Neuro-Inclusive Production

With his hand raised in the air, EPIC Players’ associate artistic director Travis Burbee called out to the thrum of voices filling up the warmly lit, wood paneled room on the second floor at A.R.T./New York’s South Oxford Space in Brooklyn. Quickly, the excited chatter died down as the group of actors, in rehearsal for their latest production, Spring Awakening, began to turn their attention to him, raising their own hands alongside a direct verbal response. 

“In the cast, we have deaf and hard of hearing folks who need visual cues. We also have blind and low vision folks who need verbal cues, so we raise our hands to ensure everybody is aware of what we’re doing. Then we’ll say thank you to this person for raising their hand,” Aubrie Therrien, EPIC Players’ executive and artistic director, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We’re responding to those with different processing problems. It’s recognizing those conflicting access needs, and creating solutions to support those folks.”

Featuring an all-disabled cast, this production of Spring Awakening, which runs through May 19 at A.R.T./NY in Manhattan’s theater district,  is a “neuro-inclusive” take on the Tony-winning coming-of-age rock musical. The term, which is intentionally used instead of “neurodiverse” or “neurodivergent,” was coined by the theater at its inception in 2016 with the help of various stakeholders and a volunteer team of language professionals to mean “everyone is included in the process,” says Therrien. 

“We had a think tank to talk about what our shows are and what they mean, and the term came out of that,” she continues. “You could identify as neurotypical, as capital-D disabled, as deaf or hard of hearing, as blind or low vision. But whatever you identify as, we are neuro-inclusive, so we include anyone, regardless of their neuro-identity or disabled identity.”

At this New York-based nonprofit theater (EPIC stands for “Empower, Perform, Include, Create”) founded to spotlight the talent of neurodivergent performers, these kinds of language and communication cue decisions are among a diverse suite of practices and tools regularly used to create a more inclusive space. 

Other supports include American Sign Language interpreters, an intimacy and fight director (Hannah Roccisano) and a director of ASL (Kailyn Aaron-Lozano). There’s also returning access coordinator Jamie Rose Hayes, who works with all the players to advocate for their individual needs, from “something like red tape instead of blue tape or making sure we have [something] written out,” says Therrien. 

“An important thing about accessibility is that it’s not you make it and then you’re done. You constantly have to refine, fine tune and figure out what’s going to work with folks,” notes Burbee. “As you move through the show, you might be presented with things that you didn’t realize there would be an access need for.”

“Or that you have conflicting access needs,” adds Therrien. 

In response to those varied needs, EPIC also offers break spaces to decompress; screen reader-accessible scripts and documents; earlier communication for individuals who require additional processing time; and a four-month scaffolded rehearsal process that increases in frequency from two to eventually four times a week for four- to five- hour blocks at a time. 

“It’s not because we don’t think our actors can do six weeks of rehearsal,” Therrien explains. “They can handle that. They would love that. But they also work programs and jobs — things they’ve fought for — and we’d be asking them to quit that.”

There’s also the EPIC Advocate program, which pairs players one-on-one with another professional actor, teacher or coach for support with lines, harmonies, class homework, audition prep and more. For company member Joshua Cartagena, who says the theater was “the first place where I was seen as an artist and a person first before being seen as disabled,” the advocate program is a place where they “thrive.” 

“I get to meet one-on-one with my advocate, and they have taught me so much and helped me navigate the process of pursuing professional theater,” says Cartagena. “I have been able to grow as an artist by gaining access to those classes and resources that have felt out of my reach in a neurotypical setting.”

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To Spring Awakening cast member Sydney Kurland, EPIC Players’ environment is an uncommon one among both professional and collegiate artistic spaces. But it was pivotal in helping them feel “free and comfortable” to ask questions, take risks and voice needs. 

“EPIC is an incredibly supportive environment to work in, not only because EPIC is dedicated to accommodating the access needs of their company members, but also because of the community EPIC has fostered,” Kurland says. “It is really powerful to be in a rehearsal room with castmates and creatives who have genuine respect for one another’s artistry and needs for equitable access to [participate] in rehearsal.”

The necessity of individuals having power over themselves is a conversation that’s as inherent to Spring Awakening’s narrative as it is to EPIC’s own production philosophy. “We really wanted to make sure they understood the story and what they’re going into for the auditions, so we did a lot of exploration in different sessions, and we made sure people had all of the audition and callback material months in advance,” says Therrien. 

Even the decision to perform Spring Awakening came from the actors themselves after the musical, which had been in the wheelhouse of potential productions for some time, was finally put to a vote within the company. “There were a lot of people at EPIC who are really passionate about [Spring Awakening],” Burbee says of the actor-driven company. “It’s a show that I think a lot of [our] actors deeply connect to, and it’s a message they care about.”

EPIC’s neurodivergent performers are “the most authentic, sincere, truthful, honest actors I’ve ever met,” says Therrien, something that has allowed them to bring “all these perspectives and character choices,” adds Burbee. 

“In terms of the uniqueness to our show, our actors have a lot of autonomy around what happens on that stage in collaboration and I think that is sometimes rare,” notes Therrien. “But that’s what brings our shows to life, is their ideas coming in.”

Explains Burbee, “We’re getting really beautiful variations of these characters that are different from maybe what we’re used to seeing — that are really telling a story that’s authentic to them and their experience.” 

Based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play set in 19th-century Germany, Spring Awakening follows a group of teens as they navigate desire, sex and insecurity, alongside parental and societally-fueled pressures of young adult life. 

It remains a timely and often difficult story centering on issues of authority, autonomy and rebellion within a violently repressive society. Stories of people who — facing little personal power and agency — confront abuse, isolation, rape, suicide and more would be demanding for any actor, but it can be especially taxing for some disabled performers. 

“There’s a statistic: Individuals with intellectual disabilities face sexual assault rates over seven times higher than those without disability,” says Burbee. “It’s not talked about very much, but that, along with all the other messages of the show, made it a story that people really wanted to tell.”

“There are striking parallels with the disabled community and the characters from Spring Awakening, not only what they’ve gone through in terms of sexual abuse or disregard, but infantilization, the withholding and restricting information or restricting exploring aspects of the human condition,” adds Therrien. “Travis has done a beautiful job in his staging of that story and putting our individuals in a place of power.”

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At EPIC, considering the artist is as important as the success of the production, which meant that the creative team thought about not just how to put on an exceptional show, but how to make it “a really safe and healthy process for everyone,” says Burbee.

“Early on, we did a lot of tasks, like creating rehearsal boundaries — what’s ok to use and talk about from our own lives and what’s not. We also did a session talking just about trauma and mental health — having an awareness of how we may be triggered, so everyone can have an eye out for those things with themselves,” he continues. “As an actor, it’s so easy, when you’re working with heavy material like this, to pull something from your own life and realize that maybe that was a little too raw for you to use when it’s too late.”

“In our pre-planning, we had a big sex and intimacy workshop with Michael John Carley, who’s an autistic self-advocate and wrote [The Book of Happy, Positive, and Confident Sex for Adults on the Autism Spectrum…and Beyond!],” Therrien recalls. “He had a session with all of our actors and it was very raw, and we talked about everything they wanted. Everyone got their curiosities out there. Out of those conversations, details were shared where it was very clear we needed to bring in a mental health support counselor for this production.”

That decision brought Taupa Fogo-Toussaint, a school psychologist with over a decade of experience in New York City Public Schools, who helped the creative team stay focused on leading the production. Meanwhile, Fogo-Toussaint — “someone who really had training and education,” says Burbee — was then available to focus on supporting the cast with any mental or emotional roadblocks. 

That support extended before and after rehearsals, with EPIC company members able to call Fogo-Toussaint within a specific window of days and times and get access to additional resources at the ready. 

As the production’s May 10 opening approached, Fogo-Toussaint says anxiety increased. “My job shifted to being really vigilant to see who might be having some big feelings or a moment. They don’t necessarily come and get me, but they’re having those issues and sometimes it can spill over into the rehearsal,” Fogo-Toussaint tells THR. “One thing really good about EPIC is they’re not forcing anything. I don’t know how Broadway theater works, if those experiences are pushed through, but here it’s, ‘Let’s give you that moment, and then you come back.’”

“Traditional theater is inherently toxic, so having her there helps people unpack and understand this is not that environment and you don’t have to have anxiety about this,” Therrien says. “We don’t break people down. We’re not that kind of theater. You’re not going to get kicked out. It’s OK to feel pressure, because you’re the lead and you’re learning. It’s ok that you don’t feel comfortable doing this scene with this effect. Let’s change it. Let’s unpack it together.”

Despite the show’s sometimes difficult subject matter, Fogo-Toussaint tells THR that she ultimately spent more time addressing with cast members the day-to-day anxieties typical of any actor in a production, a sign that more theaters might benefit from having the same kind of support available onsite to their companies, neurodivergent or not. 

“She’s been amazing with all of our players, and is able to connect individually and provide coping mechanisms, not just for the content of the show,” Therrien says. “It’s been wonderful to have her help with everyday rehearsal anxieties, trouble processing your emotions or time management — which are amplified when you identify as a neurodivergent individual.”

In line with EPIC’s overall approach to producing theater, which typically focuses on shows that don’t inherently feature neurodivergent roles, Burbee and Therrien say that they worked in tandem with a therapist, intimacy director and choreographer (Miles Butler) to create a show that “kept the intimacy, kept these important themes, allowing our artists to explore sex and intimacy with these characters” according to Therrien, while “working within the container of what the actor is comfortable with,” adds Burbee. 

“Although we have all of these access supports in place and tools, our actors are very much held to a professional standard,” Therrien tells THR. “They’re paid for their work and they are appreciated for their work. Just because you need to advocate for yourself does not make you less of a professional. That is what needs to be changed in more commercial and professional theater.”


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