The title of this article suggests I’m either crazy, dreaming or overly optimistic. What autism mom in her right mind would encourage her daughter on the spectrum to choose acting as a career? Yet here I am—knowing that it’s next to impossible for a neurotypical actress to succeed—becoming the momager of a young woman with serious social challenges. But the possibility has become more tantalizing and real since my daughter Samantha was cast as the female lead in Keep the Change (which won the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and earned her a Best Actress nomination). In some ways, I’m in pioneer country or maybe even in a Star Trek episode, with my daughter traveling to places in the arts never before visited by someone with her disabilities. Keep the Change is the first romantic comedy to cast lead actors with autism as multi-dimensional characters, depicting them with the respect and humor that all adults deserve, instead of focusing on stigmatizing stereotypes.
On the other hand, most kids with autism grow up as actors every day, but without nearly enough recognition or respect for their efforts. Parents, teachers, and therapists struggle to help children on the spectrum “fit in” and adapt to the demands of the neurotypical world. In many ways, all children with autism are “acting” all the time (when they are not acting out). What could be easier or more authentic than encouraging talented people on the spectrum to play different versions of themselves? Yes, we must NEVER forget that people with disabilities can be talented and charismatic. Marlee Matlin opened the door for deaf actors in the 1986 movie Children of a Lesser God, Chris Burke of the ‘90’s TV show Life Goes On did it for actors with Downs Syndrome, and I truly believe Samantha Elisofon can pave the way for talented adults with autism.
What convinces me even more than a single stellar performance, in a beautifully written and well-directed movie, is the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Samantha in person by audiences at film festivals in very different parts of the world. From Tribeca in New York City, to Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Samantha has been honored by photographers, fans wanting autographs and selfies, and standing ovations at every screening. The neurotypical world (as well as audience members in wheelchairs) seem to have fallen in LOVE with her. Am I dreaming?
All the recent attention, since the success of Keep the Change, has been mostly wonderful, yet at times overwhelming (even for a proud mom). While Samantha is thrilled and grateful for all of the praise and attention, she still suffers the occasional meltdown. I share my film festival stories not to brag (although of course I’m proud!), but to give other families of aspiring actors on the spectrum the hope and courage to follow and support their children’s dreams in every way possible.
For me, supporting my diva on the spectrum means paying attention to small details as well as the big picture. For example, I will NEVER show up at a film festival meal without carrying an emergency diet soda for Samantha. She was in a state of near-fury and disbelief when there was no bubbly beverage at the Shabbat dinner in San Francisco, but ended up being a good sport (fortunately). In Prague, I had to convince her to stop asking me why the customs official was acting like such a “mean a-hole,” so he would allow us to leave the country. On the way to meeting Samantha’s new agent in Los Angeles, (yes, a real Hollywood agent!) her Dad made the mistake of “shushing” her so he could hear the muffled driving directions from an antiquated GPS in our rental car. It turned into an ABA choice: Either be quiet or get lost on the way to the agent and be late. (Samantha hates to be late). Neither a long discussion nor hand signals to lower her voice (impossible if you’re driving) was an option.
As for addressing the big picture challenges of becoming a successful actress, over the past year I’ve worked with founder Aubrie Therrien to create EPIC Players (Empower, Perform, Include, Create), a neurodiverse theater company for actors living with and without disabilities. EPIC’s goals include redefining the face of theater arts and creating employment opportunities for actors with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. After successfully auditioning to join EPIC, cast members take head shots, learn how to write resumes, and prepare for auditions in addition to training in movement, singing and improvisation. EPIC also helps cast members find professional work outside the theater company. Most recently, Aubrie, Samantha and other EPIC actors appeared in the final scene of the film, Good Time, earning a feature film credit for their resumes along with industry compensation. EPIC actors cast also members receive a (much deserved) stipend for their performances in EPIC productions.
So far in EPIC’s first year, the company has produced an evening of devised skits and Dog Sees God at the Kraine Theater, with excellent reviews (?) in Chelsea News and Time Out. The next EPIC production, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, will be performed November 16th through the 19th at the Flea Theater, where EPIC is proud to be in residence as an anchor partner. My daughter Samantha is looking forward to playing a bossy, funny Lucy. Every day at the beach in San Diego, she worked on her lines and songs, so she could be “off book” by September 23rd. After a week of crooning on the sand and holding her script until it almost disintegrated, Samantha knows her part perfectly. The day before we flew home, nearby beach goers complimented Samantha on her singing and asked if she was a Broadway actress.
Marguerite Elisofon and I’m the author of a memoir called My Picture Perfect Family: What Happens When One Twin Has Autism, which explores my family’s journey raising my daughter, Samantha, who is on the autistic spectrum. http://www.margueriteelisofon.com/
My daughter, Samantha, is starring in a groundbreaking new feature film that has been selected to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend. The film is called, Keep the Change, and it features a New York love story between two young adults on the autistic spectrum. What makes the film so unique is that the actors portraying characters with autism are themselves on the spectrum, making Keep the Change the first film of its kind. This movie represents a great opportunity—not only for Samantha and the other actors in the film—but for all young adults on the spectrum who have big dreams! You can learn more about Samantha on her website.