"This is a place where my diagnosis has been a boon, not a hindrance--and it's amazing being a part of a professional environment, doing what I love."
So says Adam D. Bram, a Rhode Island College theatre graduate who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in 2010. It's been a long, successful night of performance for him and several other talented, passionate, and neurodiverse members of his troupe at a local Providence venue, and it's reminded them all not only how much they love theatre--but how important the art is for bringing people of all walks of life together through storytelling. Their company, Spectrum Theatre Ensemble is a freshly minted 501(c)(3) non-profit organization bringing their talents to stages across Rhode Island!
WHO THEY ARE
Spectrum Theatre Ensemble (STE) is a local theatre company started by Artistic Director Clay B. Martin in 2017. The group was developed in partnership with Trinity Repertory Company through a University One-on-One Mentorship Grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Administered over a course of three years by the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), this grant provided Clay and Trinity Rep the ability to provide performance opportunities for individuals on the autism spectrum--both as audience members through Trinity's sensory-friendly programming, and as theatre professionals themselves within Clay's developing ensemble.
Clay, who struggled with learning disorders himself in college, was accepted to a graduate theatre program at Texas Tech--whose campus happened to be located directly across from a large Autism Center. His experience with learning disabilities in the pursuit of his passions gave him the inspiration to create a workshop program, and ever since, it's been a fantastic experience for all involved.
"This is the most important work I've ever done and ever will do," Clay says. "Every day, I'm inspired by the possibilities of what we can do together."
Along with Clay came Managing Director Troy Battle and Artistic Associate Madison Frances Weinhoffer, who joined Clay's work as a graduate and undergraduate student, respectively. Their formation of the BurkTech Players, a group that "allows students with autism to creatively express themselves in the structured environment of professional theatre," earned them the recognition and expertise to receive the grant. From there, they began to develop workshops for individuals on the autism spectrum, research how to recruit neurodiverse artists, and how to make theatre comfortable and fun for all audience members.
Actor, Fight Choreographer, and Artistic Associate Teddy Lytle, whose original plan was to act in New York after receiving his M.F.A in Theatre from Brown University and Trinity Rep, hasn't looked back since being invited to join STE. "Being here ruined mainstream acting for me," he says, "because no other place gave me an experience like STE. This is a troupe that puts its money where its mouth is; it holds everyone to a high professional standard and challenges people's misconceptions around neurodiversity. I appreciate the chance to tell stories with people who haven't had the chance to do so themselves."
Clay and his growing crew built the company around five core principles: Neurodiversity, Collaboration, Understanding, Inclusion, and Empathy. Their goal is creating an environment where individuals of all abilities can safely express themselves through theatre and enjoy the magic of stage-bound storytelling, all while breaking down professional barriers and misconceptions for people on the autism spectrum--and thanks to local connections, such as The Miracle Project and Trinity Rep, as well as the onboarding of STE's Founding Members, including Adam D. Bram, Daniel Boyle, Adam Almeida, Daniel Perkins, and Katherine Niedzwiadek, the company dove into their mission wholeheartedly.
BRINGING THEIR VISION TO THE STAGE
As of 2019, STE has achieved non-profit status as a 501(c)(3) organization, which allows supporters to make tax-deductible charitable donations toward the cost of productions--a natural next step as they continue, now independent from Trinity Rep, to support neurodiverse actors and theatre enthusiasts. While part of the Trintiy Rep, STE collaborated on original productions, such as "Fit," with Brown University MFA students. STE also produced an original play, "The Importance of Being...(A Play in Earnest)," which was developed by resident playwright Jeremy J. Kamps and performed as a staged reading at Brown this past May. Later, company members also performed selections from the script at PVDFest.
Actor Dave Adams Murphy, who was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome later in life, found STE through auditions. While previously completely unaware of their mission for individuals with ASD Dave now finds himself thrilled to be part of the group.
"My diagnosis cleared up a lot of mysteries in my life, and has been a boon, because now I have the tools to navigate it and improve my acting through it," Dave remarks. "I'm also grateful to be a part of STE--a space with such a high level of dedication and discipline to the craft."
Along with original and classic productions, STE has been promoting their work throughout the community this year at various events, including Brown's Neurodiversity in Action Symposium. While Brown's event is largely based around autism research and parenting tactics for children and adults on the spectrum, STE's presence at the event provided a different angle: a professional possibility, a creative outlet, for individuals with autism interested in the world of theatre. Many of STE's artists have parents who support them in their acting dreams, and they were happy to share their experiences and knowledge with parents attending the symposium as well.
"Theatre is breaking down barriers for our cast and crew members," says Communications Manager, Megan Ruggiero. "Being a part of something so collaborative like this, it brings people together and gives everyone the feeling that they have value and purpose as they create together. I am overjoyed to work with a company that has such a vital and timely mission."
SPREADING THEIR WINGS FOR THE FUTURE
Though STE now works independently from Trinity Rep, the two organizations remain supportive of each other's projects and sensory-friendly initiatives. STE plans to create a Sensory-Friendly Certification (SFC) program, which aims to form a rating system for both individual performances and institutional yearly programming in order to create a theatre environment more inclusive for neurodiverse audiences.
"The goal is always sensory-friendly programming for those with ASD, PTSD, and other conditions--not just for the comfort of our actors, but our audiences, too," Troy says. "It's about making a place where everyone can enjoy theatre together."
STE is dedicated not only to providing professional theatre performances, but also encouraging the growth of budding actors and other talent within individuals on the autism spectrum. As a result, they plan to provide the training necessary to help theatre-lovers achieve their dreams through STE Academy. Whether aiming for admission to college theatre programs or seeking professional theatre careers, this program aims to develop the skills necessary to succeed.
"The professional growth I've experienced here is incredible," says Daniel Boyle, who was diagnosed with Asperger's at a young age. "I've been involved with theatre my whole life, but since joining STE, I've gone from working mostly off stage and reading cue cards to performing leading roles without any aid. This troupe is amazing at helping actors hone their skills."
Along with aiming to perform original works at the Providence Fringe Festival in 2020, STE also plans to develop their own 10-Minute Play Festival. There, they aim to bring their artistic endeavors into the limelight through original works, professional theatre skill development, and relationships with prominent playwrights and directors--all while giving back to the community by advocating for individuals on the spectrum and raising awareness for the many barriers that still exist for these individuals in society.
Supporting local artists is always a fantastic way to give back to one's community--especially when those artists represent a cause as fantastic as that of the Spectrum Theatre Ensemble. STE is now performing their debut full-length production at the Wilbury Theatre Group in Providence through August 31st, in collaboration with Red Fork Empire, a local artist collective.
For more information about this production and more, check out their website at www.STEnsemble.org
, or the organization's Facebook page
. We're wishing them the best of luck in their incredible creative, educational, and community work!