Syracuse, N.Y. — Amelia Fay holds a fuzzy yellow hat with a smiley face on it, smooths it and flips it over in her lap as she talks.

The actress’ choice to audition for the groundbreaking musical How to Dance in Ohio could boost her career. It can also destroy her.

“And I was close to not going to the audition because I don’t know how my friends would react. I don’t know if it will affect my career… And I don’t know if the publicity or anything will affect my parents,” said Fei, who is originally from Taiwan.

In order to take part in the play, she had to tell the world that she was autistic. Faye is an accomplished actress and singer, but not even her close friends knew about it.

Faye stars as Caroline in the musical, which has its world premiere at Syracuse Stage. The plot is taken from the documentary of the same name about seven young people with autism. An autistic actor plays in each of them, which is explained to the audience at the beginning of the performance.

For the first time, the thing that threatened to keep these young people out was the key to the entrance. And it was celebrated.

It may be the first musical to feature autistic actors. It makes the art real and poignant in a way that has already earned good crowds and standing ovations, even on a rainy Wednesday night in Syracuse.

He has connections that give him a real chance on Broadway: producers include Ben Holtzman and Sammy Lopez, who are part of P3 Productions with Fiona Howe Rudin. The partnership produced The Kite Runner and A Strange Loop, both of which won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Tony Wilson Award winner Jermaine Heredia plays Emilio Amigo, a doctor who works with young people and hatches the idea for the prom.

But it also created a different, separate joy for the young actors, who for the first time got a chance to be themselves on and off the stage.

The actors have been in Syracuse for several weeks. They tell a story on stage. Offstage, they live it. What a joy it is for them to be with people who don’t need explanations for anxious swaying or nervous hand movements, don’t need scripts for social conversation.

They even came up with a name for themselves: Spectrum Club Seven. That’s who they are: some autistic superheroes, without masks.

Taking off the mask

Only two of the actors have ever played the role of a person with autism. None of them had ever worked where autism was required.

At the beginning of this interview, the actors say that they will try not to talk over each other. But their words bubble one after the other as they explain what the experience was like. There is no need to hide that they see the world differently when they work to create art. Their differences are art.

Madison Kopec takes charge as the group discusses how to properly address autistic people. (This group, like many others, prefers this term to “people with autism”.)

No one calls it Asperger’s anymore; it’s ASD or autism spectrum disorder, she says. She starts talking about the research and what the diagnostic manuals are saying now. Asperger’s disease was named after the Austrian doctor Hans Asperger, who conducted neurological studies on Jewish children during the Holocaust.

In the play, Kopets is Maridette, a young woman who has an encyclopedic knowledge of almost everything. She also prefers people and books.

“People who know me say, ‘Are you acting or is it just you?’ “- says Kopets.

ASD affects communication. People struggle with conversations, social cues, and understanding emotions. They often learn to pantomime the reactions of typical people in social situations. For example, raising your eyebrows or making eye contact during a conversation. This is called “masking”. For these actors, it was a lifetime of performing, even off the stage.

The musical opened the door to a world where there is no need to cover up.

“Caroline is just me, not a disguise,” says Faye, referring to her character in the play. Caroline is happy and chatty, but she has a hard time understanding her relationship with her boyfriend and friends.

The reaction to the authenticity of the play was also unlike anything the actors had experienced. One of the other actors of the production brought her son, who suffers from autism, to the session.

The young actors are in tears talking about how much he loved it.

He raved to his mom about how great it was to see someone like him on stage. I didn’t know people could make a musical about what was going on in my head, he told his mother.

Kopec said the production was working to accommodate the cast and crew. In the beginning, there was a Google form for everyone from the cast to the crew asking what accommodation they needed.

Is there something that stresses you out? Is there something that would calm you down, an object you would like to squeeze or hold?

Ashley Wool has been in productions for over ten years; it was something completely new.

“The fact that we were all able to talk about it in that way helped build a sense of trust among the cast and crew as a whole, and it was okay for us to talk about different things,” she said.

It was also okay to “stim.” People with autism are sometimes soothed by repetitive movements or fussing. Imani Russell and Desmond Edwards, both black, talk about how they work hard to control this behavior when they are out in public.

“People might assume I’m on drugs,” said Edwards, who plays Remy.

But the premiere, he and Russell, who plays Mel, could be alone backstage at the premiere.

“We were kind of waving our arms and rocking back and forth and just expending this anxious energy, and it was really nice. But if I did it on a train in the city, people would look at me weird,” Russell said.

The Spectrum Club Seven

Social conversations can be exceptionally difficult for autistic people. Russell usually runs through small scripts before going to social events, preparing for each person they might encounter. The rest of the group nods.

But when they hang out together, there’s none of that. No need to memorize eye contact. Don’t worry if they miss raising their eyebrows or move their hands too much.

And they watch out for each other. At the start of the meeting with a reporter, Connor Tagg, who plays Tommy, sat across from everyone else, looking down. Come and sit here, said one of the seven, pulling out a chair. He sat down and later told the stranger about his work on Law & Order.

The Spectrum Club Seven traveled around Syracuse together. They all went to the State Fair.

They stood in line, all together, and mentioned the play. The person in front of them said they were also autistic.

The Spectrum Club Seven, strangers gathered in Syracuse to show the world the beauty of being yourself, cheered and chanted, “You’re one of us!”

Marnie Eisenstadt writes about people, public affairs and the Syracuse City School District. Contact her anytime by email | Twitter| Facebook | 315-470-2246

How to dance in Ohio

What: The world premiere of the musical How to Dance in Ohio.

Where: Syracuse Stage, 820 E. Genesee St.

When: September 21 to October 9

Tickets: $25-$60; under 18 and students receive special rates

To buy: online at or 315-443-3275

Covid: Masks are recommended but not required