Syracuse Stage musical ‘How to Dance in Ohio’ breaks barriers with debut

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In 2017, composer Jacob Yandura was drifting aimlessly on HBO, looking for a mindless TV escape to kick back and relax before bed. That’s when a documentary titled “How to Dance in Ohio” caught her eye.

“I came across the title and was like, ‘I’m from Ohio, what is this?’” Yandura said. “…I pressed play.”

It only took Yandura a few minutes to hook up, he said. By the time the credits rolled on the screen, she had called her playwright and lyricist Rebekah Greer to tell her to watch the documentary because she wanted it to be her next musical.

Greer and Yandura’s musical “How to Dance In Ohio” opens on Syracuse Stage on September 22 for its world premiere, with script and lyrics by Greer and music by Yandura. The company includes nine autistic actors to play the autistic characters, which the co-writers say is unprecedented in the history of modern commercial theater.

The musical follows seven autistic young adults who are part of the same social skills therapy group in Columbus, Ohio. As part of their therapy, the doctor who runs the show comes up with the idea of ​​hosting a formal spring dance as a way to help patients practice their skills and offer them a “normal” experience that neurotypical teenagers have.

The show’s plot focuses on the lead-up to the dance and the group’s coming-of-age journey of navigating relationships, approachability, and falling in love.

When it came time to cast the show, the creative team was adamant about drawing from a pool of neurodivergent talent, so they only auditioned people with autism to play the roles of the autistic characters.

In fact, for director Sammi Cannold, casting neurotypical actors for autistic roles was never an option, and if it was, she wouldn’t have signed on to direct.

“Before we started our audition process, a lot of people told us, ‘You might end up having to cast neurotypical actors for some of the autistic roles.’ I said, ‘well, then we won’t do the show,’” Cannold said. “The point is that we have to broadcast this in an authentic way, the objective of the program is to reinforce the representation and that the voices of autistic people are heard.”

Cannold emphasized the importance of neurodivergent casting for the show, not only for the representation of the autistic community but also to correct some of the mistakes of the theater industry that have persisted throughout history.

“When shows are about a certain group of people, for too long we’ve made art without the group of people the art is about. It was essential for us not to do that,” Cannold said.

“How to Dance In Ohio” also strives to be inclusive beyond its cast. Greer and Yandura needed to delicately navigate the line of creating a dramatically compelling and engaging piece while maintaining the nuanced narratives of the real-life people in the documentary, they said.

To do this, they combined the stories of some of the real people in the documentary and changed some of the names. Yandura was deliberate and intentional in creating the score, creating chord progressions and melodies that became voices of her own, depicting them as separate characters unto themselves.

“I want to make sure that the orchestrations and the music are other characters within our fabric,” Yandura said. “It was very important to me that these instruments and the music be other characters within our community that we’re building… each character has their own theme because they have their own journey.”

“How to Dance In Ohio” seeks to not only represent neurodivergent people, but also redefine that representation, replacing existing stereotypes and stigma held by people with one that is more accurate and authentic to the community, the creative team said. When Desmond Edwards was cast as Remy, one of the lead roles, just after graduating from high school, he had the same goal.

The 18-year-old actor met Yandura through a musical theater intensive that he attended just after graduating. At the time, Edwards had no idea what mystery project Yandura was working on when he confided in her that he was autistic, or what the future held, he said. Yandura eventually invited Edwards to audition for “How to Dance in Ohio” and offered him his first professional acting job.

Edwards said she took on the role with an immense sense of responsibility to the neurodivergent community to be a catalyst for change in the theater industry and transform the public’s perception of what an autism diagnosis means.

“Autistic people don’t fit a certain mold. We are not suffering. I feel like a lot of people think autistic people are suffering, but that’s really not the case,” Edwards said. “My character really shows that you don’t need to be defined by a diagnosis, and that’s something I’ve felt with my own diagnosis as well.”


Cannold said he also hopes to redefine the perception of parents of neurodivergent children. Instead of parents being seen as victims, or only being able to see their child’s diagnosis, she wants to reframe the narrative that neurodivergent people aren’t capable of achieving the same goals or growing up with normal lives.

Although “How to Dance in Ohio” is a monumental step forward for the neurodivergent population, to consider it a complete representation of the vast nuances of all autistic people would be unfair, because the community is intricately unique, Edwards said.

“Autism is not a simple model, there is a lot to it. Rather than being a spectrum of being less autistic and more autistic, it’s more like a sounding board. The different sliders look like sensory issues, social issues. There are endless combinations,” Edwards said.

The entire creative team hopes that this premiere will set a new precedent, not only for neurodivergent representation in the theater industry, but also to show that it is possible to cast autistic actors and foster a safe and inclusive work environment.

“How to Dance In Ohio” is opening the door for the future of neurodivergent actors and the autistic community in general, Edwards said. The conversations the show will promote are just the beginning, but will hopefully remove the stigma and misunderstanding of what it means to be neurodivergent, she said.

“Autism is something I live with. It’s something as simple as the color of my skin or my sexuality or my gender,” Edwards said. “It’s not the end of the world, it doesn’t mean I can’t do something. It just means that I just think differently, which can be a beautiful thing.”


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