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Actor sees himself in ‘Curious Incident’ autistic character

May 6, 2019

If you know one person with autism, you know ONE person with autism. It’s something Kathleen Tissot often says.

“Everybody is totally different,” said Tissot, who’s directing an autistic actor in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Strollers Theatre’s production of the Tony-winning play runs Friday through May 25 at the Bartell Theatre.

Like the play’s 15-year-old protagonist, Christopher John Francis Boone, Payton Cardella, 19, has a form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome. The developmental disorder is characterized by difficulties interpreting social and nonverbal cues.

Cardella, who is taking a semester off from his college studies to play the lead role, said he sees himself in Christopher in certain ways.

“He’s very literal,” Cardella said. “So that’s processing information, essentially. But apart from that, understanding emotions is a big part of it. A lot of times it’s hard to understand why people feel a certain way about things, especially when it comes to things that you do.”

While reading the book the play is based on, Cardella said, there were definitely moments when he said to himself, “Yup, I definitely do that kind of thing.”

Learning about diagnosis

Cardella said he learned he was on the autism spectrum at age 11 when his mom sat him down and explained it to him.

“I always knew something was probably different about me considering my parents were always talking with my teachers after school when other parents weren’t doing that,” he said.

Tissot, who’s been acting and directing in Madison for 20 years, and has an 8-year-old grandson who’s autistic, knew she wanted Cardella in the role when she pitched the play to Strollers.

The play sticks closely to the 2003 mystery novel by British writer Mark Haddon. Its title is a quote from fictional detective Sherlock Holmes in the 1892 short story by Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of Silver Blaze.”

The story centers on Christopher, who, while gifted at math, has trouble interpreting day-to-day life. He finds his neighbor’s dead dog, speared with a garden fork, and, after becoming a suspect himself, is determined to uncover what happened. The play follows him on an adventure of self-discovery.

“It’s never stated in the play that Christopher is on the spectrum,” but it’s revealed through his quirks and in how he processes the world around him on his quest to find the truth, Tissot said.

The play has him going to a special school and shows the way he talks to his neighbors and “how he gets kind of stuck in certain ways of doing things,” Tissot said.

Drama club instead of special ed

Tissot, a former speech pathologist at Oregon High School, was also the drama director there for 15 years and that’s where she met Cardella and directed him in her last production when he was a freshman. “There was a lot of overlap between the kids that I had in speech and the drama club kids,” she said.

Cardella did well once he was diagnosed and got different types of help, Tissot said. By the time he got to high school he didn’t really need special ed anymore, she said.

“I started off seeing you for special ed and thought you’d be better off in drama club,” she told Cardella.

Looking back at how he was when he was young and how he is now is “just kind of night and day,” Cardella said. “So I really do think I got the right help I needed.”

Added Tissot: “Drama club is like the best social skills training.”

Casting a rarity

It’s rare in productions of “The Curious Incident” to have the role of Christopher played by an actor who’s autistic, Tissot said, noting that the casting decision was important to her from the beginning.

Cardella said he wasn’t aware of the play or the book until Tissot met with him at a coffee shop and told him her idea. He immediately went to the library to get the book, and read most of it in one day.

Tissot auditioned him last summer and everybody else in March. It was a way to give Cardella time to familiarize himself with the role and prepare for it.

“And then you waited and waited and waited and waited. Waited about six months after that,” Tissot said to Cardella during an interview before an April rehearsal.

Cardella isn’t much of a reader, “so a book really has to hold my attention,” he said. “It has to really interest me.”

He’s more of a video game guy, Tissot said.

“I mean, I CAN read. I just don’t,” said Cardella, who graduated from Oregon High School last year and then went to UW-Whitewater for one semester. He took this semester off to concentrate on the play. He said driving from Whitewater every day for rehearsals and performances didn’t seem practical.

“That’s another example of the very wise decisions that Payton makes because he knew he had this role and he talked with his parents and his advisers and they all came up with this conclusion together,” Tissot said. “He’s just really responsible.”

He’s living with his parents and plans to go to Madison Area Technical College next semester because it’s closer and cheaper.

Cardella said there were many parts in the book when he thought to himself, “Yup. Yup. That’s a thing.” One detail that especially stood out was when Christopher was talking with his neighbor, Mrs. Alexander, while investigating who killed the dog.

She goes back into the house and he doesn’t really know what to do, “so he just kind of waits there for awhile before just walking away,” Cardella said.

Cardella’s self-awareness helps him as an actor and in the role, Tissot said. “Payton is so good at being introspective and knowing himself. He knows what he’s good at and what he’s not so good at.”

With acting, it’s important to not only do background work, but also be able “to look at yourself and find the similarities and differences with your character,” Tissot said.

Personal connection to play

Tissot starting directing at the Bartell after she left Oregon High School. This is the second Strollers play she’s directed. She also directed “Amadeus” in 2017.

“The Curious Incident” appeals to Tissot for many reasons. As a speech pathologist, the majority of the students she worked with were autistic, and she taught a social skills class for them.

Then, eight years ago, her first grandson was born, and it was apparent from the time he was 18 months that he had autism.

“He’s dear to my heart, and so when I saw this book, the last page in the script, it kind of says it all,” Tissot said.

She read the ending to her son and daughter-in-law and all three of them started crying. It’s powerful because Christopher does so many fantastic things in the course of the story, Tissot said.

At the risk of giving the ending away, Christopher envisions a successful future for himself and ticks off his accomplishments for his teacher, telling her, “I can do anything.”

“I get goosebumps every time, even now when we do the play,” Tissot said. “I get goosebumps every time.”