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'Curious Incident' star becomes activist for actors with disabilities

The Herald-Tribune - 3/24/2019

March 24-- Mar. 24--Some roles become more than just characters for actors to play. For Alexander Stuart, his performance as Christopher Boone in Florida Studio Theatre's hit production of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" has led him to be an activist for actors with disabilities.

Stuart plays a 15-year-old budding mathematician who is on the autism spectrum. Christopher usually sticks to a routine, but when his neighbor's dog is found murdered, he launches an investigation that leads him into new, strange and uncomfortable scenarios far away from his suburban home.

Stuart understands Christopher in ways that many other actors may not because he also is on the autism spectrum. Only one other actor with autism has played the role in the United States.

Stuart describes himself as neurodivergent, which means "you process information differently and you feel emotion more extremely or less extremely than others. It can go either way. It means a different brain, different from the 'normal' standard for people."

Stuart said he has dealt with anxiety and depression since childhood. At least he thinks he has.

"They are conditions that I believe I deal with but have not been diagnosed with, but I have my theories."

As a child, he received psychiatric help and was given medication "to cope with these challenges that are presented by these conditions."

Acting has provided its own kind of therapy.

"I found that theater and my own autistic brain have fed off each other very well. Doing theater is how I've grown as an individual and it helped me more than any therapy could. I learn about history, learn about ethics and morality and how different humans process emotion and how people express emotion and have difficulty processing that."

The 23-year-old, who grew up in Concord, New Hampshire, was born into a family that has been involved in theater for generations. His grandfather was a leader of the Community Players of Concord, where his parents met doing a show together. Stuart first appeared on stage as an infant carried by his parents, but his earliest performing memory is at age 6 in a children's production of "The Hobbit."

"I played a wood elf and I fell in love with it. I mean, it was 'The Hobbit' and I was playing an elf or dwarf. That was great." Over the next few years, he realized that acting was becoming a passion he wanted to pursue.

One of his biggest challenges is learning lines.

"Part of having autism and ADD is having poor short-term memory. It makes learning lines quickly difficult. But my long-term memory is incredible. That's my biggest help." He first played Christopher at Actors Theatre of Louisville last year, when he had to drill the lines into his head over and over. Returning to the role in Sarasota this year, it all came back quickly.

He also employs kinesthetic learning. "If I'm doing something, a gesture or moving, I'm able to learn the line better because I have something to associate it with," he said. He also pursued a side career (and a minor in college) in stage combat and fight choreography. "That's a very kinesthetic art form. It took me a long time to polish and make it look good by doing it every day, but it was something that came naturally to me."

Stuart has only recently begun talking openly about his autism. "I always thought of autism as a disorder, a setback in different aspects, a social impediment. It was only until booking this role and seeing what other autistic artists could do, that I realized how it could benefit me."

He was inspired in part by Mickey Rowe, the first autistic actor to play Christopher in this country, who founded the National Disability Theatre.

The organization's mission is to employ "only professionals with disabilities to create fully accessible, live, world-class theater and storytelling, changing social policy and the nation's narrative about what people with disabilities can do."

Its advisory company includes people who are autistic, deaf, blind, amputees, paralyzed, dwarfs or have cerebral palsy.

"Our differences are our strengths," Stuart said. "As differently abled actors we get the job done, but differently." He said he is becoming more involved in a movement "to create an environment where autistic artists and actors can thrive, to showcase that differently abled artists have something to bring to the table."


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