The BurkTech Players includes students from the School of Theatre & Dance and students who are on the autism spectrum to create high-quality performing arts.
David Siegel leans back in his chair, feet on the table. Dark sunglasses hide his eyes.
Sam Shreffler runs in, sidestepping a small table before slamming his hands on the table in front of Siegel.
Siegel sits up, though his feet remain on the table, as Shreffler sits down, looking agitated.
“I don't get it, Al,” he said. “I don't understand it.”
Shreffler launches into a story about aspirin and the New York Daily News and pastrami. He gets more emotional as he talks. Siegel stays cool. Trevor Wise, a master's student from the School of Theatre & Dance at Texas Tech University, watches from the front row of the theatre, while Amanda Varcelotti, another master's student who plays a put-upon waitress in the play, laughs from stage left as she waits for her next line.
All four are members of an unusual theatre company at Texas Tech. Last year, as part of their community theatre course, a number of students worked with young adults on the autism spectrum and were students in the Transition Academy at the Burkhart Center for Autism Education & Research. They rehearsed and performed together, and at the end of the semester, half a dozen students from theatre and dance and Burkhart wanted to keep going.
“They came to us and said, ‘We are not done,'” said Wes Dotson, co-director of the Burkhart Center. “‘We think this can grow. We think it can survive.'”
Dotson and Mark Charney, the director of the School of Theatre & Dance, agreed, and the BurkTech Players were born. On Monday the group will put on its third production, a collection of three plays from playwrights David Lindsay-Abaire, John Patrick Shanley and David Ives. This is the first time the group has used established scripts and had the actors memorize lines.
“The theatre department was wonderful about trying to structure the class to meet the students with autism where they are,” Dotson said. “They understand the core deficits and struggles someone with autism can have and created a structure and activity to help them overcome that.”
Clay Martin, a graduate student in fine arts, came to Texas Tech in part to create this partnership with the Burkhart Center. During his stage career in New York he learned of a woman with autism who, thanks to her brother's connections in show business, found her voice in music and theatre.
When he enrolled in the required theatre and dance in the community class taught by Charney and Linda Donahue, he, Wise and William Sinclair, also a graduate student, walked across the street to the Burkhart Center and explained their vision. Dotson jumped at the opportunity. He thought such a venture would be good because of one man – Sam Shreffler.
Shreffler was not afraid of the stage anymore, as people with autism tend to be. He used to get stage fright, but he loved dancing so much he overcame it so he could dance in the Burkhart's annual talent show. One day he showed up on a bigger stage.
“My daughter called one night and said, ‘Turn on the TV! One of your students is on ‘So You Think You Can Dance,'” remembered Janice Magness, co-director of the Burkhart Center. There was Shreffler, talking about autism and the center before breaking out into dance. He earned a standing ovation that night, and although he didn't go to Las Vegas, he came back to Lubbock with wildly improved self-confidence.
“It goes back to Sam and seeing what that performance did for him, seeing that our students have amazing ideas and just as much of a desire to connect and be part of the community as anyone else, and they often struggle,” Dotson said. “This gives them a way to do that.”
Shreffler also gave Martin a boost of confidence. He wasn't sure how to incorporate dance into the performances or even if the students were interested in theatrical arts. He watched Shreffler not only dance but also explain to the TV judges what autism is, how it affects him and why he loves dancing.
“I really felt that acting just part of my blood, part of my nature, you would say,” Shreffler said.
He is now the artistic director for this show, and Shreffler isn't the only one. Athos Colon, who graduated from the Burkhart Center recently, participated in Moonlight Musicals and Lubbock Community Theatre before the BurkTech Players. Siegel is a senior at Texas Tech and part of Project CASE, a program to put students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) into mainstream university classes and provide resources and support to help them succeed. When he's not in class he prepares monologues and songs for auditions.
“I took a few theatre classes and decided I'd like to be an actor,” Siegel said.
Other students at the Burkhart Center, like Katie Raney, Allison German and Morgan Brundrett, are participating in other BurkTech projects. Raney is the co-director of one of the short plays. Each woman said she wanted to give theatre a try, though all have some stage experience already as participants in the Burkhart Center's annual talent show.
“I've had so much fun with Clay and all of them,” German said.
Theatre without qualifiers
Martin wants audience members to know the performance on Monday will not be good considering it has a cast with additional challenges. No, he says confidently, it will be good, no asterisk needed.
“I don't think it's something you come see to see how this student's been helped,” Martin said. “It's to see the absolute professionalism and quality of their performance. It's entertaining.”
That was the same experience Dotson wanted the theatre classes to be for his students. Too often teachers of students with autism lead the classes on theatre, music and art. The students are just reading plays, not digging into intricacies of taking on a character.
“When I, as an autism specialist, lead the theatre class, they're still in an autism setting. They're still in a somewhat therapeutic setting,” he said. “We want the people partaking to feel like they're getting an authentic experience of working with actual theatre performers and dancers and set designers, to actually see what it means to do theatre and to have the opportunity to experience the performance at a real level.”
They're now providing that opportunity even earlier for children with ASD. Although the BurkTech Players are no longer part of the community theatre and dance class, those classes are still happening. Instead of working with the young adults already there, the classes, led by graduate and undergraduate students, focus on elementary, middle and high school students. Dotson said both the children and their families love the classes, which provide a place for children to be themselves, even if that means the occasional outburst.
The classes have a side benefit: although they are intended only to teach theatre and dance, many of the participants get therapeutic benefits. One boy who almost never spoke said “goodbye” to his teachers on the way out of a recent class. Children who struggle with body awareness learned to mirror another person's movements.
Additionally, theatre provides a predictable place for the students to interact. Many people with ASD don't like conversations because they don't know what to say or what the person will say next. Theatre, though, is scripted. The students know what's coming. They know what they're supposed to do next. They're far more comfortable in such a setting.
“What I see, as someone who works on social skills for a living, is they will try things in theatre class that's really hard to get them to do otherwise,” Dotson said.
The BurkTech Players will work on another production when school starts again in January, but they have a long-term project in the works as well. That will be a performance, though neither Martin nor Schreffler know just what that performance will look like or when it will be ready for the stage.
What they have so far is a collection of interviews from students about their lives on the autism spectrum. They've asked about social alienation, multitasking and their dreams for the future.
German and Brundrett are part of that project. They're both looking forward to seeing their performance come to life. Part of the excitement is seeing someone like them on stage. Part of it is allowing other people to see someone like them on a stage and getting a better idea of what life with autism really is – the good, the bad and the ugly.
“I'm excited about seeing bits of myself being put into a play,” Brundrett said.
“Yeah, that's what I'm excited about too,” German responded.
“It's showing despite us having a disorder, we're all human. We all have flaws,” Brundrett continued. “There's no such thing as normal, as people would say. I hate it when society says there's the normal people and then there's the abnormal people, and they clarify the abnormal people as people with disabilities, ones who can't walk, ones who are blind, ones who can't hear, ones who have intellectual disabilities or what we have, autism.
“I'm excited for this, just so people can see that despite being different, we're all human.”
“Yeah, we all are,” German echoed.
That is exactly the message the BurkTech Players want to send.
“We stopped focusing on what it's like to have autism and what it's like to be human and the different challenges we all face,” Martin said.
For Dotson, he loves the performances and seeing his students past, present and in some cases future excel. Mostly, though, he loves what the BurkTech Players means to these young adults, many of whom feel like they've never fit in anywhere before.
“When they come to our Transition Academy, our goal is to help them have a life,” Dotson said. “We want them to graduate not just with a job, not just with the ability to shave and shower and cook a meal, but to actually have a quality of life – to know what their hobbies are, to have connections in the community, to have people they hang out with and things to do when they hang out. The BurkTech Players is giving some of our graduates exactly that. It's a community to belong to.”
The theatre company will perform its end-of-semester show at 8 p.m. Monday (Nov. 23) in the lab theatre at Texas Tech. It is open to the public, and admission is free, though the theatre only has about 100 seats. The selected plays have some adult content and are not recommended for young children.