Unshackling the neurodivergent

Playwright Jesi Bender offers a first-of-its-kind play with an all-neuro-divergent cast at the experimental Brick Theater in New York’s Williamsburg, Brooklyn

“I truly believe a greater understanding of neurodiversity makes people better human beings.” –Jesi Bender, playwright, Kinderkrankenhaus

The playwright is interviewed by Patricia Lynne Duffy

PLD You have written a play, Kinderkrankenhaus, which calls for an all-neurodivergent cast. What inspired your interest in neurodiversity?

JB I’ve always been interested in the idea that no two people understood or experienced the world in the same way.  When I was young, I thought I just felt more intensely than other people and that’s what made me ‘an artist’.  As I got older and learned more about neurodiversity and epistemology, I’ve come to recognize and be more accepting of myself and other individuals.  I truly believe a greater understanding of neurodiversity makes people better human beings.   

PLD What is neurodiversity? How would you describe it?

JB Neurodiversity is the idea that no two brains are alike, and no two brains understand the world in the same way.  Simply put, there is no absolute “normal”. Only a statistical average.

PLD What inspired you to create a theater piece with an all-neuro-divergent cast?

JB It was important to me to have autistic and neurodivergent actors portray these characters to give authenticity to their stories and, at the same time, give these actors an opportunity to engage with experimental, challenging work and be center stage.  I was extremely lucky to find such a talented cast and crew for the Brick production this past September as well as the debut at Colgate’s Brehmer Theater in 2022.     

PLD In what ways did cast members describe their forms of neuro-divergence?

JB We left it to each person on the cast and crew to self-identify or not.  It was more important to the director, Nola Latty and I that we create a space that was supportive and conducive to artistic engagement no matter what supports the cast and crew might need.  We took a needs survey to better understand any specific support needs. We engaged “actor-advocates” from NYU’s Drama Therapy and Communicative Sciences programs to be extra support in the rehearsal and performance spaces for all of the actors.  We tried our best to incorporate a Universal Design ethos and build in extra time and support for everyone involved.    

PLD What feedback did you receive about the performances in NY at Brooklyn’s Brick Theater?

JB The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.  The best part was people coming up to me after the performance to talk about how they related to the play; people who saw similarities between Kinderkrankenhaus and their experiences as a stutterer, or person with a lisp, or a queer person, or even as someone who did not speak English in the US educational system.  Though to me, the play is about autism, it never explicitly uses that term and, for that reason, could be seen as commentary on many ways that we perceive ‘others’. 

PLD How did neurodivergent audience members react?

JB There were quite a few autistic actors who came to watch the show and talked about the importance of autistic stories and characters, and the dearth of opportunity that still exists for them.  It was especially wonderful to hear their opinions and responses to the show.  I think autistic and neurodivergent minds are inherently creative minds, so it’s incredibly important to nurture their expression.

PLD Why is the main character called “Gnome”?

JB Names are very important to me.  While, in the show, most of the characters take their names from Hesiod’s Theogony (the idea of creation), Gnome is inspired by Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Mnemosyne births all of the muses, and I knew I wanted a name that kept that hard first N in Mnemosyne; however, it is hard to translate into a modern sounding name.  I knew I wanted something to infantilize the character, since that is something that often happens with autistic adults. 

So, I gave the character, played by the immensely talented Kayla Juntilla, the name of something doll-like and magical.  And, there’s a slight wink to Noam Chomsky because I liked how that complicates a Derridean play. 

PLD What is a “Derridean play”?

JB The philosopher Derrida believed that there was no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way to understand something.  There were simply different ways of understanding.  The play captures the idea of different orientations to life and different ways to understand it.

PLD One of the play’s themes is the limitations of language. Words can be laden with meaning, yet, at the same time, so easily misinterpreted.
Do you see a connection between this irony of language and the way neurodivergent people have been described/viewed by society?

JB In my artistic statements, I like to say that my work examines the tension inherent in language’s utility and malleability. I see a great gap of understanding between neurotypical and neurodivergent people. I think the important thing for neurotypical people to remember is to assume the neurodivergent are competent and to give people space (time) to express themselves. Expression is always happening, even if it’s in ways we don’t fully understand. 

In the play, the character, The Shadow is mainly nonverbal but speaks in echolalia.  In the book, it’s easier to show how much meaning these repeated phrases hold. The actor Tiana Richards did an amazing job illustrating how a seemingly simple phrase can carry multiple meanings. 

PLD Some lines in the play are in languages other than English: for example, there are phrases in French and German.
Can you comment on how this is related to the play’s theme?

JB If language or expression is the heart of this play, institutionalization is the byproduct of what we do when we don’t understand something.  There is a real history of the Nazi T4 Aktion program*, inspired much of the play. Also, I wanted to include French and German to illustrate how introducing interlingual homophones/homonyms could further complicate understanding.  There’s also the idea of how a completely valid form of expression (i.e., another language) becomes gibberish to people who cannot understand it.  And then there are issues of pronunciation, dialect and syntax adding further possible barriers to understanding.  Adding more languages in the play was just an easy way to show how easily communication between people can become complicated and messy. 

*The Nazi Aktion T4 program was a euthanasia program implemented by the Nazi regime from 1939–1944 to kill those with perceived physical or mental disabilities—in the interest or creating a “master race”.

PLD In the play, the character, Dr. Schmetterling is rather dictatorial, suggesting those in authority can misuse their power and set standards for human behavior–that they declare “absolute”.
Do you see parallels in real life—particularly in the attitudes of those with medical authority?

JB Dr. Schmetterling is an authoritarian figure in the play. She is also a tool to critique the medical model of disability (which frames disability in terms of deficit).  She upholds unspoken social paradigms as she’s been taught to do.  But authority is a construct and there are ways to ‘deconstruct’ it.  I also thought the actor, June Lienhard, who portrays Dr. Schmetterling, did an impressive job of balancing this almost neurotic need for a specific structure with the doctor’s humanity.  Dr. Schmetterling is a very complex character that actor June Lienhard immediately grasped how to portray.

PLD Are there plans for any future performances of Kinderkrankenhaus?

JB Nola Latty, the play’s director and I are actively looking for more opportunities to bring this play to more audiences.  Anyone who has any interest, please feel free to contact me – http://www.jesibender.com/contact.html

I also want to highlight the rest of the cast so theater-goers can be on the lookout for their future work. Nicholas Amodio, who plays Cinders, has an incredible depth of emotion.  Amodio is able to make subtle expression extremely powerful.  Shafer Gootkind played Nix and he is a multi-talented singer and actor who brought a sense of vulnerability and wisdom to this part. Joshua Cartagena is a powerful performer who brought the character Eros to life with the help of his resonant (p?)voice.  All three actors are actively working with EPIC Players and/or ActionPlay.  Last but not least I the actor, Sydni Dichter who portrays Python, the oracle, and brings a sense of mystery and magic (and memorized 100 digits of Pi!).  

PLD What is your next project?

JB I’ve got a few in the hopper that are still looking for publishers. I have written another experimental play about Bobby Sands and I have two novels making the rounds with publishers: one is about an autistic developer working on early AI in post-war Berlin and another about spiritualism in what is called Central New York’s “burned-over district”, a hotbed of 19th century spiritual communities and experiments.

PLD Sounds fascinating. Will be on the lookout for your next work!

For more information:

Contact playwright Jesi Bender

Purchase a copy of Kinderkrankenhaus script

Playwright Jesi Bender

Patricia Lynne Duffy is the author of the now classic, Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: how synesthetes color their worlds, the first book by a synesthete about synesthesia. An audio version of the book with research updates, music by synesthete-composers, and an “Afterword” is recently out.   Available from Audible She also contributed a chapter, “Synesthesia and Literature” to the Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia.

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