Musical company

Neurodiverse theater company shines a light on inclusion

A cast of artists from nonprofit theater company EPIC Players proves that diversity goes beyond what you can see, especially when it comes to developmental disabilities.

“I’ve met so many neurodiverse and disabled people through EPIC,” performer and writer Sarah Kaufman, who was diagnosed with autism as an adult, told CBS News. “And it opened up my world in this beautiful way, and made me see that there’s so much value, so much artistry and so much wonder coming out of these differently functioning brains.”

Artistic Director Aubrie Therrien founded EPIC Players in 2016, putting the mission of inclusion center stage and providing professional performing arts opportunities for all artists.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” Therrien said. “So it’s really important for neurodiverse and neurodivergent artists to see themselves represented on stage and on screen, and to know that it’s a job they can do. The arts are a viable job opportunity. And Right now people with disabilities are severely unemployed in this country.”

According to the US Department of Labor, 19% of people with disabilities were employed last year, compared to nearly 64% of people without disabilities.

“So if we really care about equity and inclusion, that’s something we’ll work on together. That’s why we do what we do,” Therrien said. “We pay all of our artists to perform at our shows. We continue to, you know, raise that salary as much as we can. And also find opportunities for our artists outside of EPIC, and to defend them.”

Conor Tague is part of this year’s EPIC Players cast in the musical “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

“I really think the industry should be more open to people who are neurodivergent or disabled to play characters with disabilities,” Tague said, adding, “If it’s people with autism or Asperger’s or ADHD or any deaf person… what really matters is that they can do so much, despite all of this.”

According to GLAAD’s 2019 “Where We Are in TV” report, only 2.1% of regular characters on prime-time scripted television portrayed people with disabilities, or 18 characters in total. Another Ruderman Family Foundation report showed that 95% of television characters with disabilities were played by able-bodied actors.

“I think there’s a fear that if we say, ‘Stop portraying neurotypical actors as neurodivergent characters,’ you know, producers or directors or whatever is going to hear, ‘Stop telling neurodivergent stories’ “, Kaufman said. “But I think that’s just the message that we want to send, and that EPIC sends, is that – keep telling these stories. Just include us. Let us help you tell them, because we are here and we’re doing it. And we’ve been doing it. And we’re rocking it.”