We Live By the Sea @ 59E59

"Just because you can't see someone doesn't mean they're not there."

We Live By The Sea

Devised by Patch of Blue
Directed by Alex Howarth

April 14, 2018

Tom walked into my dance class for the first time in 2014. Tom was tall, blonde, probably in his early 20s. He smiled more than anyone when Duke Ellington started playing. Tom made more than 10 laps around the dance floor before class started. He flapped his hands.

I taught basic swing movement, nothing more complicated than triple steps. Tom started jumping instead. The other classmates avoided eye contact. No one picked Tom when they started pairing up to practice.

Though I'd been teaching dance for over five years, Tom's autism baffled me. More surprising than his sudden outbursts and flapping hands, Tom seemed, well, happy. The last kid unpicked for middle school kickball team would be forlorn and despondent, worried their lack of athletic prowess would affect high school popularity, anxiety poisoning every moment of their life until they wound up quiet in the back of the room, barely passing algebra.

Tom didn't become agitated during class rotations, when clear instructions from the teachers dictated an understandable amount of time to complete each move. Swing dancing comes in discreet packets of counts and steps, and Tom would return every week, eager to learn the basics again and again. He didn't worry about getting picked, he would just dance when the instructor said so.

Instead, Tom became agitated during social dances, when students would switch from dictated rotations to freestyle partner exchange. He would stand like a statue on the dance floor, directly underfoot, unable to navigate twirling skirts and unexpected elbows. His classroom smile flipped to the downturned shape of an umbrella, dripping wet, protection from the rain of socializing.

To compensate, he would constantly lap the room. I went to a close friend who counseled families of autistic children for advice, and she said this type of reaction was normal. We all have a social tic to compensate for discomfort, and Tom's was just more noticeable than most. For you, it might be tapping a foot under the table, incessantly touching your hair when nervous, or hanging out by the baby carrots to avoid making small talk.

In We Live By The Sea, Katy's autistic character touches shoes three times.

The actor did this to every audience member who walked through the door. I found it heartbreakingly gentle and lovely.

This remarkable play resonated on so many levels, and felt like stepping into the space where vulnerability meets perspective. We don't know much about Katy, only that she's different, wears a specific color depending on the day of the week, and loves the sea most of all. She's never seen without her "ear defenders" (aka headphones), and likes purple because it's a "brave color."

The first third of the play felt disjointed, not quite linear in the way we expect of exposition. It takes too long to understand that the disembodied voice on the speakers is her imaginary dog, Paul Williams, and it's unclear why the musicians are onstage. Are we in Katy's house? Are we on the beach? Who are the people in the video projection? Where are the parents of these poor teenagers?

Soon, however, none of that matters. We're ushered into Katy's mind, where she lives "mostly happy, most of the time," until confronted with bouts of tremendous sadness where she acts out, violently, or simply by running away to the ocean. Ryan, another teenager recently moved to the area, is the audience's portal. He is burdened with deep pain and finds Katy's blunt honesty refreshing. (The choice to make him a YouTube star was unnecessary, though I suppose it introduced another dimension of modern teenage life. Without this element the play could have been much more timeless and universal, a choice I hope they take in another iteration.) Overall his character is delightful - attractive, adorable, ineffably sad - and I wanted to put him in my pocket to take home. Katy wants to be in his top 5 friends, and wouldn't you know did I.

Ryan soon becomes a close friend and confidant to both Katy and her sister, Hannah. Poor Hannah. Through circumstance and bad luck she's become the sole caretaker for her sister and develops a hard, thick skin to compensate. When she impulsively kisses Ryan one night we understand her choice - living with a disabled sister is difficult, especially if you're the sole family member who has sacrificed her education and future to keep their little family intact. It's no surprise she sees Ryan as friend, parent, and lover all in one.

But for Ryan the responsibility is immense. He nearly leaves, which would fit perfectly in a worldview where everyone abandons Katy.

The play, however, is about hope. About bravery. Ryan doesn't leave, but instead gives Katy the best gift of her life: dancing, purple lights, and a real friend who actually sees her. I instantly broke into tears of joy.

By introducing a new kind of thinking, one where people are perfect just by being themselves, we all become Katy's friends. Any play about autism must necessarily address difficult themes, and this one did so with kindness and heartwrenching honesty.

I felt particularly connected to one small detail. Early in the show, when Katy describes everyone on the stage, their role, their name, and what they mean to her, I thought of Tom. When I asked my autism counselor friend how to make Tom feel less agitated, she suggested describing everything to him exactly how it would happen. "Don't say maybe, probably, or soon," she advised.

When he walked in the following night, I told him we had 6 minutes before class started. Then we'd do partner rotations for 55 minutes, followed by a 5 minute break, and 1.5 hours of social dancing. I instantly saw his countenance relax. The same thing repeated the following week, and the one after. He took fewer laps around the room, flapped his hands less and less. His happiness lasted longer, simply because he knew what to expect.

We Live By The Sea is touching, sweet, and perfectly executed. Now you know what to expect, and you must do whatever possible to see it for yourself.

Image courtesy Adelaide Fringe Festival website

Patch of Blue and The Hartshorn-Hook Foundation Present

We Live By The Sea

Directed by Alex Howarth

Alexandra Brain (Katy)
Tom Coliandris (Ryan)
Lizzie Grace (Paul Williams)
Alexandra Simonet (Hannah)

Josh Flowers
Julianna Zachariou

Creative Team:
Alex Howarth (Director)
The Mason Brothers (Composers)
Rachel Sampley (Lighting Design)
Amelia Wall (Videographer)
Will Monks (Video Design)
Sofia Montgomery (Stage Manager)

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