How do you show the inside of a mind with autism spectrum disorder to a theatre audience?
That puzzle is at the heart of any staging of British playwright Simon Stephens's theatrical adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon's 2003 novel told from the perspective of a math-loving, touch-hating 15-year-old boy named Christopher.
Director Heidi Malazdrewich and a group of Western Canadian designers known as the ShowStages Collective are the first to take on this challenge in Canada. They're the creative team behind the Canadian premiere of the West End and Broadway hit – now on stage at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton and then heading to the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg next month.
"If you think about the novel, it was so interesting and successful because you really get to see something from inside someone else's mind," says T. Erin Gruber, one of the three University of Alberta graduates who make up the ShowStages Collective. "The play embodies that – physicalizes that."
Like Haddon's novel, Stephens's play is a mystery that begins after Christopher discovers the dead body of a neighbour's dog – and is falsely accused of killing it.
While investigating the case in his own particular way (and getting ready for his mathematics A levels), the teenager stretches beyond his normal limits and discovers long-hidden secrets about his own family.
The original production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was directed at the National Theatre in London by Marianne Elliott in 2012 – and, after transferring to New York, her high-concept staging went on to win her a second Tony Award for best direction of a play. (Her first was for War Horse.)
On a set that looked like a three-dimensional piece of graph paper and full of hidden compartments and surprise moving parts, Elliott and her designers gave audience members a sense of what it might be like to live with the constant possibility of sensory overload.
It's a hard act to follow – and indeed, the artists behind the new Citadel/MTC co-production are among the first to give it a go. "I only saw it once [on Broadway] and then I've been trying really hard not to think about it," says Malazdrewich, a Winnipeg-based director who works regularly at the Manitoba Theatre Centre, but is making her main-stage debut with this show.
For this new Canadian production, the creative team puzzled for a long time on how to create a "container" for Christopher to tell his story that might work a bit like his mind – where he is always listing and categorizing things to make sense of the world. "He remembers everything and notices everything, so his sensory experience is not limited," explains Gruber. "Inside of his mind would be an incredibly organized inventory of everything he's ever seen, felt or experienced."
In the end, after experimenting with different concepts for the set, Malazdrewich and ShowStages hit on the idea of building it out of pegboard – a hard material that has a grid of holes to stick hooks into, often used to hang tools in home workshops.
Every prop needed in the play is already organized on stage when the show begins – either on display or in baskets hanging from hooks. Similarly, nine actors stay on stage for the entire performance to help Christopher (played by Edmund Stapleton) tell his story whenever needed. In addition, there is also a series of screens, inspired by Christopher's love of geometry and math, where he can fast-forward or rewind through his memories – in the form of projections designed by ShowStages's Joel Adria.
Having everything and everyone within easy reach of Christopher at all times also happens to be helpful with a play that Gruber describes as "beyond cinematic" – with a flurry of scenes, some as short as 30 seconds long.
But is this really what it might be like inside the mind of a person with high-functioning Asperger syndrome? Perhaps, though the question of whether Christopher – a fictional character, after all – is one is actually a subject of hot debate.
In Haddon's book, the protagonist simply describes himself as a "mathematician with behavioural difficulties" – but an early edition of the novel referred to Asperger's on the cover and the diagnosis stuck. While the author has since expressed regret at the label's use on the cover, many members of the ASD community have nevertheless been drawn to his story and embraced it as their own. "We tried to figure out how to honour this concept that Christopher is just Christopher, but also engage with the community that identifies with Christopher," says Gruber.
That's a question with personal resonance for Gruber, who has a sister with a developmental condition that mirrors ASD, and Malazdrewich, who has a nephew diagnosed with ASD. In an effort to be inclusive of people like Christopher, there will be "relaxed performances" – with sound and lighting cues adjusted for audience members with ASD, a sensory and communication disorder or a learning disability – in both Edmonton and Winnipeg.
It's ultimately Stapleton, a young actor originally from Newfoundland and recently of the Shaw Festival, who has to embody Christopher at the centre of the complicated design and staging – which he admits he found a little overwhelming at first. He's been watching documentaries (Autism in Love; Life, Animated) and reading books (The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higshida) about and by people on the spectrum to help him get into character.
"There's this perception that people on the spectrum lack empathy – but it's really just kind of an inability to fully communicate what they're feeling," says Stapleton, who steps into a role that won Alex Sharp a Tony Award in 2015 for best actor in a play. "Christopher's such an amalgamation of so many different characteristics of people, though – so you're not going to find someone out there who is Christopher."
Indeed, Malazdrewich comes back to the point that Christopher, ultimately, is just Christopher. "Hopefully this play is a conduit for empathy no matter how we see ourselves, no matter how we understand our life experience," she says.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time continues to Oct. 9 at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre (citadeltheatre.com) and runs from Oct. 20 to Nov. 12 at Winnipeg's Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (royalmtc.ca).
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the creative team behind the production, the ShowStages Collective, are University of Calgary graduates. In fact, they are University of Alberta graduates.