The students in St. Francis Borgia Regional High School’s most recent play had mostly accepted that their Nov. 11-13 run would be their last as these characters.
They had submitted the play, “We Live by the Sea,” to be adjudicated by the Missouri Thespians Conference with the hope of performing it for the whole statewide association. However, Director Tim Buchheit said the judges’ comments did not make him hopeful.
“We Live by the Sea” follows Katy, a teenage girl who is on the autism spectrum.
“Both the adjudicators said, ‘Well we don’t know how well this would go over for a high school audience.’ That of course made me shake my head because this is probably the most important high school show I’ve ever done,” Buchheit said. “I kind of thought we were sunk.”
So it was a thrilling surprise to the 19 students in the cast and crew, including the four-member main cast — Emily Engemann, Ellie Bley, Ethan Strawn and Kathryn Isgrigg — when Buchheit shared the news: The play was one of three from across the state that would be invited to perform at the conference.
“When we heard the news, Emily and I looked at each other and screamed,” Isgrigg said. “It was the most phenomenal experience in my entire life because I wasn’t expecting it. For a show like this to be selected and taken to state is — there’s just no words to describe it.”
The conference will be Jan. 20-22 at Union Station, St. Louis. Borgia’s fall one-act play, “A Long Trip,” also will be performed at the conference, along with all other one-acts submitted from across the state.
Buchheit, who last year was inducted into the Cincinnati-based national Educational Theatre Association Hall of Fame, said being selected to perform is a great honor. Borgia last went to the state conference in 2013.
During Buccheit’s 25-plus years at Borgia, the department has been chosen for state five times. “There aren’t many schools that have done it that many times,” he said.
Engemann plays Katy, who lives with her 18-year-old sister, Hannah, played by Bley. The sisters’ father is deceased and their mother left after learning of Katy’s autism spectrum diagnosis. Katy’s imaginary best friend, a dog named Paul Williams, played by Isgrigg, is her only companion until a new neighbor, 18-year-old Ryan, played by Strawn, moves in and befriends Katy.
The British playwrights behind the piece, Lloyd Bagley, Alex Brain, Alex Howarth, Alex Simonet and Elizabeth Williams, describe the story as “a moving play about autism and what it means to be a friend.”
An off-Broadway run of the show was performed in New York City in 2018, but rights to the show have since been temporarily frozen. As Borgia secured the show’s rights before the freeze, this production is, at the moment, the only one in the U.S.
The play’s message is especially important to the cast members, many of whom have a family member or close friend who is on the autism spectrum. Engemann said she hopes her performance as Katy can honor her brother.
“It’s very different to try and play a character with a disability because you can’t just put on a disability,” Engemann said. “This role is very important to me because of my brother. The last thing I want to do is play it too stereotypical or make fun of anyone because that goes against the very purpose of this show.”
Isgrigg said her role as Paul Williams, an imaginary dog, offers the audience an avenue through which to see what unconditional acceptance of someone on the autism spectrum looks like.
“For me, getting into that character, I looked at my brother, who has very high-functioning autism, and I thought about how I would want people to understand him and get to know him,” Isgrigg said.
“A lot of people make judgments of people, and it’s very frustrating. So for me, Paul Williams is a reflection of how I feel about how people look at my older brother and people in my life with that disability,” she said.
Engemann said that during rehearsals, which began in September, Buchheit frequently pointed out that autism is rare among disabilities because people who are on the autism spectrum think differently, but they don’t appear any different from neurotypical people.
“This story is all about how there’s nothing wrong with Katy. People shouldn’t look at (autism) as something that’s wrong with her. She’s just different,” Engemann said.
“Because she has these outbursts, people don’t know how to react to her, and some people can be cruel,” she said. “But many people are trying their best. ... Ryan is at first very hesitant, but then he gets to know Katy and finds this understanding that she deserves. She’s just been looking for a friend.”
Research from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that about 1 in 44 children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
The condition is diagnosed four times as often in boys as in girls, and it is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. The number of American children aged 3-17 who live with any developmental disability is about 1 in 6, or 17 percent.
Despite a high prevalence of autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities among Americans, the students say they believe there needs to be more awareness and kindness toward people with the condition.
“In my personal experience, the amount of mistreatment I’ve seen people who are autistic get is ridiculous,” Isgrigg said. “They deserve so much better.”
Engemann added that she hopes the show will encourage audience members to widen their perspectives to people who are different.
“The way people who are autistic get treated breaks my heart, and it makes me angry because I know that if others understood how they think and what they go through, that (mistreatment) could be completely avoided,” Engemann said.
“I hope people who see the show will be able to see not just Katy but maybe someone they know who might have a similar condition, and they’ll be able to feel empathy.”