For Aaron Feinstein, the impact of a performance is more about what happens offstage.
Feinstein founded Actionplay, a New York City-based performing arts group that not only gives kids and adults on the autism spectrum access to the arts, but also opportunities to pursue professional work.
"I was a bit of an outcast, I was a bit bullied, I had learning disabilities myself and the theater really became like a safe space for me,” he told NBC News. “I fell in love with just watching folks who didn't totally fit the norm, they had such unique interests and they were coming together to create something together.
As Hollywood makes strides in increasing representation and authenticity, Feinstein has been working to ensure neurodiverse actors aren’t overlooked by partnering with the Casting Society of America.
“These casting directors who are coming together, create a dialogue, they really want to start to listen to the voices of folks with disabilities, folks on the autism spectrum, and in that dialogue, it's really shaping the way that they start to think about casting and think about casting different roles and how to support them in the room,” he said.
Casting directors Danielle Pretsfelder Demchick and Stephanie Klapper, both based in New York, work with Actionplay performers providing feedback and advice on how to audition and book gigs, while Feinstein and his team educate the CSA representatives on how to better understand and work with the neurodiverse community.
“Sometimes people don't know how to deal with neurodiverse people, or they just don't know what the accommodations are, or what's needed,” said Klapper. “What we've been encouraging is a conversation in which we know how to make the process easier, and how to make things more successful so that they can be represented on film and TV in a way that's meaningful — both in roles that are written and not written for the community.”
The true success, however, will be when neurodiverse actors are cast in all roles.
“This is a huge part of the population that is totally misrepresented and is making incredible strides, and for so many years has just been brushed under the rug from a representation standpoint,” Demchick added. “I think it's really important that as casting directors, we're opening those floodgates and saying these are incredible performers that bring so much to your project and have such ability.”
"It's not just about doing something good or something right. It's really about respecting that there is diversity in talent,” Feinstein said of Actionplay’s partnership with CSA.
Recently, Sia faced backlash for not casting an autistic actor to portray a nonverbal autistic teenager in her film “Music” — while shows like Netflix’s “Atypical” and Freeform’s “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay” have been praised for casting actors who are on the autism spectrum to play neurodiverse characters.
And as Actionplay is changing the game in the entertainment industry, it’s changing the lives of each performer it welcomes onto its stage (or Zoom, these days).
"It's made me more outgoing and it taught me how to socialize with people — this doesn't come naturally to me, to socialize,” said Eddie Weinstein, 21, a college senior based in the New York City area with Asperger’s who has been involved with the group for nearly a decade.
“I am very good at memorizing knowledge, but I sometimes have trouble articulating it and I think Actionplay has allowed me to engage with the public.”
Patrik Gelbart, 16, is starring in the group’s upcoming original musical, “A Questionable Case,” which will be streaming from their New York City location.
"It's my social spot, and also my happy place,” Gelbart said. “Because when I'm on stage, I feel different. Nobody — especially Actionplay — judges me for who I am. I can just turn into this whole new character with just a snap of a finger, and it's amazing because I feel these new emotions."
Weinstein wants to use his performing experience to help him share his passion for history, Gelbart hopes to conduct an orchestra someday, and Sandy Gladstone Karpe — his co-star — dreams of Broadway.
“Representation is very important, since the world is changing,” Karpe, 21, said. “And people's perspectives, also need to change with that, and since there are people who do want to see people who are like them in fiction, whether it's on stage or on screen.”
Feinstein says his work is about shining a light on everyone in the room to collaboratively create pieces of musical theatre that allow his performers to shine.
“This is really where they feel safe. This is the place where they make their friends,” said Feinstein. “It's not just something that happens in the rehearsal room, it carries on throughout the rest of their lives.”
“It's been a very powerful thing to see this thing grow, and to see what a community Actionplay has become. And I think that the fact that we're also pushing a deeper agenda to where we really want to see greater representation of folks with disabilities, greater representation of folks with autism on screen and on stage — the fact that there's so many talented people with disabilities that just are not getting opportunities, and the fact that we can work within the industry and help to transform it, that is also really exciting.”