Getting ready to ‘Do This’
What’s most compelling about a world premiere is that it can’t be compared to anything else. The audience experiences a new work for the first time, stepping into a world of the unknown, though there are some things we do know.
We do know that playwright Karen Siff Exkorn’s script is based on her bestselling book, “The Autism Sourcebook: Everything you need to Know About Diagnosis, Treatment, Coping and Healing – from a Mother Whose Child Recovered” (Harper Collins, 2005). What we won’t really know until we experience the play first hand is how Ms. Siff Exkorn took this nonfiction volume and turned it into a one-woman show.
We also know that “Do This” was a semi-finalist in the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s 2015 National Playwrights Conference. And we know that Ms. Siff Exkorn is a contributing writer for Huffington Post and Today.com. The author/playwright has been featured in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and myriad television programs on networks including CBS, NBC and CNN. She is also a respected motivational speaker and the founder of Speak On, a corporate training company that specializes in presentation skills and media training. Whew.
From Gulfshore Playhouse’s publicity, we know that “Do This” is “one woman’s journey through marriage, motherhood and a maze of obstacles as she navigates an unexpected life changing experience. ‘Do This’ is a solo tour-de-force that celebrates the trials and triumphs of the human spirit and the resilience of the human soul.”
Talking with the playwright
“This is about the mom’s journey through autism,” Ms. Siff Exkorn told us, emphasizing that the play is about the human experience … of persevering … of finding comedy and beauty in the most unlikely places … of people having the comfortable carpet of a perfectly planned life yanked out from beneath them.
About her choice of the title “Do This,” Ms. Siff Exkorn explained that the family used a type of therapy called Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA. “For more than 40 hours a week with our son, when therapists were trying to teach him gross motor skills of waving and clapping, the therapists said, ‘Do this,’ hundreds of times a day,” she said.
After two very intense years and at the age of 4, Jake emerged from the solitary world of autism. What also emerged was Ms. Sifff Exkorn’s “The Autism Sourcebook.” What didn’t emerge — not immediately, anyway — was a play based on the experience.
“The play didn’t start out as a play. I’ve never taken a class in playwriting,” Ms. Siff Exkorn said. “I wanted to explore what was going on in my head as the mom of a child with autism. I was doing a creative writing exercise with a friend, and it organically morphed into a play,” she explained. “Speaking to other parents of kids with autism, I knew there was a universality to my experience.”
During the creative process, she reflected on the people she met as she waded her way chest-deep through the confining and confounding ocean of autism. The characters — “more than 10,” the playwright divulges cautiously, including the mom, therapist, husband and son — are all based on real people involved in her fight to cure Jake’s autism.
Why assign all these roles to one actress? “Because it was just me sitting alone in a room writing this play. All these characters were living in my head day in and day out, flowing onto the paper. I made the decision because I wanted the play to have a certain intimacy. I wanted the audience to feel they were sitting in my living room and I was telling them my story.”
Stepping into yet another world of the unknown, the first-time playwright was told she’d need a producer. “I was at an autism (fundraiser) one night, and it happened that there was a Broadway producer, Ken Davenport, seated at my table. We got to talking,” she said, which culminated in one of the many fearless moments in Ms. Siff Exkorn’s life: She asked him to read her play.
“You have to ask for what you want,” she said, a lesson driven home hard as she fought a personal battle against autism and subsequently waged war on it for other families by writing a book.
Ultimately, Mr. Davenport read the play. (Of note, he was recently named head of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production company.)
“He called me and said, ‘This is a page turner! Is anyone producing this?’” There was not, and so he did, recommending “the perfect director,” too, Ms. Siff Exkorn said. Tony Awardnominated Sheryl Kaller was and is that director, about to see the fruit of her labor at the world premiere of “Do This” by Gulfshore Playhouse in Naples.
Tony Award-nominated actress Carmen Cusack was cast as the one woman of the one-woman show.
Theater management indicated that costumes were designed in conjunction with Tommy Hilfiger, the couture giant that launched a new line of adaptive wear for kids with disabilities last year.
From producer to costumer to director and cast, “Do This” has become a star-studded little engine that could. “Here I am, a firsttime playwright with a Tony-nominated director and a Tony-nominated actress,” Ms. Siff Exkorn said. “I am just over the moon.”
Talking with the director
“She’s amazing,” the playwright said of director Ms. Kaller. “I love the fact that not only is she brilliant and creative, she’s also a mom and has the right sensibilities.”
“There are no boundaries to what a mother will do to help her child,” Ms. Kaller said. Though her own children were not affected by autism, she added, “We’re all wired differently. Let’s acknowledge (people) for the people they are.”
Ms. Kaller saw Ms. Cusack perform in “Bright Star,” the musical written and composed by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, for which Ms. Cusack received a Tony nomination. “I was blown away by her,” the director said. “From that minute, I wanted to work with her. I said to (Ms. Siff Exkorn), ‘Trust me; we want her.'" The experienced director knows that one-actor shows are particularly challenging. “You’re playing off of yourself,” she said. “Carmen plays a pile of characters. She’s just extraordinary.”
About Ms. Siff Exkorn, she said, “Karen is a first-time playwright. I feel like she’s a thousandth-time playwright. We’re talking about a woman who thought she was going to be and do everything she ever wanted in her life. (And) one day it was all taken away from her. It speaks to such a universality of people raising kids, people taking care of elderly parents, people whose friends disappoint them, our expectations ... We want to believe as humans we can write our own script. Then there’s the irony of when it doesn’t go that way.”
One of the universal themes in “Do This,” she shared, is how we react when life tears up the script we had intended to go by and our plans for the future become derailed. “Our core as human beings,” she said, “is what we do (about the derailments) when they do happen.”
“In the shit grows flowers,” Ms. Kallen fondly quoted. “Not a single person who walks along the street doesn’t have a crack in their lives,” she said. “All we can hope is that the crack will bring flowers. And flowers come in many shapes and colors. That’s why Karen wrote this play.”
Talking with the actress
This isn’t Ms. Cusack’s first life experience with autism, nor is it her second or third. “Autism is in our lives on a daily basis,” she said, referring to the global surge in the occurrence of the disorder, but more specifically to the fact that her sister has two autistic children, ages 12 and 16.
“I’m really blessed to be able to use this material — to get it out there,” she said. “There are so many people who need help, and there’s still very little help available.”
The actress (no relation to actors Joan and John) was asked to send an audition tape for “Do This,” but at the time, her performance schedule took precedence. When she read the script, she thought she might have missed an opportunity. She asked to be notified if the chance to audition for “Do This” came around again. “Please,” she quoted herself as saying, “I’m desperate to be a part of this.” Knowing it was important to the actress, her manager rearranged her schedule to allow for the audition that earned her the role in which she subtly portrays many different characters.
The transition from character to character flows almost seamlessly because of the playwright’s deft hand, the actress said. “Her writing activates the delineation of characters from scene to scene. It was so clear to me. I fell in love with the script.
“I love stories that take you to places of complete heartbreak and (then) immediately you’re laughing.”
When we spoke to the playwright, director and actor, “Do This” was still in rewrites, rehearsing in New York. At the time, Ms. Cusack said the prospect of performing a one-woman play without intermission was at once thrilling and terrifying. She referred to the process as “climbing the mountain of a one-woman play.”
Now, as the world premiere is set to open, there’s little doubt that the dedicated team of Ms. Siff Exkorn, Ms. Kaller and Ms. Cusack can, and will, “Do This.” ¦
>> What: The world premiere of a play by Karen Siff Exkorn
>> Who: Gulfshore Playhouse
>> When: Jan. 7-29 (previews Jan. 5-6)
>> Where: The Norris Center
>> Tickets: $39-64
>> Info: 261-7529 or www.gulfshoreplayhouse.org
>> What: Luncheon: From Bestseller to Broadway: Sharing a Son’s Journey from Autism to Recovery
>> When: 11:30 a.m. Monday, Jan. 9
>> Where: The Ritz-Carlton Beach Resort
>> Price: $175, with 25 percent donated to New York Collaborates for Autism
>> Details: Karen Siff Exkorn, “Do This” playwright and author of the bestseller “The Autism Sourcebook,” addresses her son’s autism diagnosis at age 2 and recovery at age 4. Her presentation will cover the familial challenges and “bringing your best self” to life’s ups and downs. The playwright will also discuss how a nonfiction book became a live theatrical piece, with its world premiere in Naples.
>> Tickets: 261-7529 or www.gulfshoreplayhouse.org
>> “We have a very unusual story in the world of autism because of our son’s recovery,” Ms. Siff Exkorn said. Her family’s journey through Jake’s autism has been followed by ABC’s Nightline for 15 years. The 2015 program recently won an Emmy Award.
>> See it by visiting http://abcnews.go.com/ Nightline/video/child-autism-recover-therapy 34301931.