…we are making a significant social impact by changing the way society views the capabilities of disabilities. We are a neuro-inclusive theatre company and work with actors living on the autism spectrum and other neuro-diversities. Epic Players work to produce professional stage productions throughout New York City. In our company, neuro-typical artists and neuro-diverse artists work together equally to build an outstanding performance. We share the stage together, hold leadership positions, teach and support each other. We are also all paid for our time and talent in an attempt to increase job opportunities in the arts for a community that is dramatically under-represented in mainstream media (Of the 2% of roles written for characters with disabilities, 95% are played by neuro-typical or able-bodied actors). In creating such a neuro-diverse and inclusive community, we can only hope that art reflects life and our audiences will change their social perception of how “disability” is perceived.
I had the pleasure to interview Aubrie Therrien. Aubrie is the Executive Artistic Director of The EPIC Players, dedicated to creating neuro-diverse opportunities and communities through the arts. She has been an actress regionally and in New York City for 15 years and holds a BFA in Theater from Longwood University and a Masters of Public Health from New York University. She has worked with neuro-diverse individuals through theater for several years and is a passionate advocate for inclusion in the arts. She was recognized as New Yorker of the Week for her work and was recently published in Autism Spectrum News with Dr. Sam Goldstein on theater and autism. Additionally, Aubrie and The EPIC Players had the honor of ringing the New York Stock Exchange opening bell to celebrate Autism Awareness month on April 3rd, 2018 and, additionally, to speak at the United Nations on Empowering Women and Girls with Autism, specifically through the lens of film and the arts. She has also spoke at the Producer’s Guild of America conference on the importance of inclusive casting and was a featured panelist at the upcoming AASCEND Conference on Autism in the Media in October 2018. Aubrie serves as the Co-Chair of the Coalition for Disabilities in the Arts in New York City and is the Executive Director of the Horizons program at Brooklyn Friends School.
Thank you so much for joining us Aubrie. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My grandmother had polio when she was a kid. All my life, I knew her as a person living with a disability. However, that did not define her. She was the most amazing woman I ever met. She overcame so many obstacles in a time pre- ADA and a widowed mother of four. She was incredible.
Later in life, my mother became a special education teacher and I went into performing arts. As a touring actor, I would go back to my mother’s classrooms on breaks and write plays based on books the kids were reading — and they completely transformed. You have these amazing students who just happen to be living with some neurological differences becoming actors and directors in a play for their entire school. We had students with some significant behavior issues completely transform. It’s a powerful thing when your whole life hear that you “can’t”, or you are “incapable” of doing something and then you turn yourself around and do so seamlessly and effortlessly. After that moment, I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life. I love the performing arts, but I love being able to raise others up with it even more.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Our theatre group was featured at The United Nations, rang the opening bell at The New York Stock Exchange and sang at HBO, all in one week! It was like a beautiful, perfect storm. Epic Players was less than two years old at the time (last year). We performed at HBO on Monday, rang the opening bell the very next morning and the next day spoke at The United Nations for World Autism Day. It was a surreal and amazing experience. We were incredibly lucky to have and to be able to share our mission of neuro-diversity on a global stage.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Our set designer for our first musical production left us 5 days before our show with nothing. We didn’t have anything built, no designs, no blueprints. Nothing. The designer said he had some very personal things come up and just took off. This left me and my two colleagues at the time — basically, the only people running everything in the organization at this point — to figure out how to design, build and paint a set. I am not a visual artist. Thank God for a few amazing people who stepped up and were able to scramble and design a set from scratch major, paint an entire floor and platforms like comic books pieces. It looked so amazing when it was finished but was 3–4 days of sheer panic, will power and caffeine. It took a village!
This was NOT funny at the moment but as the days wore on, we all found the humor and camaraderie in finding a solution. It was amazing to see how everyone was able to rally together. We found two incredible designers who jumped in with us last minute. We were also fortunate that the space we were at extended our hours so we could build, and the director supported our build, we had cans of paint donated to us by a local paint store. It all came together. But definitely taught us to have back up plans and people in place way in advance. The show must go on, right?
Can you describe how your organization is making a significant social impact?
EPIC Players are making a significant social impact by changing the way society views the capabilities of disabilities. We are a neuro-inclusive theatre company and work with actors living on the autism spectrum and other neuro-diversities. Epic Players work to produce professional stage productions throughout New York City. In our company, neuro-typical artists and neuro-diverse artists work together equally to build an outstanding performance. We share the stage together, hold leadership positions, teach and support each other. We are also all paid for our time and talent in an attempt to increase job opportunities in the arts for a community that is dramatically under-represented in mainstream media (Of the 2% of roles written for characters with disabilities, 95% are played by neuro-typical or able-bodied actors). In creating such a neuro-diverse and inclusive community, we can only hope that art reflects life and our audiences will change their social perception of how “disability” is perceived.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Hire people living with neuro-diversities
- Create pathways for neuro-diverse persons to express themselves and debunk long-held social stigmas
- Create more access to resources that lead to independence; stop infantilizing people with disabilities.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is being passionate, kind and smart enough that people want to jump on board whatever crazy idea you have going; and are super happy in the end that they did. I reject the notion that as a good leader, specifically in business, you have to be ruthless or speak to people like they are “less than”. It takes a village to make any company, and that definitely applies to a non-profit’s success. The people of that village must know their value and be happy to work with you, not for you. I think leadership is also having the courage to own up to your mistakes, learn from them and take critical feedback, which I think is a really difficult thing to learn.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
I’m not sure these are prophetic, but they are definitely practical and have helped me tremendously as we continue on this journey:
- 1. Perfect is the Enemy of the Good: Meaning that you cannot beat yourself up if something isn’t perfect or you will miss the good things you created. Working in non-profits, most people wear many hats, and you must be able to value yourself and your capacities and know that that is good enough at the time. For example, we would love our own theater one day. However, today we have an office space and built an incredible community in a very short time — and that’s pretty good! We have to remember this as we move towards the larger goal.
- 2. Not everyone works like you do, and you have to recognize and respect that: I am a relentless person (in a good way, I think). I won’t stop until the job is done and if I want something or think the organization can do achieve, I won’t stop until I make it happen. Sometimes this means working multiple jobs and projects with different deadlines. This is what I do. However, I can’t expect everyone around me to be the same way, nor should I. Everyone you work with has a value they are bringing to the table and it may be unique to yours — which will complement the organization in the long run.
- 3. Words like “I hear you…’ go a long way: When working with lots of different people in a very communications focused field, it is important to make sure people feel heard and that they feel that they can disagree with you and speak with your constructively. I firmly believe that this is a learned and practiced skill; one that I am still learning. Once this is mastered, it will create a community of support and build a team that will be really happy to work with you and reduce turnover and burnout often experienced in non-profit work.
- 4. Make a poop sandwich (with your words!): I tend to be direct, but I had to learn a few ways to give constructive feedback when I was managing a team of people and empower people to do more. I’m sure this is a simple tactic, but it really has helped me deal with difficult conversations and maintain positive relationships on my team. When giving feedback or working out a conflict, I try to make a “poop sandwich” with my words, i.e. “Dan, you are so charismatic when directing and that is infectious, it seems like in rehearsals we tend to get off topic and lose time as everyone is having so much fun, but since you clearly have a great relationship with your team. Can you lead this initiative next rehearsal?”
- 5. Don’t send the first email you write but do get solutions in writing: I think we all learn this one the hard way! There are so many emails I have sent in the heat of the moment that I wish I could take back. Now I know how to write a first draft and save it, then go back and make edits to get your point across but temper your tone as you will most likely get a better response to your problem. I have a file on my desktop now that say “nuclear” where I put all the things I want to get out in email and never send. Also, I’ve learned the hard way to get solutions in writing. Especially if you are working with someone who insists on making deals or solving things over the phone — send them a recap email with the specifics of your conversation and get them to confirm. “Oh, no, I never said that,” is the worst thing to deal with as you are trying to steer 50-million things at one time. A non-profit is still a business and one you deeply care about — little things like this will protect it from being taken advantage of.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love for us to be considered just a regular theater company one day because ALL theaters are neuro-diverse and inclusive.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you land amongst the stars.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
Hilary Clinton. I think she is an amazing advocate, and always has been, for communities who are often left without a voice at the table. As a women leader, I am constantly in awe of her grace on pressure and her resilience as she faces criticism. She is an inspiration and I would want to speak to her about how she has always kept pushing through adversity to accomplish so many great things.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@aubrienicoletherrien on instagram