Why How to Dance in Ohio Means So Much to Its Cast — and to Broadway

In late 2020, the autistic actor Ashley Wool wrote an op-ed about the importance of disability representation in the media. Three years later, she’s helping to make the change she wants to see: She’s one of the stars of a new Broadway musical about autistic young adults, How to Dance in Ohio.

Wool is one of seven diverse, authentically cast performers with autism who portray autistic characters in the show. Discovered in open-call auditions in 2021, these actors all took different paths to the project — but now, as the show gears up for its Broadway opening, they all agree that How to Dance in Ohio has become not only a meaningful experience for themselves as individuals, but an important step in mainstream representation of the autistic community in all its variety and specificity.

Liam Pearce, Madison Kopec, Imani Russell, Conor Tague, Amelia Fei, Desmond Luis Edwards, and Molly Wool. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.
Liam Pearce, Madison Kopec, Imani Russell, Conor Tague, Amelia Fei, Desmond Luis Edwards, and Ashley Wool. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

“Most of the depictions of autism I saw in popular media were portrayed by white cis men/boys,” says Imani Russell, the nonbinary actor who plays a nonbinary character named Mel. “There’s room for those stories, of course. But the autistic community is comprised of people of different genders, races, ethnicities, and more. I wanted to be a part of this show to connect with autistic people who have never seen themselves in mainstream media. There are so many trans autistic people, autistic people of color, autistic girls, and more who have said it meant so much to see folks like my castmates Amelia Fei, Desmond Luis Edwards, and myself telling this story.”

More than one cast member describes how fulfilling it has been to feel their whole selves embraced in How to Dance in Ohio. “It was a space where I was welcomed with open arms, and the same traits I was bullied for at school were celebrated,” says Edwards, who plays the role of Remy.

A young actor who met How to Dance in Ohio composer Jacob Yandura at a summer camp, Edwards was still in high school when they first got involved in the musical. “My senior year of high school was rough, especially it being my first year back after online learning [due to the COVID-19 pandemic], but this show was a huge outlet for me,” they recall. “I finally had a goal set before me and a way that I could reach it. I finally had a way out.”

Wool, meanwhile, says she had been pounding the pavement as a working actor for a decade before she was cast as Jessica in How to Dance in Ohio. “For most of that time, I never disclosed that I was autistic, because I thought that if I talked about it, nobody would hire me,” Wool says.

Her 2020 op-ed, prompted by the controversy around Sia’s movie Music, was one of Wool’s first public expressions of her autism. It was the reason her friends and colleagues in the business made sure she saw the open casting call for How to Dance in Ohio.

“The irony isn’t lost on me that the one thing I was always taught to hide ended up being the X factor that led to my Broadway debut,” Wool says. “I want to encourage other autistic people in the business to stand and be counted.”

The cast has developed a tight-knit bond. “After two years, we really have become like a family!” Russell says.

The cast of How to Dance in Ohio. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.
The cast of How to Dance in Ohio. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

Edwards fondly remembers what they call “Spectrum Club 7 field trips,” when they and fellow cast members took group jaunts to places like the New York State Fair, Dave & Buster’s, and an escape room. Russell recalls having a blast at a Waiting for Guffman movie night, and Wool cherishes the memory of the sitzprobe (a musical-theater term for the rehearsal at which the orchestra and the singers perform the score together for the first time).

“We were all crying because it was so beautiful, and we couldn’t wait to share it with audiences,” she says.

What Broadway audiences will see in the show, Russell says, are “our seven autistic leads as people with full lives and community, who also have problems that are not a result of their disability.” Russell particularly appreciates scenes that depict Mel in the workplace.

Such multifaceted depictions are vitally important, Wool says. “You can read about autism in a textbook, you can understand it intellectually as a collection of symptoms and traits, but that’s not the same as putting individual names and faces and personalities to autistic people and telling stories that reflect who we actually are, and how non-autistic people can relate to us more than they might think,” she explains.

“I hope we can provide representation for the people who need it,” Edwards adds. “I hope people can also understand that this is just the beginning of autistic representation. Hopefully How to Dance in Ohio opens up the doors for disability representation and acceptance everywhere.”

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