By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Books have been a refuge for many since the COVID-19 pandemic gripped America, shutting down many public venues for consuming art, from movie theaters to concert halls. To bring these stories we’ve sought to life, local theater company Prime Stage Theatre is working to bring books to the stage, through the screen.
Through a collaboration with the Autism Society of Pittsburgh, Prime Stage will virtually debut “Mockingbird” for two showings only on October 18.
The presentation is based on the novel of the same name by Kathryn Erskine, and tells the story of Caitlin, a 10-year-old girl living with Asperger’s syndrome, struggling to cope with the recent death of her brother in a school shooting.
“It sounds like it’s a really depressing story, but it isn’t,” said Prime’s Production Artistic Director Wayne Brinda. “She makes friends, she is taken in by a counselor who really helps her, she discovers painting.”
Erskine was inspired by her own daughter’s diagnosis with Asperger’s, and how she felt people on the autism spectrum were misunderstood by the general public. For that reason, she decided to tell the story from Caitlin’s perspective.
Erskine also drew from Harper Lee’s seminal classic, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” inspiring the book’s own title. “Mockingbird” also has dialogue with the themes of its namesake, particularly regarding the destruction of innocence. “To Kill A Mockingbird” is also referenced directly in the story, with Caitlin strongly identifying her own family with the family of Scout Finch.
“She saw her father as Atticus, she saw her brother as Jem, and she saw herself as Scout. She kind of lived within that world,” said Brinda.
For Brinda and the team at Prime Stage, a story like “Mockingbird” is one they’ve wanted to see on stage for some time.
“I wanted to do a play about autism and the spectrum for a long time, because I have a real affinity for that topic,” said Brinda. “It was a matter of finding the right script, and this book is just perfect.”
Once the script was decided on, it was slated to close the 2019-2020 season for Prime Stage, but the rise in COVID-19 cases forced plans to change. Considering that, now seven months in, nearly all live performances remain postponed for the foreseeable future, Brinda decided to find another way to stage “Mockingbird.”
“All of us in the company felt that this was such an important story… that we decided we need to do it, we need to do it now, and we need to find a new way of doing it,” said Brinda.
Prime Stage also strives to represent the stories they produce authentically, so another priority for Brinda was finding a lead actress who could deeply relate to the struggles Caitlin experiences in the play.
“The other thing that was really important on this was to find an actress to play the lead who was on the spectrum,” said Brinda. “It’s really, really important to make it authentic.”
Julie Lang, a recent graduate of Seton Hill University, will portray Caitlin in the production. Her first formal acting credit since high school, Lang “is so happy to be able to play a character that shares so many similar experiences to her own,” according to her online biography. Like the character she’s playing, Lang is on the Autism spectrum, a “conscious casting decision” by Director Steven Wilson.
“Autism is truly a spectrum that affects everyone differently and in so many unique ways” says Lang. “A misconception is that autism only affects boys. Autism is indeed present in all genders. Girls on the spectrum might just experience autism differently from what people expect.
“Caitlin is only one of the well written autistic female characters I have personally seen in the media. It warmed my heart to see a character that was actually like me for once. She is artistic, creative and genuinely a compassionate person whether she knows how to show it or not. It is rare to see a female character on the autism spectrum and when one does they usually are written in a very stereotypical male way. Caitlin really does give a glimpse into what life is like for a young girl on the spectrum just trying to make it through everyday life.
The production will be broadcast via Zoom, but has been pre-recorded and edited into a multimedia presentation, featuring graphic art and special film effects to create a truly unique theater experience.
“It’s going to be Zoom, but it’s not going to be Zoom,” said Brinda. “It’s going to go way beyond what you normally see with Zoom.”
“When Caitlin paints something, they can paint. When Caitlin does something, they can do something at home,” said Brinda. “It makes it more than just watching a Zoom presentation.”
The production is accessible to elementary school-aged children and above and has been produced with sensory inclusivity in mind.
“We’re very much committed to accessibility, so this is definitely sensory-inclusive,” said Brinda.
“Mockingbird” will be broadcast at 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. on October 18. For tickets and more information, visit primestage.com.