In addition to the interview I did with Samantha Elisofon, a lead actress in "Keep the Change," I also interviewed Samantha's mother, Marguerite.
She shares some additional information about the film and how theater/performance opportunities can be beneficial for children and adults with autism.
A: Born and raised in New York City, I graduated from Vassar College, where I majored in English and Psychology because I thought it was important to understand how people think in order to write about them. After various careers in publishing, public relations and real estate, I became a full-time mom to an unusual set of twins and began writing a book about them as soon as they left for college. Last year my memoir, My Picture Perfect Family - What Happens When One Twin Has Autism was published and I spent a lot of time discussing the book on radio and TV as well as writing articles for various publications. For the past five years, I've also been writing a blog, The Never-Empty Nest, which focuses on family and disability issues. As an autism mom, advocate and consultant, I continue to write articles and stay on top of what's new and noteworthy in the autism world.
Q: Tell us a little about "Keep the Change" and how your family got involved with the film.
A: Samantha started getting involved in performance and theater at age 7 when she sang "Tomorrow" from Annie in an assembly at her special ed school for kids with language delays. She received a standing ovation. Many parents in the audience (including us) had tears in our eyes. Back then, her music teacher had told us that our daughter had perfect pitch. At age 10, after a few years of ABA and other therapy to help Samantha mature and behave with greater self-control, we gave her singing lessons. Samantha loves being in the spotlight and in the middle of things (even in the uncomfortable middle seat in a car!) so acting and singing on stage was a great way for her seek recognition. From then on, our daughter auditioned for every camp, school and college play, and has sought every performance opportunity possible. She is a member of two theater groups for adults with disabilities, sings in cabarets to support them, and has performed twice at a nursing home. Samantha even sang the national anthem at Pace University's freshman convocation after she had graduated.
Q: How did Samantha get involved in performance and theater?
A: Samantha came home one day and told me she was invited to audition for the female lead in a movie. I said: "That's nice, dear. Good luck." My daughter auditioned for lots of roles which she never got, let alone a co-starring role in a movie. But I always encouraged her to keep trying, and she seemed to enjoy having "her chance to shine," as she likes to say. After auditioning and being called back, Rachel Israel, the director, contacted me and said she'd like to offer the role of Sarah to my daughter. I was thrilled for Samantha to get an opportunity like this, but there were logistical issues to work out. Samantha was still in college and in the midst of taking a mandatory Computer Science course over the summer, for which she was being tutored. The last class and final exam conflicted with two of the nine days of filming. Once Rachel agreed to film around my daughter's class and Samantha promised to complete her work, it was pretty much a done deal. I did ask to see the script to be sure Samantha was not being asked to play a negative stereotype or caricature of a person on the spectrum. I also wanted be sure my daughter would feel comfortable playing the character and that she could be effective. After looking at the script--a work in progress at the time--and a few long conversations with Rachel about how best to work with my daughter, we all got very excited about working together. Miraculously, Samantha got an "A" in Computer Science and also ended up doing a great job on the short film.
Q: What has the response to the film been like?
A: The response to Keep the Change has been both amazing and heart-warming. The short film won Best Film at the 2013 Columbia University Film Festival, was featured in several film festivals and is on the PBS "Best Shorts" list. Although it's taken another four years to expand Keep the Change and raise the funds to produce the feature, the journey has been unbelievably exciting for Samantha, the other actors, and all of our friends and families who joined us to support the film. Over 8,000 films were submitted to the Tribeca Film Festival, and only 90 or so were selected. Not only was KTC chosen, it's one of 32 films films eligible for awards as a "competitive selection" among only ten U.S. Narratives (the rest being foreign or documentary). I would NEVER have thought a movie about people with autism played by actors on the spectrum would sell out all 4 screenings in the first two days. Another one was added because of "high demand" and that one sold out too! I'm hoping the enthusiastic response is a sign that people are starting to be interested in and care about people who have been a misunderstood and marginalized minority for much too long. In the meantime, my family is thrilled and Samantha is "over the moon," as she likes to say.
Q: What would you like for people to take away from watching the film?
A: I'd like people to come away from the film with greater respect and empathy for people on the autistic spectrum as individuals and human beings. My hope is that Samantha and the other actors will shatter some of the negative stereotypes about people with autism. I want the audience to see that each person on the spectrum is unique. People on the spectrum should not be seen as caricatures or a conglomeration of common symptoms: lack of eye contact, withdrawn, bothered by noise and lights, and unwilling or unable to find love and friendship. I hope audiences will come out of the theater with newfound respect for adults with autism and start to offer them more vocational opportunities. More than anything else, I hope that this is the first (and not the last) of great acting opportunities for Samantha, and that there will be a casting agent or talent manager in the audience that will want to represent her.
Q: Do you have any advice for parents of children or young adults on the spectrum who would like to be involved in acting or performance?
A: Parents of kids or young adults on the spectrum aspiring to act or perform should be encouraged and nurtured in their interest, just as parents would encourage and nurture the talents and interests of a neurotypical child. Of course, not every child has perfect pitch or is a budding Humphrey Bogart or Katharine Hepburn (whether on or off the spectrum), so it's important to manage expectations. But everyone on the spectrum can benefit from performing in a play or film. Performing in a play helps people on the spectrum put themselves in the shoes of a character and see things from another perspective. Other benefits include being part of the give and take of a group, learning to accept constructive criticism, and being exposed to others who share their interests. Theater groups can open the door to different types of social interactions and provide new friends and "family." Samantha met her first best friend working back stage on a school play, and they remain friends to this day. Equally important, kids and young adults who join theater groups for people with disabilities learn about working in a group and demonstrating commitment and responsibility to others--habits which are essential to success in any profession.