FO­CUS­ING ON PHYS­I­CAL­ITY

Ac­tor Jeff Schissler learns about the autism spec­trum in prepa­ra­tion for his role in ‘Danc­ing Lessons’, which opens June 22 at Vic­to­ria Play­house

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - FRONT PAGE - BY SALLY COLE sally.cole@the­guardian.pe.ca Twit­ter.com/Sal­lyForth57

Ac­tor Jeff Schissler learns about the autism spec­trum in prepa­ra­tion for his role in “Danc­ing Lessons” at Vic­to­ria Play­house

Cana­dian ac­tor Jeff Schissler never knows where his char­ac­ter re­search might lead him.

One minute, he could be meet­ing mem­bers of Terry Fox’s fam­ily in prepa­ra­tion for play­ing the lead role in the world premiere pro­duc­tion, “Marathon of Hope”, by P.E.I. play­wright John Con­nolly.

The next, he might be study­ing an­i­mal be­hav­iour for the role of Bird in “The Gi­ant’s Gar­den”.

This month his char­ac­ter re­search has him study­ing about the autism spec­trum for his role in “Danc­ing Lessons” at Vic­to­ria Play­house.

That’s be­cause Schissler plays Ever, a young geo­physics pro­fes­sor who has Asperger’s syn­drome. Con­sid­ered to be on the high func­tion end of the spec­trum be­hav­iours, it in­cludes lack of eye con­tact or re­cip­ro­cal con­ver­sa­tion, ro­botic or repet­i­tive speech and lim­ited or in­ap­pro­pri­ate so­cial in­ter­ac­tions and chal­lenges with non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

And the Toronto-based ac­tor makes no bones about it.

“It’s been a chal­lenge,” says Schissler, of the play which runs from June 22-July 29 and is about find­ing love in un­ex­pected places.

It’s the story of Senga, a pro­fes­sional dancer with a po­ten­tially ca­reer-end­ing in­jury, who is thrown for a loop when Ever of­fers her a huge sum of money to teach him how to dance. Dance lessons and life lessons fol­low.

“This play is all about hu­man re­la­tion­ships, be­ing put into a dis­com­fort zone, hav­ing courage and tak­ing risks,” says Schissler.

In cre­at­ing his char­ac­ter, he spent hours think­ing about these qual­i­ties and what they would feel like to some­one who isn’t used to hav­ing a close re­la­tion­ship. Then, he put it in ac­tion.

“It was awk­ward, at first. I’m a very ex­pres­sive per­son. It’s hard for me to hold back. But, the di­rec­tor (Ted Price) told me to go against my in­stincts. So, I’m work­ing a lot on that.”

In prepa­ra­tion for the role he also stud­ied the body lan­guage of in­di­vid­u­als with Asperger’s syn­drome.

“Ev­ery­one is dif­fer­ent. So, I’ve con­cen­trated on the phys­i­cal­ity as­pects. For ex­am­ple, not mak­ing any eye con­tact is some­thing we’re play­ing with in re­hearsals.”

Other char­ac­ter­is­tic be­hav­iours he’s added in­clude rub­bing his hands and legs, when­ever his char­ac­ter gets ner­vous, or “tens­ing up” his body when he gets in an un­com­fort­able set­ting.

“We’re also work­ing on him be­ing rigid and still.”

Things be­come com­pli­cated when Senga, played by Melissa Kramer, en­ters the scene. She has a knee in­jury due to a freak ac­ci­dent caused by a cab.

“He puts her off bal­ance, knocks her over, prob­a­bly more

than the taxi did,” says Kramer, with a laugh.

The hu­mour con­tin­ues when Senga gives Ever his first dance les­son. That’s be­cause he has a math­e­mat­i­cal ap­proach, says Schissler.

“He will only move his arms a cer­tain way. Then when the feet are in­tro­duced, he can only do the feet.”

Then, as their re­la­tion­ship un­folds, it all be­gins to bal­ance out in the dis­cov­er­ies they make about each other and their them­selves.

“The re­la­tion­ship makes her more vul­ner­a­ble be­cause he is so spe­cial and comes to things from a dif­fer­ent angle,” says Kramer, who lives on P.E.I.

“She, some­how, be­comes more open be­cause of him.”

SALLY COLE/THE GUARDIAN

Ever (Jeff Schissler) and Senga (Melissa Kramer) ap­pear in the tele­phone scene from “Danc­ing Lessons”. The ro­man­tic com­edy opens June 22 at Vic­to­ria Play­house.

SALLY COLE/THE GUARIAN

Ever (Jeff Schissler) and Senga (Melissa Kramer) ap­pear in a re­hearsal scene for “Danc­ing Lessons”.

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