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