Smithfield High graduate finds her voice on stage

Smithfield High graduate finds her voice on stage

Spectrum Theatre Ensemble empowers actors on the autism spectrum

SMITHFIELD – Tracy Allard feels most like herself when she’s on stage, under a bright spotlight and standing in front of dozens of audience members. Where others shrink, Allard thrives.

The recent Smithfield High School graduate has been acting in community theater productions since she was 11 years old.

On stage, she feels free, confident, and at ease. But off stage, it can be a different story.

Allard is one of thousands of Americans on the autism spectrum who has faced bullying and stigmatization.

Though one out of every 68 children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, their lives are largely absent from popular culture and their professional opportunities are still expanding.

Allard’s own high school experience was marred by excessive practical jokes, the severity of which led her to skip her high school graduation ceremony in June.

Tracy’s mother, Joanne, said theater is what changed her daughter’s world and provided her with a positive outlet.

“The minute she gets into the theater, she can transform into someone else.”

In the face of adversity, Allard has made the decision to advocate for those with physical and mental disabilities.

“Having a disability is nothing to be ashamed of,” Allard said. “Even the term ‘disability,’ I don’t like. We’re normal.”

Her platform has grown with the establishment of a new theater company in Rhode Island. Trinity Repertory Company in Providence is now home to a trailblazing theater group dedicated to celebrating neuro-diversity and increasing the accessibility of theater for all.

Spectrum Theatre Ensemble is the brainchild of actor, writer, and producer Clay Martin, who has spent years researching, and implementing the therapeutic benefits of theater for those on the autism spectrum.

“Theater, like music, is universal,” Martin said.

Martin, who has a learning disability himself, spearheaded a neuro-diverse theater class on the campus of Texas Tech University in 2014 while pursuing a master’s degree.

Martin brought together graduate students at the Burkhart Center for Autism Education & Research and students from the School of Theatre & Dance for a new community theater company, BurkTech Players, which still performs today.

After the success of that collaboration, Martin secured a grant in 2016 from the Theatre Communications Group to replicate the BurkTech Players model at Trinity Rep in Providence.

Spectrum Theatre Ensemble now provides paid work for Allard and more than a dozen other actors and behind-the-scenes contributors.

“It provides social growth and promotes a message for the audience of the potential of people on the spectrum,” he said.

The cast and crew of STE work together to write original work in an “ultimate collaboration,” Martin said.

“When you grow up, there’s a lack of disabled mentors,” Allard said. “So a group like this, it’s very empowering.”

The STE put on its first performance last weekend, a piece highlighting the assumptions people make about individuals on the autism spectrum.

One of the play’s last scenes includes a song in which cast members cry out, “Do they think I can’t feel what they feel? Do they think I can’t dream what they dream?”

Clay Martin is the founder of Spectrum Theatre Ensemble, which includes a neauro-diverse cast that promotes accessible storytelling and diverse narratives. The ensemble is made possible by a Theatre Communications Group grant.