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To reassess a life: Dancer explores late autism diagnosis in 'Is It Thursday Yet'

 July 12, 2023 at 3:10 PM PDT

S1: Welcome back. You're listening to Kpbs Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman. A new evening length dance theater production at La Jolla Playhouse from renowned dancer Jen Freeman and choreographer Sonia Tal follows one woman's re-examination of her own life after receiving a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder at age 33. The performance titled Is It Thursday , yet details the new lens through which Freeman views her childhood and the way it's impacted her life in art. Kpbs art producer and editor Julia Dixon Evans spoke with them about the production.

S2: Jen , let's start with you and how as an adult , you realized you'd been living with autism spectrum disorder your entire life.

S3: I had never suspected that I was autistic or thought that I might be. And in fact , I was really absolutely uneducated about autism and what it means. And I was watching a film called Expecting Amy. It's a docu series following the life of Amy Schumer and her partner , Chris Fisher. And in the docu series , Chris gets an autism diagnosis. And it was something about just hearing him speak about his life experience and watching him that I just had this realization. It was it was an epiphany. Like in that moment , I just really felt I was like , this is me. And that's what kind of sent me on the journey of pursuing a diagnosis.

S2: And your life since then has been what's been called an endless sea of those epiphanies.

S3: So I grew up with that experience and having this language and getting this diagnosis just really changed the lens through which I was seeing and understanding all of these experiences. So there was this I mean , it's still happening , but in the beginning , especially this really rapid desire and urge to just keep going back. And I was having all of these like flashback memories and memories that were occurring for the first time and all of these situations that I had been in in my life that I could never really make sense of , that we're now making sense.

S2: I'm wondering if you could share an example of one of those specific things.

S3: I mean , there's so many. A big one is my experience as a child , and in school I had a really unique experience. I was the kid who , if you looked at me on paper or from the outside , everything was fine. I had really good grades. I was a smart kid. I didn't act out. I didn't get in trouble. But I had a really hard time being in the classroom for a full day. So from first grade until fifth grade , every single day after lunch , I would tell the teacher that it's time for me to go because I would have my work done and they would just send me to the library for the last few hours of the day and just to put books away. And that was just a normal experience that no one ever really questioned. It's just kind of what I did. I did. But now , obviously , looking back on that , I can see that that maybe wasn't a normal experience that all kids had. And I can understand how maybe I could have been given some more options other than just going to the library. But that's how we got through , not knowing at that point in time. Okay.

S2: Okay.

S3: Different topic. Totally different idea. But I had asked her to direct the piece and be outside eyes. And then Sonia and I are best friends too. So when I ended up getting this diagnosis , she was one of the first people that I told and talked to. And after that happened , my world just shifted so much and even our relationship shifted so much and being able to understand each other that it felt really impossible to go back to the old idea. And it just felt really urgent and clear that this was the story that we needed to tell. And also , just in the experience of getting my diagnosis , I learned and am learning so much about autism and the autistic community and my own experience that I have just a really deep desire to share the information that I'm learning. So that's kind of the spark that started this whole journey.

S2: Sonia , what can you tell us about what this production looks like ? There's dance , but there's also home video. There's real life audio from Jen's therapist.

S4: And there's pathways that are narrow and straight and leaves and branches and all of these things to indulge in your curiosities in it's this whimsical theatrical analysis like that. It's it's feeds the senses , feeds gen senses while they are trying to um , you know when , when they first got the diagnosis , the the focus was to understand that you have to go back to your family history , go back to your history. That's one main sentence that we kept hearing. Jen's therapist , diagnostician express and her father was one of those , um , dads who had that camcorder on his shoulder all of Jen's life. So we had all of this beautiful footage to sift through and to see the the traits in time , which was so surreal and beautiful and wondrous to explore and to and to break open. And then you have the the diagnostician that is narrating it. We sifted through hundreds of hours of therapy sessions and home video footage for this to walk us through. And it's just been so , um , enlightening to see. So you're watching this person go back home. To their basement where all of your childhood is stored and your history is sitting in dusty and you sift through the boxes and you reassess a life to understand and to follow into , to get to the truth , to feel better and to feel grounded in the world.

S2: Jen , this this is a solo project and you have worked with big dance companies like Martha Graham , even Cirque du Soleil before. Can you talk to me about this being a solo work and how that's different from working with bigger casts ? Yeah.

S3: So this is unique in many ways for me. I've never performed solo at this magnitude for an evening length piece. Um , so just understanding the nuance of physicality and stamina and storytelling has been really exciting journey for me. And also , you know , collaborating with Sonya in this capacity is new for both of us as well. And it's been a really , really amazing journey that I can't imagine , you know , taking on subject matter that's this deeply personal with anyone else as my guide. It's been really incredible and we're creating the piece together. So I've also never you know , usually when I'm making work , I'm completely on the outside looking in. But this is the first time I've danced and performed in a piece that I'm making. So that has its own unique challenges and beauties as well. So it's been it's been new for me , a totally new experience. Every day feels like I'm learning something. Definitely even up to this point. We've been working on the piece for a couple of years now , and every day I'm still learning.

S2: Sonya how about you ? You and Jen , you've worked together as dancers and choreographers for a number of years , and you have also worked on some major productions like Moulin Rouge.

S4: It's a dream to to make something for someone that is so close to you that has been a part of my dad's life for so long now. Jenny's danced in so many of my works and is such a reflection of my dance language in such a beautiful way To be a vessel for her has been a huge gift. And in any project I. I desire to learn so much about the world and myself. And I'm doing that in time. And I'm I'm newly learning about my dear one who is Jen and finding that connection together in this even deeper way. Just when you think you can't get any deeper with someone has been so beautiful and it's a massive amount of pressure and a massive amount of challenges. Want to do ? Jen Right. Whatever right means think right means just keeping the vessel open for her to find her truth and to create this journey where where she can get lost in and really be her truest self. I think that's what we all desire , is to find truth. I use that word a lot for this piece because it's important for people in hopes that people can really look inside themselves while watching this piece and ask themselves how they treat other people and see other people and give that grace to people. It's been really beautiful , a beautiful experience.

S2: Jen , can you tell us what the title is at Thursday yet ? What that refers to ? Yeah.

S3: So we don't want to totally give it away , but um , is it Thursday is a question that I repetitively asked my parents when I was younger. Um , there was a special event that happened on Thursdays in my life. So that's , that's as much as I can tell you , but that's where it comes from.

S2: I want to go back to the autism diagnosis a little bit more.

S3: I think I was given the gift of dance really , really early in my life. I started dancing when I was two and a half , and it's just a place that I felt safe and seen. And there's this really beautiful thing for autistic people in a dance class. It feels like a social experience. You know , you're there , you're with people and you feel seen by your teacher. You see your teacher. There's this unspoken synergy and back and forth and communication that happened. So it's a really fulfilling place to be. And then also , you know , a lot of the physical stems and need for self-regulating physically that I was doing when I was little , those types of things were rewarded in a dance class. And also my ability to hyper focus and my need for repetition. Those are all things that are good in that space. And then as I got older , I was obsessed with it. That's all I did my whole life. I went to school for dance , but as I got older , um , a lot more of what it means to be a dancer , especially if you're pursuing that as a career. It requires a huge social component and a networking component. And that's when things started to get really difficult for me as an adult. So I struggled for many years just trying to do the right thing and hold on as tightly as I could to my dancing because I really didn't know how to navigate the world without it. It really felt like life or death to me. I could never put that into words before , but that feeling was definitely present. And , um , since having this diagnosis , I can now look back and. All of that that just expressed so clearly to you is only because I can now see it that way. I never saw it that way before. It just felt like this really precious thing that I was gripping so tightly to and I would just erase myself to do anything for dance. In the name of dance , I would do anything. So , you know , taking myself to extreme places of burnout and fatigue and pushing myself and erasing myself. So now having this information , I'm just starting to have a more gentle approach to myself as a dancer and my art and trying to understand what it means to do this thing that I love so much in a way that's sustainable , in a way that will uplift me and my spirit and not take me down. So that's the shift. There's definitely been a huge shift.

S2: Sonia This is being produced at a playhouse with an audience that will likely both be theatergoers and people coming expecting to see dance.

S4: That was our map. And then we curated the or wrote , if you will , these script. And that led to telling how to move , where to move and why so. Dance being at its forefront , but the information also marries it because the information that Kim is speaking about in terms of Jen , Jen's diagnosis specifically is so important. So the play writing is the map , and the dancing is the journey through the map.

S2: I thank you both so much. I appreciate it.

S4: Thank you.

S3: Thank you.

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Dancer Jenn Freeman is shown in an undated photo promoting "Is It Thursday Yet?" at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse
Dancer Jenn Freeman is shown in an undated photo promoting "Is It Thursday Yet?" at the La Jolla Playhouse.

"Is It Thursday Yet?," a new evening-length dance-theater production at La Jolla Playhouse from dancer Jenn Freeman and choreographer Sonya Tayeh is informed by Freeman's diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder at age 33 and the new lens by which she views her childhood.

"It was like an epiphany," Freeman said. "I had never suspected that I was autistic, or thought that I might be, and in fact I was really, absolutely uneducated about autism and what it means."

Freeman's realization struck when she was watching a docuseries about comedian and actress Amy Schumer, whose partner Chris Fischer is diagnosed with autism.

"It was something about just hearing him speak about his life experience, and watching him, that I just had this realization," Freeman said.

Since that moment, Freeman pursued her own diagnosis, which resulted in a journey of other epiphanies, viewing her childhood through this new perspective, with a new understanding of her experiences, traits and struggles.

Freeman has been a dancer since she was very young, and has worked as a choreographer with the American Ballet Theatre, and the Martha Graham Dance Company. She has worked with choreographer Sonya Tayeh for years, including work for Cirque du Soleil. The two are also close friends.

Tayeh and Freeman were actually in the development stages of a solo piece when Freeman got her diagnosis. That work then shifted to become "Is It Thursday Yet?"

"(Tayeh) was one of the first people that I told and talked to, and after that happened, my world just shifted so much. Even our relationship shifted so much in being able to understand each other, that it felt really impossible to go back to the old idea, and it felt really urgent and clear that this was the story that we needed to tell," Freeman said.

"Is It Thursday Yet?"
The La Jolla Playhouse
UC San Diego
2910 La Jolla Village Drive
La Jolla, California 92093

On stage July 11 through Aug. 6, 2023
Showtimes and tickets here.

The set's use of color, light, pattern, texture and sound is inspired by Freeman's relationship with sensory sensitivities. The production combines elements of choreography with narration, original music, home video and sound recordings — including clips from Freeman's therapist.

When asked what the production looks like, Tayeh described a space of whimsy and curiosity.

"You know those pop-up books from back in the day, where you turn the page, and this fairy land of ideas and questions and wonder opens up, and it's really vivid and tactile," Tayeh said.

The inclusion of home video is thanks to Freeman's father — "one of those dads who had that camcorder on his shoulder all of Jenn's life," Tayeh said. "So we had all of this beautiful footage to sift through."

This makes the production intimate, nostalgic and revelatory. 

“You’re watching this person go back home, to their basement, where all of your childhood is stored, and your history is sitting and dusty. And you sift through the boxes, and you reassess a life,” Tayeh said.

"Is It Thursday Yet?" is on stage at La Jolla Playhouse July 11 through Aug. 6.


Jenn Freeman, creator, choreographer and performer
Sonya Tayeh, creator, choreographer and director