In Simon Stephens’ The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a highly gifted teenage boy named Christopher Boone investigates the murder of his neighbor’s dog, Wellington. As his investigation continues, Christopher unearths family secrets that put his world in a tailspin, spurring him to embark on an adventure that will change his life forever. In FST’s production of Curious Incident, Alexander Stuart is the second person on the autism spectrum in America to play Christopher Boone.
We met with Alexander to talk about the universality of the play, the importance of honesty, and what he uniquely brings to the role of Christopher.
How would you describe your character, Christopher, in five words? How are you two similar? How are you different?
I’d describe Christopher as a dreamer, prodigy, detective, scientist, and hero.
Christopher and I both have one thing in common – our autism. Christopher craves his own autonomy and the ability to do things independently without the doubt and scorn of other people. He also recognizes that he’s still a growing human being still craves some of the protection and structure he’s had all throughout his life, so his need for autonomy doesn’t impede him from continuing to ask questions and seek validation from others. That is, after all, what every good scientist does.
These are both things I relate very strongly to, the difference being in how we respond. Christopher is very uncontained when it comes to his own emotional life, whereas I tend to bottle things up. But we both feel things very extremely. Christopher expresses that without fear of judgement from others, and I quite envy that.
What do you bring to the character of Christopher? How do you make the role your own?
My goal is to break the mold of how autistic characters are played. In most autistic narratives, Christopher’s included, the character will often be portrayed as somewhat robotic and hard to read. And while some people on the spectrum are like that, that kind of Rain Man trope is becoming tired and overdone (and played by people who simply don’t know the autistic experience firsthand, no matter how sensitively and respectfully they may approach the material). It’s time more people saw the autism they aren’t used to seeing, something similar to my own.
Christopher never tells lies, so the same should be said of how he responds to people and situations. My portrayal of Christopher expresses emotion fully and openly, so all the ways you see him express himself to other people are all the ways I wish I could express myself to other people in real life. I don’t think his experience should in any way, shape, or form be sugar-coated for the audience. It’s been very satisfying to play a character who gives me permission to hold absolutely nothing back from the people watching.
What are some misunderstandings people have about individuals on the spectrum? What do you want people to learn about people on the spectrum from seeing this play?
Based on the low level of representation in popular media, we tend to think of the extremes of autism: the savant, who is highly intelligent with the occasional blunder or outburst, and the kid we may remember from the special ed program in high school who often needs supervision. We don’t tend to think of autism as anything in between. We don’t tend to think of autistic people as sociable, emotional, funny, articulate, athletic, etc. But we can be any or all of those things.
As someone who doesn’t necessarily “present” as autistic, I decided to show audiences more of my own autism, which might seem more unusual to most people because it isn’t often talked about or examined. My Christopher is a fully emotional, layered individual who feels emotion just the same way anyone does. Because he is, after all, human. It’s his responses that make him stand out. So far, it seems like this portrayal has helped audiences empathize with Christopher in a way I’ve never seen before.
Curious Incident is made up of a collage of significant moments in Christopher’s life. How, as an actor, do you navigate the frequent scene changes and jumps in narrative?
As with Christopher, everything in his life is a routine or ritual, so this play must be for me. Once I’ve dived into the world, there’s no turning back, and the rhythm of the play begins to flow naturally. This play is nothing but an onslaught of extraordinary circumstances that get thrown at Christopher, and both he as a person and myself as an actor sometimes have to scale a wide range of emotions in a matter of seconds. I just have to surrender to that, but keep myself at a good enough distance so that I don’t damage my own emotional well-being in the process.
What is your favorite moment or scene in the play? Why is it your favorite?
It’s honestly a very under-appreciated moment in the play, but I love the part toward the end when Christopher asks Siobhan if he can come live with her. She says no and asks him if he understands the value of maintaining their relationship at a purely academic level, and not a maternal one. To which he responds, “I don’t know.”
I love this moment because it’s one of the few questions in this play that Christopher doesn’t have an answer for because he’s so genuinely confused. He endows Siobhan with such importance that she’s almost more of a mother to him than his own mother. It becomes a really solid commentary on how paramount trust is in an autistic person’s life.
Why do you think that people are so drawn to this play/story?
I think my Director, Richard Hopkins, said it best: it’s the hero’s journey we’re all familiar with. But this is an unconventional story with an unconventional hero, which is why we’re so intrigued by the premise. So we watch and we listen. And then with all the tech elements that serve to physicalize his internal life, Christopher basically grabs onto the audience by the lapels and doesn’t let go until the confetti falls at the end.
Why should people come and see Curious Incident?
I think people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and minds will find much of themselves in Christopher. Parents and educators, students and professionals, the ambitious, the honest, the passionate, the underdogs, the underrepresented…everyone. When we watch Christopher succeed, we watch a part of ourselves succeed. And the audience will revel in that, especially the more neuro-divergent audiences who have lived their whole lives being told they can’t do much at all. Audiences need and crave a story where they can watch a character be 100% honest about who they are and what they feel, and see it get them absolutely everywhere. And thanks to Mark Haddon (who wrote the original novel) and Simon Stephens (who adapted the novel into a play), that story is well within reach.