La Jolla Playhouse’s world premiere dance-theater piece ‘Is It Thursday Yet’ explores life on the spectrum
The La Jolla Playhouse premiere of “Is It Thursday Yet?” is intended to be an illuminating work of self-discovery.
It’s also a pay-it-forward piece.
The evening-length solo dance production, co-created and directed by the Tony Award-winning choreographer, tells the true story of Jenn Freeman, a 36-year-old New York-based dance artist who received a diagnosis of autism three years ago.
For more than a decade, Freeman has worked as Tayeh’s choreographic associate in numerous productions, including works by American Ballet Theatre and The Martha Graham Dance Company and performances by Florence + The Machine.
Freeman also teaches and creates choreographic works for dance organizations.
But her future was forever changed after she watched comedian Amy Schumer’s Netflix special “Growing,” and learned that Schumer’s husband, chef and award-winning author Chris Fischer, is on the autism spectrum.
“His story has been a huge, transformative gift and that’s what started me on the process of getting a diagnosis,” Freeman said.
“So many signs were there when I was little, but they were missed by my school, and my parents didn’t have the education to know. That’s why I have this deep desire to share my story. Someone else was brave enough to share their truth.”
Freeman plans to share her own truth in two ways. First comes this month’s theatrical production of “Is It Thursday Yet?” at La Jolla Playhouse. Then, next year, a film documentary about her post-diagnosis journey will be released. The movie is being produced by Schumer and Fischer and is directed by Alexander Hammer.
“Is It Thursday Yet?” opens July 11 at the Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum. It exemplifies the ways an autism diagnosis altered Freeman’s understanding of herself and others through a blend of live music by composer/vocalist Holland Andrews, narration, video and Freeman’s dynamic and fierce dancing.
“My psychologist and diagnostician agreed to let me record my sessions with her,” Freeman said.
“She is the narrator of the piece in a beautiful way. We also have this incredible archive of home video footage that my dad recorded in a documentary style. He would stay in moments a little longer than most people would. So, you can see the traits you hear my psychologist describing.”
Before being diagnosed, Freeman described work life as a constant cycle of “going hard and deep” into dance projects. Throughout much of Freeman’s dance training years, movement was a coping mechanism, a form of self-expression that felt good — so good that the anticipation before Thursday’s dance lesson was almost overwhelming. She would ask her mother repeatedly: “Is it Thursday yet?”
“I have that one-track mind that people stereotype about autistic people,” Freeman said.
“I’m keeping a meter on that a little more by allowing myself to say, ‘I’m tired.’ It sounds so simple — to stop when my brain is overloaded. But I wasn’t aware that I needed it before. I just endured.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in 36 children in the United States is on the autism spectrum, a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition that can cause a constellation of symptoms known to vary in type and intensity.
It can be completely debilitating or, in the case of those who are high functioning, there might be challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors or having an intense interest in specific topics, such as numbers, details or facts.
The earlier an autism spectrum diagnosis is confirmed, the better chance there is of getting support.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children receive autism screenings before the age of 2, and people with autism who are not diagnosed until adulthood often struggle with life and relationships.
“It’s important to me that this piece is my story, not a comment on autism generally,” Freeman clarified. “I’m just trying to share the most truthful version of this story. It’s important for Sonya and me that ‘Is It Thursday Yet?’ is rooted in truth.”
One of the positive aspects of Freeman’s diagnosis is that the shame she internalized has dissipated.
“It’s been healing for me to go through this process of sharing,” she said.
“I always had this feeling that there were two versions of me. There is a more reserved version my close family and my partner knows. And there is this version I have to turn on to exist. I always had shame about not being able to be my true self all the time. Now, I understand there is masking and all the things you have to do to feel safe in the world and make your way.”
Tayeh — who has earned numerous accolades for choreographing theater pieces like Broadway’s “Moulin Rouge!” musical, commercial and concert productions — took on an important, supportive role in the creation of “Is It Thursday Yet?”
She first met Freeman during a dance class she was teaching and was struck by Freeman’s dynamic and precise movement.
In directing and choreographing works, Tayeh likened her process to drawing a map, with “different paths and turns that are narrow and straight.”
“I love making art, and being asked to direct this piece is a huge honor,” Tayeh said.
“As Jenn described her ideas, I thought of this work as a beautiful, whimsical theatrical analysis. When Jenn said she felt an expansion, that was important to me. The world opened and gave her a platform to be a part of it.”
Tayeh emphasized that acknowledging human differences can enrich life and contribute to learning and achieving.
“Everyone learns differently,” Tayeh said.
“As a director and choreographer, the main thing is to honor the range of humanity. I want everyone to feel confident enough to bring all parts of themselves to the room. I hope people who are watching “Is It Thursday Yet?” can ask more questions — about themselves and about how they respond to others. We are evolved and different creatures, and that’s OK.”
‘Is It Thursday Yet?’
When: Opens July 11 and runs through Aug. 6. Showtimes, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Where: La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD, La Jolla
Phone: (858) 550-1010
Luttrell is a freelance writer.
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