Back in the theater at last, Sanders relishes neurodivergent teen role in Curious Incident

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND CENTER STAGE - In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at Portland Center Stage, the chorus acts out many of the emotions the autistic hero is feeling, including on the amazing train journey sequence.

Actor Jamie Sanders plays, Christopher the teen at the heart of the stage play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This adaptation is based on the 2003 mystery novel of the same name by British writer Mark Haddon. The chief drama is a boy, Christopher, having to face his anxiety and make a trip to London to save the day. (Christopher is neurodivergent, which has been attributed as autism even though it's never specifically named in the book or script.)

It's a play for general anxiety sufferers everywhere.

Sanders played the role when he worked with now Portland Center Stage Artistic Director Marissa Wolf at Kansas City Repertory Theatre in 2018. He then played the role in Portland, and now is back, full of post-pandemic thespian energy, just dying to get out of the house. Sanders himself has Tourettes Syndrome and runs an amusing and insightful YouTube channel on the subject. He has said being neurodivergent has made him appreciate stillness, because he doesn't experience stillness very often, and that on stage he can feel good, instead of anxious or ashamed, when the audience is all eyes on him.

Portland Tribune: How was the challenge of showing what Christopher is feeling inside when he's not that verbal?

Jamie Sanders: I think that Christopher has a really incredible, vibrant, inner life that is dictated by the text and the times that he's not speaking. He still is, in a way speaking through Siobhan, who is his teacher, who is narrating from the book that he has written. So, I do get some real nice monologues where I'm given the freedom to really explore these moments and these beats as Christopher. But even then, sometimes I get just stand next to (others) as they say my characters words, and I get to just kind of act to them. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's sad, but they are an extension of my character. Even though I am centered in this play, and especially with the way that Marissa Wolf is interpreting it, Christopher's voice is being amplified by his community and by people around him for taking the time to listen and understand.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND CENTER STAGE - Jamie Sanders (red hoodie) as Christopher, the autistic teen who tries to overcome his anxiety and save the day in the stage play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

PT: How's it been working with Marissa again?

JS: She called me up and said hey, you want to come right back? We had staged the entire show again and then COVID unfortunately happened, and we ended our process. Now two years later, we get to bring it back a third time. She takes me seriously and I take her seriously. I think her need to tell stories of young people and make young people feel seen is beautiful and powerful.

PT: What she is she like as a director?

JS: I know there are directors out there who think it's in their best interest to micromanage the performances of their actors, but Marissa will very much meet you halfway. She casts actors who have their own distinct voices, because that's what she wants. And so, if the distinct voice wiggles a little bit differently than the way she was expecting, she's always ready to meet that and try to incorporate it. And if it doesn't work, she'll tell you as well.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND CENTER STAGE - In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at Portland Center Stage, the chorus acts out many of the emotions the autistic hero is feeling.

PT: Did the novel inform your work on the play?

JS: I read the original novel when it came out, growing up, and then I read the novel again before doing it in Kansas City. This Christopher is different than the one in the novel because it is a play, and my job, to bring myself to this. If I keep reading the novel over and over again, I'm going to be very pulled towards that there's more material, and there's more of Christopher's inner life. But I would rather go with what is being given to me explicitly in the play, because that is what the that is the text I'm working with.

PT: What other roles do you enjoy?

JS: I've always been drawn towards outsider characters. I would love to play Cyrano de Bergerac. I played Taliban. I played Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. And during the pandemic I played a whole bunch of fops from Restoration comedies. Sir Fopling Flutter (in George Etherege's The Man of Mode, 1676) is the obvious one. And Foigard in The Beaux Stratagem (1707) by George Farquar. Foigard is actually Irish, but he pretends to be French and a priest. I spent the whole pandemic doing these shows back-to-back. This was over Zoom, it was a thing with Sweet Tea Shakespeare out of North Carolina. I have the names of about 20 different Restoration plays just floating around in my head. And I all I know is that I played fops in all of them.

PT: In these Zoom plays was there any opportunity for physical comedy? Or was it just the face on the screen?

JS: There were a couple of fight scenes actually, we choreographed fight scenes. I got slapped around a bit. People would slap up the camera and then my hand would come up from off screen and smack me in the face. We would time it, so it really felt like somebody was reaching out through the screen and smacking me. I also got to work with Gingold Group and did Misalliance by George Bernard Shaw.

PT: Just doing Zoom for what 18 months, did you learn anything valuable?

JS: Absolutely, I think I learned a lot. It has made me extra appreciative of how nice it is to be in the room with actors and being able to feel and hear the people just moving around you. These two years of basically doing non-stop text work has been really good for me as an actor. And I didn't realize until I was back in the room that I feel more confident in myself as a performer.

PT: Was this actual paid work? Did you have to have a day job?

JS: Oh, no, this was this was not paid work. This was this was out of love of acting

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND CENTER STAGE - Actor Jamie Sanders is back as Christopher, the autistic teen at the heart of the stage play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

PT: What did you do for money?

JS: I had a benefactor kept me afloat. I was a benefactor of the Sanders fund, the family Sanders. My parents are both successful actors who have been working constantly throughout the pandemic. And they have absolutely supported me when I'm doing art.

PT: Did you live with them?

JS: No, I am living with my girlfriend on the Upper West Side (of Manhattan). And she's at Saturday Night Live now, on the art team. I'm very proud of her. If (the sketch is) in a bagel shop, my girlfriend Emily is the person who goes out and buys 400 bagels that day and drives them back to the set.

PT: Any juicy roles that you'd like one day?

JS: Hands down Cyrano de Bergerac (1897, by Edmond Rostand), number one, number one, by far. I saw James McAvoy's Cyrano de Bergerac at the National Theatre, and it is arguably the single greatest piece of theatre that I have seen in recent memory. And I've seen a lot of great theater. But James McAvoy is incredible, and I'd love to be in that version.


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

November 27 – December 24, 2021

Wednesdays–Sundays at 7:30 p.m.

Matinees Saturdays & Sundays at 2 p.m._Select Thursdays at 2 p.m.

sensory-friendly performance on December 21

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