Psychologist Dr. Emilio Amigo didn’t know what to expect when filmmaker Alexandra Shiva came to him with the idea of creating a documentary about the work he does with autistic and neurodivergent people at his office in Ohio. He really didn’t know what to expect years later when Shiva, writers Jacob Yandura and Rebekah Greer Melocik, and director Harold Prince came to him with the idea of turning that film, How to Dance in Ohio, into a Broadway musical. All he knew was that, in both instances, it had to be safe: safe for him, certainly, but primarily for his clients and their families, of whom he is fiercely protective.
The film is inspiring, and the musical at the Belasco Theatre — which is based on the initial concept more instead of being a scene-for-scene remake with songs — is perhaps even more. Centering seven autistic young actors, the production, now helmed by Sammi Cannold following Prince’s death several years ago, is notable for its accessibility and inclusivity, which excites both the real doctor and his on stage counterpart, Caesar Samayoa. During a recent conversation after opening night, the pair met up over Zoom to discuss the creation process, and how there’s no turning back from here.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Dr. Amigo, take me through your thought process when you hear that a) someone wants to make a documentary about the work you and your clients do, and then b) others want to turn that documentary into a piece of musical theater.
Dr. Emilio Amigo: The documentary came as a shock. When Alexandra Shiva contacted me, I thought she maybe knew that I did some work with the autistic population and could give her some insight. It wasn’t until a couple of months later that she said she’s love for us to be the subject of a documentary. I was speechless. I didn’t quite know what to think. Then, it became a real process with our clientele and their families to talk about the pros and cons.
The overriding energy was about two things. One was, if we believe that this could help every individual in my practice grow as a person and be more aware that people observe and listen to them. The second thing was, we’re a group of people who don’t often, at least in their minds, make a impact on the world. The world sometimes ignores us or doesn’t give us the respect needed. This was a platform to not only be recognized and seen, but may represent hundreds or thousands of other autistic adults. That turned the table, and it became our new normal.
The musical I absolutely never saw happening. I always thought that a goofy psychologist with wildly creative and hilarious clients could make a great sitcom, but a musical? Not at all. Alexandra broke the news, and then she and Jacob and Rebekah came to our office and we had a big meeting. They won us over because they were respectful. They wanted to tell an honest, true, genuine story. They cared about us. And, I mean, Hal Prince was involved. Who’s gonna say no to Hal Prince? So, we are very honored and we’ve been following it closely ever since. It’s like our extended family.
What is it like to watch Caesar play you?
Dr. Amigo: He makes me laugh, he makes me cry, he makes me proud. He’s doing his actor business to reflect “Dr. Amigo” as he interprets me, and I’m very comfortable with it because he’s caring, loving, and passionate. I particularly love the scenes where he’s attending to clients, doing one-on-ones with each of them. When you’re doing group therapy, it’s like herding cats sometimes. I’m often scrambling to do the best that I can for my clients. Caesar has that flexibility, but he also has that charm. He’s funny. I like to use humor in my work, but I’m not necessarily a funny person, even though my clients think I’m hilarious. I use humor to communicate, so I love those scenes where Caesar is being kind of corny. I might have been an actor if my dad thought it was appropriate for an Amigo to do so, but I had to become a doctor of some sort. So I definitely connect with Caesar and he resonates with my spirit, for sure.
Caesar Samayoa: What burst the role open for me was our Zoom talk, Dr. Amigo, because it was the first time we’d actually spoken. You said that you use laughter in your practice to calm the anxiety down, and that really resonated with me. I started infusing the story and character with as much laughter as possible, which I love. It makes the scenes with the actors who play our clients so incredibly joyous and personal. There is real anxiety happening on that stage and all of a sudden, we get to take it all away through laughter, and I got that specifically from you.
Dr. Amigo: Thanks for sharing that. As you’re speaking, I have words that came to mind. One was safe: Clients have to feel safe and it has to be a safe environment, and there are times when we’re silly, because you’re right, Caesar. You can’t laugh and be anxious at the same time. I mean, neurologically, you can’t. Laughter trumps being sad or anxious. Another word is serious: I can be serious, or I can be silly, but it’s always safe. That’s the magic of Amigo Family Counseling. Our program is always safe. We can work on anything we need to work on. They’re accepted, they’re loved, we can laugh together, we can journey together, and we have each other’s back.
Caesar, how is this process similar or different to your experience playing a “real” person in Come From Away?
Caesar: I would say it’s very different. The only similarity is that we have real-life counterparts to it. But our first day of rehearsal started and the first question was “What are your accessibility needs?” That has been the theme for this production from day one. I have never been asked that at a first day of rehearsal, with every single producer, every single actor, every single team member in the room. There was this theme of inclusion, of raising people up who are not normally raised up, and also about accessibility. It has been a vastly different experience. I am learning every day about a community that I did not know about, and I’m also thinking, “How could we not go forward like this permanently?” How am I ever going to go back into a rehearsal room that does not ask the individual what their accessibility needs may be?
I was going to say, the whole experience just felt so accessible, from the minute I got to the Belasco. I find going to the theater to be stressful now, with the metal detectors, and the lines, and there’s always a lot of sensory overload before the show starts. Everything at the Belasco felt calm, and I even found myself enjoying the cool-down area in the basement. I don’t identify as neurodivergent, but I just appreciated it.
Dr. Amigo: Are you familiar with the curb effect?
Dr. Amigo: The whole idea…We have ramps and those were, primarily, originally, for people in wheelchairs to get from sidewalk to street level. But everybody benefits from it. A sensory room like the one at the Belasco can benefit and potentially help anybody who just happens to have a moment of anxiety and they need to take a break. They just had an argument with their spouse, their kids are driving them crazy, for whatever reason, whether they’re autistic or have sensory issues or not. That’s the secret: We all could benefit. We should be able to share, like Caesar said, what our accessibility needs are, and when we’re vulnerable, and what support we can ask for and receive to perform at our best level. That’s what we all want to do for each other.
What was opening night like for you and your clients?
Dr. Amigo: It was hard and joyous at the same time, because more than half of them are still under my clinical care. I was hoping they wouldn’t get overwhelmed and run away and not come back. But I was beaming with pride at the joy they had. It was the night of their life. Trust me, the night of their life.
Caesar: It was this unbelievable moment during curtain call. I was able to stand next to you and I saw you viscerally changed when your clients came out on stage. Not only was there an immense sense of pride for every client, or former client, but I heard you saying how beautiful it was for them. You have such care and such individual attention for every client.
Dr. Amigo: I think it was the greatest curtain call in Broadway history. It brought tears to my eyes and I’m so happy for them. That’s the fuel for them. It’s not just a moment that they’re gonna put on their resume and move on. This is fuel for the rest of their life. I’m not a big video gamer, but my clients are, and it’s like we got to a level and you can’t go back. You don’t have to start over again. You can only go forward now. This is a new level for every one of them and their families and their parents and me. It’s powerful.