A crocheted dog is pinned to a wall by a large pitchfork. CSUN freshman Iain Kohn walks on stage and extracts the pitchfork from its target. The dog falls from the wall into a pile of yarn at Kohn’s feet.
Three nights a week, Kohn plays Christopher Boone, a teen mathematician on the autism spectrum, as he attempts to solve the dog’s murder, in Greenway Arts Alliance’s production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” The death of the dog sets off a series of events that disrupts Christopher’s world, and he does some detective work to restore the order he needs.
A Tony Award-winning play based on the prize-winning 2003 mystery novel of the same name by Mark Haddon, “The Curious Incident” is performed at the Greenway Court Theatre in Los Angeles with minimal props but with an ingenious stage design that uses lights to create a grid — representing how Christopher sees the world.
“We’ve worked day and night during a very short rehearsal period to make this play work,” Kohn said. “By supporting this play, you are supporting the combined efforts of an incredible group of directors and actors who love this play like it’s their child. I am beyond honored to have worked with them on this project.”
The well-done story of a teenager with autism had special meaning for this young actor. Like his character, Kohn is on the autism spectrum, and he was surprised by how well the play and the book portrayed a character with autism, he said. Kohn, who intends to double major in creative writing and film production at CSUN, first experienced Christopher’s story in 2016, when he saw the play on Broadway during a trip to New York. Characters with autism are not always handled well — or authentically, he said.
“My mother thought I could portray Christopher better than other actors, on account of me being autistic and because of my prior skills in performing arts. She thought I was the perfect actor for the role,” Kohn said.
He has made himself a home on stage since 2014, writing and reciting poetry, beginning in eighth grade. In 2013 Kohn, who had difficulty keeping friends, began attending UCLA’s Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS), a program where people on the autism spectrum can attend workshops to build social skills. There, he became friends with a peer who shared his passion for writing. His friend introduced him to Get Lit, an organization that encourages adolescents to choose a poem or poet with whom they personally connect — or a poem that even angers them — and write and perform a response.
He quickly came to love it. “I didn’t know what my passion was until I realized I had a knack for the spoken word,” Kohn said.
Kohn was initially reluctant to audition for the role of Christopher. While he admired Christopher’s characterization and was even grateful to Haddon for his rich and nuanced portrayal of autism in the book, Kohn was uncomfortable with the thought of being associated with a character who could be seen as “a poster child” for people with autism in media, he said.
It was Diane Luby Lane, the founder of Get Lit, who encouraged Kohn to give Christopher a chance. Lane also introduced Kohn to the casting director for the upcoming film adaptation. With Lane’s and his mother’s support, Kohn auditioned, and although he didn’t get that role, the casting director didn’t forget him. Soon, the casting director recommended Kohn try out for Greenway’s stage adaptation.
“He is one of the most talented young performers I’ve ever met,” Lane said. “He absolutely shines in this role — the first of many, many more.”
Kohn portrays Christopher in Greenway’s Friday, Saturday and Sunday shows. (His understudy handles the other shows.) He says that acting is extremely different from performing poetry, but both are equally rewarding in their own ways.
“Every poem you write is a projection of your own identity, but it’s easy to grow out of performing certain poems you’ve already performed repeatedly because of how they become outdated reflections of yourself,” he said. He describes it as both exhausting and fulfilling.
According to Kohn, acting mainly boils down to performing lines under the direction of another person who already has a clear vision of how a character should manifest on the stage or screen — yet there’s also plenty of room for an actor to personalize a character. “You were cast to play your character because of how you first decided to play them in your audition. Yet, it also involves buying into a pre-ordained direction of performing that may go against your own interpretation of your role,” he said.
“Christopher is a lot like me, or at least a lot like me when I was younger,” Kohn continued. He draws a lot of inspiration from his memories of what he was like as a child. “Many of his idiosyncrasies and difficulties are ones I grew out of before I was 15, which is Christopher’s age in the play. I may have been socially maladapted throughout all of my teenage years, but I gradually grew out of having temper tantrums, early on in high school. I was never enrolled in special education, unlike Christopher, but I did have a one-on-one aide who accompanied me throughout each day, until my second semester of 10th grade.”
Kohn admits he’s not great at math or science like Christopher, but he says they share a stubbornness and enthusiasm for what they love.
“The fact that we both exert unbridled passion for what interests us most is what inextricably ties me to this role,” Kohn said. “It does not matter how different those interests of ours are. I will always see myself in Christopher.”
Kohn has this advice for future actors who will take on this role:
“When portraying Christopher, don’t be afraid to overact or underact,” he said, due to the fact that people on the autism spectrum will sometimes have delayed or very strong reactions to events, compared to those who are considered neurotypical — someone who is not on the autism spectrum or does not display any characteristics or thought patterns that could be considered atypical.
Kohn said he doesn’t struggle much with balancing school and stage life. Between his stage poetry, his role as Christopher and his studies in film, Kohn said, “I now consider myself on the path toward a career in the visual arts.”
The Greenway Arts Alliance production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” has been extended to run through Dec. 29. For more information, visit the Greenway Court Theatre website or contact firstname.lastname@example.org