The lights of Broadway are shining bright on two Geneseo graduates. Stage manager Kate Wallace '06 and actor Ashley Wool '09 are both involved with the new musical How to Dance in Ohio, which debuted at the Belasco Theatre in early December.
How to Dance in Ohio, based on the Peabody Award-winning documentary by Alexandra Shiva, explores the experiences of seven autistic young adults at a counseling center in Columbus, Ohio, as they prepare for a spring formal dance. The seven characters are all played by autistic actors, including Wool, who stars as Jessica.
At Geneseo, Wool found the space to explore and integrate her unique artistic voice, an opportunity she attributes to the guidance she received from supportive professors such as former vocal coach Alan Case, who encouraged students to venture outside their comfort zone.
"He told me, 'You need to trust yourself more; you need to stop relying on all of us to tell you what to do all the time,'” Wool says. “That blew my mind because it's not typically what an actor hears."
This advice, diverging from the traditional actor's culture of strict adherence to direction, marked the beginning of a new phase where she felt empowered to blend her talents as a singer-songwriter with her work in musical theater, a combination she had not previously considered.
Wallace also has fond recollections of her time at Geneseo. Unlike larger schools where competition for specific roles could be fierce, Geneseo provided Wallace the opportunity to dive into stage managing and other aspects of theater production, such as lighting design and sound work, right from the start.
Much of Wallace's involvement was guided by Johnnie Ferrell, the theatre department's technical director and lighting and sound designer.
"Johnnie was great at knowing our strengths and weaknesses and when we were ready for the next step," says Wallace. "He was the most patient and kind person you'll ever meet and was a support system for us. For a college student, that feeling of support is the most important thing in the world."
Following college, Wallace leveraged internships and connections from Geneseo to make inroads in the professional theatre scene, landing at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut, and then The Public Theater. There, she connected with Scott Rowen, who became the production stage manager of How to Dance in Ohio.
"I totally fell in love with the production," says Wallace. "One of the exciting things about the show is there are a ton of Broadway debuts, and to see the joy of a brand-new experience—especially with a group where many of them perhaps didn't grow up seeing representations of themselves on stage—is really special."
After Geneseo, Wool found her footing in community and regional theater, providing valuable experiences and connections. But ten years into her professional journey, the performing arts went dark when the pandemic hit, and Wool began contemplating her future on stage.
"I just wasn't sure what my future was going to be if I was ever going to get back into this industry," she recalls, reflecting on the tumultuous period. "During the same time, I started to become more vocal about my autism diagnosis and wrote an op-ed about autistic representation in the media after this controversial movie came out." The piece received wide notice, and Wool was interviewed by the New York Times.
Shortly following the op-ed, Wool noticed a social media casting call for "How to Dance in Ohio," seeking authentically autistic actors. Motivated by the inclusive casting approach, she submitted for the role of Jessica.
"Everyone in the room knew who I was because of the op-ed I had written," says Wool. "They were honored that I had come out to audition, and after the final callback, I just felt this gigantic cosmic energy shift. After the first rehearsal, I called my mom and said, 'This show is going to Broadway.’"
On working with a fellow Geneseo graduate on Broadway, "It's awesome," Wallace expresses, highlighting daily interactions backstage with Wool. "It's so fun to work with Ashley daily and to see the success and reach of a small theater school."
Reflecting on her journey to Broadway, Wool sees a sense of destiny in her role. "It felt like this was the plan...this is where I was supposed to go," she muses, finding affirmation and acceptance in the audience's and industry's reactions.
Wool takes pride in the show's inclusive environment, where open communication and understanding of each individual's needs have created what many consider one of Broadway's best workplaces.
"We've created an environment where everybody on the team—autistic or not—can openly talk about what they need, without fear of being judged,” she says. “It’s what Alan Case was trying to get me to do all those years ago.”
Editor’s note: Since the publication of this story, Wallace has accepted a new position as assistant stage manager on the Broadway show Water for Elephants.
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