Not everyone gets a moment in Hollywood’s spotlight. It helps if you’re thin. And good looking. And young.
Add the society’s neurodiverse (ND), including those with autism, to the list of people left behind by most Hollywood casting directors.
As it turns out, not everyone is ignoring them. One casting company based in Atlantic County has been working to change all that since 2014.
Weist-Barron-Ryan (WBR), located in Galloway Township and at a satellite location in Cumberland County, operates specialized acting workshops through its WBR Rising Star acting program, which is designed with a special group of people in mind.
The neuro universe includes those on the autism spectrum, but also those with behavior disorders, brain injuries, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and many others. The workshop also helps those with intellectual challenges. Largely, however, it is autistic adults who find their way to WBR workshops, operated by a third-generation, family-owned entertainment agency with deep roots in casting, which date back to the 1950s and 1960s in Hollywood and New York.
According to Quinn Showell, vice president of WBR, the agency has 20 to 25 students who are autistic and benefit from the workshops. Each neurodiverse workshop is limited to 12 students aged 21 or older.
He said the workshops are free to the students and funded through the state Department of the Developmentally Disabled. The agency is also licensed for funding through family services. The agency hopes to do even more through family services in the future, Showell said.
Stefanie Ryan, president of Weist-Barron-Ryan, has operated the school for on-camera acting in New Jersey since 1980.
Ryan, who is Showell’s mother, welcomes all potential clients at their workshops, but they are especially proud of the Rising Star program and the results they produce with the neurodiverse.
“They have superpowers,” said Ryan. “Not all come for acting. They just need to be able to speak up, to have a voice, to be able to communicate.”
The casting agency struck gold recently when about 30 of their students were cast in an upcoming movie titled Ezra, which features movie legends Robert DeNiro and Whoopi Goldberg, as well as Bobby Cannavale of Third Watch and the movies Ant-Man, I, Tonya and The Irishman.
Ezra was recently selected to premiere at the famed Toronto International Film Festival. Filmed in the Montclair area of New Jersey, it features four Cumberland County residents among the on-camera talent—23-year-old Rosa Davila of Vineland, as well as adopted family members Jyllian Engelhardt and her brothers Jordan and Joseph, from Pittsgrove.
Directed by actor/producer Tony Goldwyn, the comedy-drama is a coming-of-age story about a child with autism who travels across the country with his father (Cannavale), who learns more about autism in the process. DeNiro plays Cannavale’s gifted but eccentric father.
Written by Tony Spiridakis, the story is a heartwarming tale inspired by Spiridatkis’ own son, who is neurodiverse, according to variety.com. In fact, Ryan said a member of DeNiro’s own family has autism, too.
Ryan, who has overcome her own challenges as a head trauma survivor, takes pride in the agency’s focus on the neurodiverse, as well as disabled people and veterans.
“We live it and breathe it,” she said. “The neurodiverse people want to do well and be heard.”
Ryan noted that some students don’t participate for the acting lessons. Exposure to an acting workshop can often translate to improved social skills and less anxiety in public situations. She takes pride in helping these adults find their voice, even if some may not appear on-screen.
Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes—through acting—enables neurodiverse people to see life from someone else’s perspective, Ryan said.
“Everybody has a gift,” she said. “If you can’t vocalize that, you are not sharing your gift with the world. But not everyone wants to be on the stage.”
Showell also teaches acting classes. Each class has two instructors, and all staff members are trained in CPR. Parents are welcome to sit in on the class.
Ultimately, Ryan and Showell hope to get the students to the point where they don’t need their parents there. The agency will do a Zoom audition if the student is not in the Cumberland County or Galloway area. WBR holds a weekly class at 5 to 7:30 p.m. Thursdays at a location in Vineland (see box on opposite page).
Showell said they gauge whether the student can speak, read or take direction and how they process information. “But we want to make sure it is a good fit, not just for us, but for the individual,” he said.
Davila, one of four Cumberland County neurodiverse adults who took part in filming, is ready for her close-up for future movies and greatly enjoys the workshops.
“I love it,” said Davila, speaking of her experience on the set of Ezra. “It was awesome!”
Her mom, Rosa Sepulveda of Vineland, said her daughter has been enrolled in the special acting workshops for about a year. Fortunately, the agency was able to conduct the classes in Vineland.
“That’s why I was so happy about it,” she said, adding that traveling so often to Galloway would be difficult. “When they told me about the acting classes, I was very happy for her because she loves her class.”
Ryan has plenty of stories from the years of helping neurodiverse acting students. One student, Dylan, had both a speech impediment and was autistic.
“His parents signed him up to get him out of his shell,” she said.
He would barely look up from the floor or speak a word. It went that way for a month or two. “It was even hard to get three words out of him, let alone get him up to perform in front of people.”
Showell worked with him one-on-one. When he did speak, Dylan told Showell he does not talk because he doesn’t want to be judged.
Five years later, things have changed.
“Now, he’s literally getting up in front of the class, performing monologues,” Showell said.
“Those are the amazing moments, to be able to lend someone a hand to have a voice, to be included and not feel like a fish out of water,” Ryan said. “The neurodiverse is the most segregated society.”
Parents want to know their children will someday be able to navigate their way through a non-neurodiverse world. Giving them a voice is a step in that direction.
“It’s so important to give these people the confidence to use their voice,” Ryan said.
Another student, Hannah, would speak only to family.
“When parents get older, as everyone does, [many of] these individuals are never going to be able to live on their own,” Ryan said. “Their concern is they want their children to be able to stand up for themselves and speak up for their needs.”
After being in the workshop for eight months, Ryan got a call from Hannah’s mom. They’d had a death in the family, and Hannah got up and spoke in front of 100 people.
“I can’t believe this is my daughter,” she told Ryan.
Ryan said she doesn’t believe any other casting agency is coaching ND people. But that might be starting to change.
“The industry is opening up to inclusion in all aspects—race, religion and now the neurodivergence. When the industry was opening to inclusion, [ND] was on the back burner. Now we are seeing films written for neurodivergent people.”
“We really do pride ourselves in handling every person individually,” Showell said. The goal is to get comfortable in a group and to get up in front of multiple people and perform. When all else seems to fail, then we go to the one-on-one [sessions] in hopes that we can get them back into the group.”
Weekly Class in Vineland
Neurodiverse adults who would like to sign up for WBR Rising Star acting classes may call 609-677-0075. The agency holds a weekly class at 5 to 7:30 p.m. Thursdays at a location in Vineland. There is no financial obligation since the workshops, open to those age 21 or older, are funded through the state Department of the Developmentally Disabled.