Donovan Durfee of La Grande, left, plays the hyper-talkative Donkey in the musical comedy "Shrek." (Trish Yerges photo)
The Elgin Opera House may seem the most unlikely stage for someone who has challenges with social interaction, but that’s precisely where two “Shrek” actors with Asperger’s syndrome feel they fit in.
Asperger’s syndrome (AS) is a neurological disorder on the milder end of the autism spectrum. An estimated one in 500 people have some form of AS, and four times as many men are diagnosed as women, according to the Asperger’s Association of New England.
Asperger’s is clinically diagnosed, based on behavioral studies and the observations of family and friends. The exact cause is unknown, but it is believed to be a genetic disorder without any known cure.
Named for Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, who in 1944 studied children who lacked nonverbal skills, the disorder was finally conceptualized as a syndrome in 1981. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, however, that it became a standardized diagnosis. Despite this, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between High Functioning Autism (HFA) and AS because they share some core traits.
According to the book “Asperger’s syndrome” (2006) by McPartland and Klin, the disorder is “characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development.”
Donovan Durfee, 19, of La Grande was diagnosed with Asperger’s five years ago when he was an eighth-grade student. He is musically talented and displays an above-average memory, high intellect and fluid verbal skills. Those are his gifts amidst the subtle symptoms of AS.
“I’ve known I’ve been different for a long time,” Durfee said. “There are those who are average, and then there’s me. I have a very good memory. I can memorize movie scripts after just a few times watching. I can always tell when someone doesn’t quote the lines correctly.”
Durfee’s skills make him specially suited to his theatrical character, Donkey, one of four lead characters in “Shrek” at the Elgin Opera House this month. Donkey is a non-stop-talking creature who has a multitude of scripted lines—not a problem for Durfee.
He admits in nothing but a factual way, “Acting is fun, and I’m really good at it. It helps me get in touch with others socially. With Asperger’s I struggle with being organized, but here everything is organized and scripted for me.”
Durfee also struggles to regulate his emotions, he said. He becomes anxious if his environment lacks sufficient structure and predictability. “I don’t like uncertainty,” he said. “I just like to know how it’s going to get done.”
The theater is one environment where he feels that kind of security and where he excels and fits in. “I see the theater as my career,” Durfee said. “There’s nothing better I’d like to do.”
Fellow actor William Wehrli, 24, also has Asperger’s. However, in combination with his quiet, logical personality, his case of AS differs from that of Durfee’s. While Wehrli shares some of the same traits with Durfee, including above-average intelligence, gifted memory recall and artistic talents, Wehrli is very pragmatic and serious — not much of a talker.
Inside Wehrli, though, is this secret fountain of imagination and a desire to act and even be a playwright someday. So in 2012 he joined the Elgin Opera House where he was cast as a high school jock in “Grease” and a guard in “Shrek.” He accepted the challenge of playing both characters. His question was, will my theater family accept me?
“People think that an autistic person can’t get along with others or achieve like this,” he said. “In high school, I was judged and bullied because I was so shy and insecure then. I didn’t want to be judged here, and I wasn’t.”
Like many Asperger’s adolescents, Wehrli made a slow and progressive transition from a shy high school student with a monotone voice to an adult trying to discover his stage voice, this time with pitch, pace and power.
“The theater is a great place for learning that,” he said. “It seemed awkward at first until I put it out there. At the same time, I also had to pick up on others’ tone of voice. I wasn’t good at non-verbal communication.”
This is a common trait among those with Asperger’s syndrome.
“The rules of everyday conversation that come intuitively to most people have to be actively learned by individuals with AS,” states the Asperger’s Association of New England.
Wehrli’s mind accepts all things Spock-like: things practical, sensible and logical — even the imaginary. And just like Spock, Wehrli had to learn why and how to embrace the emotional aspects of social interaction.
“I used to hate comedy,” he said, “but now I realize that people actually like it. They don’t always like serious things, so I refined myself in order to interact with people.”
He knows that Asperger’s is not just about developmental delays, but it’s also about gifts. He’s aware of his cognitive gifts, but when he was 19 he learned one other important fact about social interaction.
“I learned that people don’t want to know how smart you are,” he said. “They just want your friendship.”
For more information about Asperger’s syndrome, visit www.aane.org and read through the FAQs or attend one of the “Shrek” productions this month and celebrate the artistic and social achievements of Durfee and Wehrli.