He draws on experiences with autism for performances

Anxiety, restlessness, being a superpower and feeling free and unchained are some of the emotions St. Paul actor Michael Wolfe […]

Michael Wolfe standing next to a bus stop with arms wide open.

Anxiety, restlessness, being a superpower and feeling free and unchained are some of the emotions St. Paul actor Michael Wolfe experiences while waiting for a bus. 

Wolfe, who identifies as a Black, queer performer with autism, will share  the feelings he goes through on a daily basis at a performance June 2 at the Parkway Theater, 4814 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis. 

“Thresholds: Art, Science and Neurodiversity” will offer two short films and a live performance featuring Wolfe. Neuroscientist Guadalupe Astorga will talk about her research on the neurodiversity of visual perception. Both Wolfe and Astorga will share insights about their unique processes. The event is being presented by Beth Graczyk Productions (BGP). Graczyk is the director. 

Wolfe said he has wanted to have a career in movies and television since he was a child watching Batman films. “The one starring Michael Keaton, as well as other movies, sparked my interest in acting,” he said. “Every time I watched a movie that I loved, I told myself that  I could do that some day. Unfortunately, I was born on the mental disability spectrum with autism, so all of a sudden I had a problem. How could I get a career in the entertainment industry, when no one wanted to work with someone on the  spectrum? It was kind of a curve ball thrown to me.” 

Wolfe also said that he has been singing his entire life. “When I was a kid I would sing to myself all the time,” he said. “It would often annoy others around me. I was very introverted and kept to myself. But then I joined the choir in high school and began to take singing more seriously. I thought maybe I could have a career in singing, too.” 

After graduation, he joined the Metropolitan Men’s Choir in 2007 and has been singing with the group ever since. 

Michael Wolfe waiting at a bus stop.
Michael Wolfe waited for the bus.

“In 2012, my mom looked up the Interact Center online. It is a professional theater company that employs performing artists who are on the disability spectrum,” Wolfe said. “At first I didn’t want to join, because almost everyone there looked more disabled than I did. But I decided to swallow my pride and try it, and I am very glad that I did.

Interact has become a very important part of my life, and I am happy to have it.” 
It was during a workshop that Graczyk was doing at Interact in 2018 that she met Wolfe. Graczyk is a choreographer, performer and scientist who has created her own production company. She has collaborated on more than 60 productions nationally and internationally. She and Michael started working together. 

“This led us to creating a production called the Hear Them Now project,” Wolfe said. “It explored the members of the disability and LGBT+ community.” Wolfe said Aaron Gabriel, a generative theater artist and theater/dance composer, connected the two again for the Thresholds project. 

“Beth gave me an assignment,” Wolfe said. “She asked me to come up with movements that I do while I am waiting for a bus. She asked me to then exaggerate those movements and make them bigger.” 

“Part of the project is to invite people to share experiences, whether they are on the spectrum or not,” Graczyk said. “It’s the idea of what Michael does on a daily basis and amplify what he is already experiencing. We developed a lot of material in studios and other spaces in Minneapolis. And we took it outside. Where Michael narrates his movements is really special. He describes what he is thinking and feeling.” 

Wolfe said the minimal movements that he makes while waiting for the bus become bigger and bolder and become a kind of dance, and this is shown in one of the short films. ‘Thresholds is supposed to explain to multiple audiences how the autistic brain comprehends and takes in sight, sound, smell and touch as opposed to the non-autistic brain,” he said. 

Wolfe said it is easier for him to communicate his feelings through a performance than through ordinary conversation. “I have a little bit of difficulty expressing my needs to people who can do something about those needs,” he said. 

Graczyk said she has been collaborating on this project since 2020 with Wolfe, Gabriel, Astorga and Hanne Vaughn as video editor. “Hanne was a crucial part of our film making. And Michael grew so much in his ability to express his needs, as well as put in this performance. 

“Communication starts with how we are experiencing the world; we do not give ourselves the time to share (those experiences.) We don’t understand how we perceive things differently or similarly,” Graczyk said. 

Wolfe explained that he sees autism as a gift, although it has hindered him in a lot of ways. “A lot of things people without autism can do, I will never be able to do,” he said. “But at the same time, it has enlightened me. I do plenty of singing in Interact. I would like to record my own album some day and tour all over the world and sing songs from that album. It all comes down to the same thing. There are not a lot of people in the music industry who want to work with somebody who has autism.” 

According to Graczyk, much has been done over the past 20 years regarding the area of autism.  “It’s not so much a lack of awareness,” she said. “There are a whole bunch of people on the spectrum who do not want to be medicalized. It’s similar to being a queer person and finding the world is not accommodating. It’s not being given a chance because of stigma or a sense of difference. The more we can talk about it, the more we can understand rather than putting people in categories. The more dialogue we have, the more we can erode the differences.” 

Wolfe recalled the bullying he faced when he was in elementary school and middle school. “A lot of people in the world tease and taunt and make fun of things just because they don’t understand those things they are making fun of,” he said. “I have a bit of resentment about that.” 

Graczyk said she believes her interests of artistry and science are very similar. She said, “In both, you observe and then develop an experience.” 

Wolfe said he is grateful to be a part of the Threshold project. “This is the very thing we need in order to help audiences understand what having autism is like, and to understand what having a disability is like.” 

Graczyk said she is looking forward to presenting the live performance and films at the Parkway. “We’ve been working on this for two to three years, and it feels like a beginning, an opportunity to grow with the community. Hopefully, each audience member will feel like they are on their own journey and find out about themselves.” 
This article originally appeared in TMC Publications. 

A version of this story appeared in the TMC Publications, which are published in Minneapolis and St. Paul. 

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