Local performance stars Whatcom grad

Story by Greg Lane

How does one define another as “normal?” How different can someone be? Kuntz and Company, a Bellingham-based dance company, finished its second running of “Hello, my name is You,” an experimental performance about a woman’s journey with Asperger’s syndrome.

The production, shown at the Firehouse Performing Arts Center Sept. 29, examined the life of Margaret Cooper, a Whatcom Community College alumnus who was diagnosed with a form of autism known as Asperger’s.

Directed by Pam Kuntz, “Hello” gave the audience a glimpse of Cooper’s mind. Using a minimalistic set with only a few bamboo sticks and chairs as props, the imagery and attention was focused on Cooper, her supporting performers, and their dances. Kuntz’s pieces are a mix of dance and theater, and she said “Hello” uses community performers who are not strictly dancers.

Audience member Elizabeth Cardarelli described the performance as “so innovative, so refreshing” and “sensual.” Antonella Antonini, another audience member, said that when she saw the performance for the first time last February, she “didn’t understand that [Cooper] wasn’t an actor.”

Margaret Cooper (front left)
Margaret Cooper (front left)

Cooper said she plans to attend Western Washington University to study performing arts and physics. Kuntz is a senior instructor for the dance program at Western.

Although the piece was about Cooper, the after-show discussion revealed that the production was a collaborative piece where each actor not only performed their part but also built their role during the rehearsals of “Hello.”

Ian Bivins, the actor who played the antagonist, said his role was not originally intended to be so critical of Cooper. However, halfway through production he understood that his character had come to represent the part of society seeking to normalize her. Bivins said that his role came together when Kuntz had him memorizing the definition of Asperger’s, described as a disorder on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.

During the show, when telling his fellow performers how to act around Cooper, Bivins said “don’t smile at her! The showing of teeth is a sign of aggression in the animal kingdom!”

To demonstrate their understanding of Bivins’ instructions, his fellow performers Hannah Leigh Reclam and Troy Hightower walked around Cooper with hands stuck to their thighs, eyes at the floor, and blank faces—acting unnatural. “We can’t be ourselves,” Bivins said.

Bivins’ character illustrated just how different people can be when interacting with someone who is often labeled as socially handicapped. “Normal is only a perspective,” said Greg Hightower, who came to watch his son Troy.

“Hello” urges audiences to delve into the mind of someone with Asperger’s. To illustrate Cooper’s perspective, Kuntz’s voice is heard asking her a variety of personal questions, such as how she tackles life.

“I encounter my life as a universe with no depth or distance,” Cooper responded.

When asked if she has ever fallen in love, Cooper said that she’s waiting for her soul mate and that she’ll know who they are by their “essence,” which she explained is “the part of a human conscience that can withstand a black hole.”

When Kuntz’s voice asked if she could choose to not have Asperger’s, Cooper said, “heck no!”

During the after show dialogue, audience members asked if Cooper was a poet. She said she writes but prefers to express herself vocally.
The discussion revealed that the audience was engaged and interested in learning more about Cooper, details of the show’s production, and the opinions of other cast members. Cooper said her favorite aspect of “Hello” was the conversations afterwards.

Cooper emphasized the importance of growth and learning for all, not just those with Asperger’s or other conditions.

“Don’t let stumbling blocks keep you down,” Cooper said. “Failure can be your best friend as long as you learn from those mistakes. View challenges in a positive light.”

According to its website, Kuntz and Co. “invites the community to participate in original productions that both tell their individual stories and explore a subject of universal interest.”

Kuntz says her work is very personal and she encourages everyone, including Whatcom students, who want to explore the theatrical arts to get involved. “Don’t wait on the side,” she said.

With “Hello” finished, Kuntz said she is currently starting research on HIV and AIDS with the hope of putting together a production.
Kuntz noted how different “Hello” was from her earlier works.
“I started dancing when I was 10, and up until 2010 it was just dance,” Kuntz said.

That changed with “Hello, my name is You.” Kuntz said it was the piece that “broke the wall.”

After the show, Kuntz said her only regret was that she couldn’t find the funding to continue touring the performance.

Even with the lack of funding, however, “Hello” enjoyed a measure of success, selling out tickets for three February shows and performing in Minnesota at a medical conference for doctors studying autism spectrum disorders.

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