The Story Behind “The Rocking Boy”

If I could give any advice to my younger self, or to anyone who might be disabled and starting their collegiate career, it would be this: tell your story. Tell it loud and tell it proud.

Coming out of the 'disability closet' through writing a children's musical.

In 2017, I wrote the worst play ever. Truly, it was horrendous. The piece in question was titled “Adagio.” It was a biopic on a young Mozart, which tried to go the route of a kitchen sink drama for children. I remember showing the piece to a mentor of mine who said something along the lines of “You’ve done better.” It was rigid and boring and not historical at all. But for some reason it won the TYE Center’s Old Miners Playwriting Contest that year. I think I was the only one who submitted that year — regardless, I won. And that meant I had to present the piece in a reading. The world had to hear this piece out loud. I couldn’t let that happen.

 I went to Dr. John Newman, the director of the TYE Center at the time, and asked if we could do a reading of a different script. Any script. I even offered to write a completely new piece, so long as the world didn't have to sit through the most boring and over-dramatic children’s play ever written. Dr. Newman agreed, so long as I wrote about a “real-life child” since those were the parameters for the contest. Now I had to find what “real-life child” to write about.

 Time was of the essence. I couldn’t waste months doing research. I needed a child whom I knew intimately and would require minimal research. Then a thought occurred to me — why not write about myself?

For the longest time I have been encouraged to write about my experiences growing up. I was diagnosed with autism around the age of 5 and have dealt with multiple mental illnesses and disabilities for most of my life. As of right now, I am diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, scrupulosity (a form of OCD which deals with sin, guilt, and religion), and chronic anxiety and depression. And other than the deeply problematic play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” there is not much repertory in theatre about the autistic experience. So naturally, many of my friends and collaborators felt that I should be the one to rectify this.

But my life is boring. I didn’t have an eventful childhood. I just lived a normal suburban life. But I had a deadline, so I acquiesced. I informed the TYE Center I would be writing the piece about myself with the working title “The Rocking Boy” (which is the only thing to have remained from that original draft). But right as I began work on the piece, my father suffered a major stroke and later passed away. I asked to have an extension on the reading so I could focus on grieving. The next year I got myself a dramaturg, the ever-so-talented Hannah Gunson-McComb, and buckled down to work.

Thus began those sluggish early drafts. Draft after draft after draft — all in vastly different directions. I think I gave Hannah whiplash with all the versions I wrote. There were a few basic constants throughout. Bubba, who was named after my childhood nickname, was the central character. And two of my actual childhood toys became the characters King and Queen Teddy. Other than that, the story shifted with every draft. I wasn’t sure what story I wanted to write. This was due to two reasons:

One, I was obsessed with telling the story I thought people wanted to hear.

 And two, I was not comfortable with my disability.

There are three images of Spicer Carr composing at a piano. In the first image, he is joined by a male singer. The middle image is a closeup of Spicer’s hands along the piano keys. The third is of Spicer making edits to sheet music.

Too often in theatre and literature, characters with disabilities are treated as stereotypes. Rather than having their own agency or life, they serve to “teach” the protagonist — or they are used for “inspirational porn.” This is where a character's disability is exploited and made to be “inspirational” for able-bodied and able-minded people (see Stella Young’s TED Talk on this matter). Being a young writer, I felt I needed to fit into one of these molds. But I am not someone's “guide.” My disability is not meant to be “inspiring.” It simply is. I simply am, and my disability is just part of who I am.

But I wasn’t comfortable with my disability. Because I was diagnosed with autism at such a young age, I’ve always been aware of it. In an effort to help me understand my diagnosis, my parents always told me that my “diagnosis is an explanation, not an excuse,” meaning my diagnosis explained why I acted the way I did but did not pardon “bad” behavior. It was an effort on my parents’ part to make me feel “normal” with my peers. But I never did. I never understood the intricacies of basic social interactions. I never understood my own feelings. I didn’t understand the concept of friendship. I wanted to understand. But I couldn’t.

Instead of taking my parents’ advice and explaining my situation, I chose to hide it. I often kept my diagnoses a secret from friends growing up. I even tried to lessen the accommodations offered to me in school (some of which I desperately needed) all in an effort to seem normal.

Part of the blame can be laid at the system's feet. Special education in America would be laughable if it weren't tragic. Woefully understaffed and underfunded, students of various physical and mental disabilities are forced to share a classroom together, segregated from their peers. Federal law technically prohibits this, but there are ways around it. More often than not, I had to spend half my day in a class with students who needed far more attention than myself. I learned to take care of myself, which encouraged my “self-reliance” streak. This was fueled by the social pressures and embarrassment I felt by having to go to “special ed.” Looking back now, I know there is nothing shameful about it. But to a young autistic boy, who was already dealing with the insecurities surrounding his queerness, being forced to go special ed was unbearable. As I became more socially conscious, I separated myself from my disability more and more. I tried to hide it, I tried to lessen my accommodations, and I did anything I could to avoid special ed.

This often backfired. While I do believe self-reliance is an important part of any young adult’s development, accommodations are crucial for the education of those with disabilities. More often than not I would overwhelm myself, which would result in a meltdown. I should note that I do not think disabled persons are incapable of completing certain tasks. On the contrary, we are more than able to complete any task given to us. We just require certain accommodations. That would be like telling a person in a wheelchair or walker that they can’t enter a building when there is no ramp available for them. It’s not like they are physically incapable of being in the building. They just need a ramp. To get in. Period. But I felt any accommodations were an indicator to those around me that “this kid is special needs.” So I avoided them. And I entered into the disability closet.

I’ve heard the term “disability closet” used more and more over the past few years. I think it is an apt description of what most disabled folks go through. Ryan O'Connell discusses this subject with such eloquence in his Netflix series “Special.” So does Ryan Haddad in most of his work. Many of us fear being stuck with “the label.” We tell ourselves, “I’m not really disabled, I’m just a little different is all. I just have autism, it's not that big of a deal.”

Starting college was a shocking transition. Learning to live on your own can be a stressful situation for those on the autism spectrum, let alone for those who are ashamed of who they are. Not only was I disabled, but I was also queer. I was just a hot mess in those days. By the end of my first year, I was kicked out of BYU-Idaho for coming out as gay. I won’t bore you with the details of yet another sad-gay-Mormon-boy-coming-out-story, but I would be lying if I said it was not traumatic. And accepting my queerness did affirm one thing to myself — I am made up of multitudes, and they are all OK. After leaving BYU, transferring to UVU, and going through a ridiculous amount of counseling, I was slowly able to accept myself as being gay. But then another thought began, “Maybe it’s OK to be disabled?”

My time and experience at UVU were crucial in helping me to finally reach acceptance of my disability. During my undergrad I was searching for who I was and what I wanted to be. I knew I wanted to do something with the arts, but I wasn’t quite sure what. I had always fancied myself a performer, but after seeing the level of talent my peers had, I decided my career as a performer would never be. I began to ask myself, “What else do I like? What else am I good at?” I’ve been playing piano since I was about 6, and I’ve been writing since God knows when. I have collections of plays, songs, music, poems, lyrics, and librettos I wrote when I was in middle school and high school. Maybe it was time to lean into that. With the encouragement of my academic advisor, I started taking classes in playwriting, songwriting, composition, and music theory. I threw myself into my studies and even began writing some pieces the school put on, like the TYE Center’s “Alice in Wonderland.” This was an exciting time for me — I found out what I was meant to do: write. After the encouragement from several professors, I approached the theatre department chair and the dean of the School of the Arts and proposed an altered curriculum for my theatre arts BA (one which would prepare me to be a composer-lyricist). Both enthusiastically approved, and I was on my way. I now found a new part of my multitudes: Spicer the Writer. Perhaps now I could accept myself as a disabled person?

I would not have been able to do this without the love and support of friends, chosen family, and professors at UVU. I began to open up more about my disability. I talked to others about it. I took up counseling again and even reached out to accessibility services and the Nellesen Center for Autism. By the time I graduated, I was at least comfortable with being disabled. But not loud and proud.

Which brings us back to where we started, this darn autism play. While in the midst of slamming my head against the figurative wall, Kynsie Kiggins, the current director of the TYE Center, gave me a great piece of advice: “Write your story, not what you think people want to hear.” I thought long and hard about this. What was my childhood like? What is my story? If anything, my story is one of self-acceptance or learning to live with my multitudes. And learning to connect and relate with others. This became the story. This is how the character Dophie (who was a real person) came to be. A spunky young girl with a speech impediment (though in real life, Dophie did not have the speech impediment — I did.). Dophie only wants to be Bubba’s friend. She acts as Bubba’s connection to the outside world, while all of the other characters exist in his mind and reflect his multitudes.

The day of the reading came, and in a small room of no more than 10, the world finally heard “The Rocking Boy.” I received modest but encouraging feedback. I thought, “Finally, I can put this thing to bed.” I’ve often stated that I “hate this play,” but I don’t think the term “hate” is quite accurate. It made me uncomfortable because it forced me to look within and come to terms with my disability. But at last, it was done. Or so I thought.

On a whim, I submitted the piece to a festival — and I was accepted. Great. Now I’ll have to write a new draft. I flew out to Chicago, the piece was performed at Northwestern University by the Purple Crayon Players, and I received even more enthusiastic support for the piece.

Huh. People actually wanted to hear this story. People responded well to it. I guess I’ll keep chugging away at it. A few more drafts later, and the piece finally became the musical it is today. Why make it a musical, you ask? Why not? I am a composer-lyricist, and my childhood was filled with music. It makes sense to me. Plus, it's my show, so shut up.

During the summer of 2019, after the success of the Chicago reading, I found myself working at the TYE Center’s summer camp. My old stomping ground. One day Kynsie Kiggins came up to me and asked, “Does ‘Rocking Boy’ have any commitments this next year? Any productions or workshops?” I told her no, it did not. She then invited me to come back in summer 2020 with “The Rocking Boy” for a fully-funded workshop production. How could I turn down such a generous offer? Plus, this would force me to keep working on the piece. Ugh. Fine. Even during the current pandemic, Kynsie found a way for us to continue the workshop over Zoom. I will forever be grateful for Kynsie’s support in this project.

But that meant new drafts. Ugh. But something interesting happened as I wrote these new drafts. I remembered Kynsie’s advice to write my story. And with every new draft I wrote, I tried to bring out “my story” more and more. All other characters but Bubba, his multitudes, and Dophie drifted away. The story became more focused on what friendship means. And I became more focused on my experience.

One such example of this is the song “Meltdown,” which sits at Bubba’s lowest point. It’s not the climax, but it's where Bubba is faced with the possibility that he might be all alone. Originally, there was a very soppy ballad which sat in “Meltdown’s” position. Besides the fact that the lyrics were cheesy and the music sounded like the store-brand version of Alan Menken, the song just didn’t work. It told you what it was like to be autistic, but it did not show you what it was like to be autistic. Most of the songs in the show function in a very Brechtian fashion, meaning they act as little lessons or morals about the subject at hand. In this case, the subject being the multitudes of myself and autism. But we had no such song for what it’s like to lose control and go through a meltdown. This became very apparent in our Zoom workshop this summer. So, four weeks into the workshop I called into the Monday rehearsal and informed the cast the original song would be cut, and a new song would stand in its place. I came in on Wednesday with two new songs, one of which was “Meltdown.” The cast diligently learned this new material, with the vigor and enthusiasm a writer can only wish for. The cast seemed so excited about this new perspective in the piece, which got me thinking about my own disability. People are seeing me for who I am. They recognize that my autism is a part of multitudes. And that’s OK. So finally, I realized that yes, it is OK. I am disabled. It is part of who I am. And I finally came out of the disability closet.

 I no longer hate this piece. Sure, it frustrates me sometimes (as any work does), but I do love it. It’s one of my children now. I’ve already begun submitting it to festivals and contests, so we shall see where the future takes it. I’m open to all options, so long as the piece is heard. As our nation enters into a much-needed dialogue about larger cultural, ethnic, racial, and economic divides, I think it only relevant that we add disabilities to the list of subjects to discuss. Far too many people have felt like I did, or even worse. They’ve felt shame and remorse for who they are. This is a systemic issue we need to address, but perhaps a disabled child seeing a musical featuring singing lettuce, a radio in drag, and a little boy learning to accept his autism is just the start we need.

If I could give any advice to my younger self, or to anyone who might be disabled and starting their collegiate career, it would be this: tell your story. Tell it loud and tell it proud. You matter. You contain multitudes. And you will find a way, even if it is not given to you. Don’t take no for an answer. The world is yours, so seize that freaking oyster. And above all else, love yourself. You are who you are. And that is just great.