December 7, 2019

Stage Role Mirrors Iain Kohn’s Life on the Autism Spectrum

Michael Yurchak and Ian Kohn; Photo by Philicia Endelman

Based on the best-selling 2003 novel by Mark Haddon and written by Simon Stephens, the Tony-winning play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is about an autistic teenager who uses his unique abilities to solve the murder of his neighbor’s dog.

“Curious Incident” is a journey of personal discovery, played out in interactions with the teen’s teacher and parents and presented in a play-within-a-play structure that results in a unique visual, kinetic style. In the Greenway Arts Alliance’s new production, first-time actor Iain Kohn takes on the demanding lead role. He, too, is on the autism spectrum.

Kohn had been recommended to Heidi Levitt, who was casting actors for the movie version of “Curious Incident.” He didn’t get the lead role of Christopher in the film, but that audition led to another for the play. The 19-year-old Cal State Northridge freshman soon was juggling rehearsals with his class schedule.

“It’s a full load and oftentimes, I’ve struggled with it,” he admitted in an interview with the Journal. “Some of my grades have gone down. These rehearsals drain study time. It’s grueling.” But he wouldn’t trade the experience.

“As someone who is so young and a beginner to acting, I’m thankful for being cast in such a famous play,” Kohn said. “And I think that having someone like me being represented is a dividend. I like being part of that, even though being a beacon of hope isn’t necessarily my first goal.”

On the other hand, “There’s a surge in Hollywood to cast actors that are part of minority demographics, but I think people on the spectrum are woefully underrepresented,” he said. “People like me, who don’t have the easiest time ingratiating themselves and making frie.nds, need some assurance that people will listen to our stories and perspectives and have empathy for us.”

Kohn had seen the Broadway production of “Curious Incident” and subsequently read the novel. “Mark Haddon did a great job in portraying the mannerisms and writing style of someone on the autism spectrum and the nature of his personality,” he said. “The play is brilliantly written, and the script lends itself easily to stage choreography. When I watched it on Broadway, I was fully engaged and riveted to my seat.”

It comes as no surprise that Kohn relates to his character. “Christopher reminds me of myself when I was much younger,” he said. “His lack of self-control and his anger management remind me of myself when I was in middle school and elementary school. But his ability to grasp complex concepts such as mathematical equations is something I do not see in myself. I’m terrible at math.”

Kohn excels at writing, public speaking and languages. He is a published spoken-word poet and performer, speaks Spanish, Portuguese and German, and is learning Japanese and Korean. “I study languages because of my fascination with foreign cultures and also because it’s a good exercise to keep my brain active,” he said. “People on the spectrum are known to be gifted in rote memorization but tend to have difficulties with writing and communication, so I’m an oddity in that respect.”

Ian Kohn Photo by Philicia Endelman

In 2017, Kohn directed a documentary short called “Cleveland High,” about a poet preparing for a poetry slam. He’s working on a poetry anthology that reflects “moments in my life where I was not of sound mind and I did things that I regret. I was suffering from a mental illness,” he said. “I used those stories to create an overarching theme of reflection and redemption. I believe that if I had not gone through that adversity and experiencing that trauma, I don’t think I’d have developed the worldview, the work ethic and discipline that I have today.”

“Theater is an intensive practice to participate in,” he continued. “Memorizing scripts, choreographing movements and using teamwork to its fullest extent to put together such a grand production is extremely difficult. I have anxiety about my performance and getting my lines right, and that I don’t stutter or stumble. I’m a perfectionist.”

“I would not be able to get this far in my acting work if not for the vast scope of support I’ve been privy to,” he said, giving thanks to all those involved in the play, “and my mother, who has been generous enough to schlep me across the entire Valley to attend rehearsals.” He has not yet had the time to learn to drive.

Kohn’s mother is a Methodist, but he identifies more with his father’s Jewish side. His grandfather Martin Kohn, a cantor, is a Holocaust survivor whose two-hour testimony for the Shoah Foundation is on YouTube. “I don’t attend synagogue services, but I often celebrate Passover, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah. I love attending Shabbat dinners with my friend. I believe that Judaism is more than a faith; it’s a community, and it feels like being part of a second family.”

Although he hasn’t yet decided on a profession, “I think that acting and performing arts in general are a good way to kickstart a career,” Kohn said. “I’m still not sure what I want to major in in college, and I’m not sure what I want to be my lifetime career. I do know that this is a fun art to participate in and a fun play to be part of. I want to keep at it —  for now, at least.”  

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” runs at the Greenway Court Theatre through Dec. 29.