Kelligrews writer teaming up with talented pro to adapt children’s classic

By Chad Feehan / Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Alice in Wonderland is Lewis Carroll’s classic tale of a young girl who falls down a rabbit hole, finding herself in an upside-down world she does not understand, bearing little to no resemblance to her own. As a work of art in the public domain, the fantastical tale has long been ripe for adaptation, and interesting artistic manipulation. Now Kelligrews resident, playwright and person with autism Leah McDonald is putting her own spin on the tale, and with an entirely autistic cast as well.
In her telling of the story, Alice is sent to her room for yelling at her sister, whom she does not yet know is autistic.
After falling asleep, Alice wakes up in Wonderland and encounters the familiar ensemble of characters from Carroll’s tale, each of whom displays diverse characteristics associated with autism.
McDonald is co-writing the play with accomplished playwright and actor Peter Halley, best known as the artistic director of Spirit of Newfoundland Productions.
The pair’s approach is that of representation and education, drawing from the lived experience of McDonald and others.
“The White Rabbit is very dependent on routines and schedules, and if he’s late for something or if his schedule is thrown off he will have a big meltdown,” McDonald said. “That is one of the ways that autism affects me, so there’s a part of me in that character.”
McDonald’s hypersensitivity to sound makes its way into the character of the Duchess.
“Her ears are turned up to eleven… loud noises really scare and bother her,” McDonald said.
Halley makes note of the educational quality of the play, and the diverse range of audiences that it could positively impact, from people who know nothing about spectrum disorders, to those on the spectrum themselves.
“We made Alice a character who knew nothing about autism,” he said. “The things I discovered throughout the process were wonderful.”
McDonald wants people to walk away from the show with the understanding that people with autism just want to be a part of society like anybody else.
“A person with autism is just like any other person,” she said. “Yes, our brains work a little differently… but that’s okay.”
McDonald was prompted by Leah McDougal to write the script while attending the Worktopia program at the Autism Society, an employment preparedness program for young adults on the spectrum.
A snippet of the play was later performed for a Mad Hatter themed party at The Pantry Cafe, with further segments being performed at events for the Autism Society, as well as the CBS Library.
Theatre CBS is even looking at developing the full play as a school tour later this year.
“In my world we write a script with a deadline,” Halley said. “This doesn’t have a deadline. Doing little excerpts from it I think is a really smart way to do it.”
McDonald is equally enthusiastic. “It’s just so cool that something I helped to write is being performed in places and people are learning from it,” she said. “This is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done.”
Coming from experience in the arts but with no actual experience in writing a play, McDonald likens the experience to a “baptism by fire” but is thankful to have friends like Halley, as well as Kyle McDavid and Gordon Billard helping her along the way.
Halley can’t say enough kind things about McDonald and her dedication to the undertaking.
“She’s long been an advocate of educating the masses on what autism is, and she often refers to it as a superpower,” he said. “She is very proud of who she is and how she functions… She’s talented in so many ways.”
The next preview of Understanding Wonderland will be at the Autism Society Greenhouse on March 3rd featuring McDonald, Patrick Penney, and Charlotte Doyle.

From left, Charlotte Doyle, Patrick Penney, and Leah McDonald rehearse the choreography for Dr. Caterpillars rap song, another modern twist on Alice in Wonderland. McDonald is working with seasoned actor Peter Halley on a series of sketches adapted from the classic.

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