Digital Original: Autistic actor using theatre to overcome social anxiety

Local News

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The show must go on! 

A 19th-century theatrical slogan that is showing to still ring true in even the youngest of actors. 

Jesse Niswanger, 17, who will play Grandpa Joe in the upcoming production was diagnosed at 3-years-old with what was formally referred to as Asperger syndrome. 

In 2013, it became part of one umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

“Along with the Aspergers and being on the spectrum. I have severe social anxiety. I have ADHD and interaction with people it’s hard,” says Jesse.  

The young thespian’s journey to the main stage was not an easy feat, but he persevered because he knew he wanted better for his life. 

“Acting in general has helped me a lot,” explains Jesse. “I think being able to analyze people and what they do what they do has helped me.” 

In less than a month, 39 young local actors will take the stage to present “Willy Wonka Jr.” at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. 

While there are both good and bad days for Jesse – he says it was knowing he wanted better for himself that allowed this triumph. 

“I realized that’s not what I wanted to be,” Jesse says. 

Anna Kimmell, the director of education for The Rep, has worked with Jesse and is excited for the talent he will bring to the show. 

“Jesse is incredibly intelligent, smart, funny, talented, and he’s also on the spectrum – so he has high functioning autism,” says Kimmell.  “Its been amazing to work with him through the past year and see how he’s grown and both as a person and as an artist.” 

Aside from his lines, Jesse will be performing several songs which he will be singing live. 

“Whether I am breaking down barriers or not, I don’t think that’s my place to say,” says Jesse. “I’m just here cause I want to have fun.”  

For more information about the production, click here

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