Break A Leg! Disability in the Arts

The Voice Inside with Gena Sims

June 25, 2021 Nicole Zimmerer / Gena Sims Season 1 Episode 4
Break A Leg! Disability in the Arts
The Voice Inside with Gena Sims
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Gena Sims is a performer, the founder of the Autism Theater Project, and a fellow Carnegie Mellon alum.  She's producing "The Voice Inside," a new web series about how real teens, especially teens with disabilities, face challenges in their lives and succeed. 

Find Gena online! 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/genasings 
Instagram: @genasims19 

The Autism Theater Project on Facebook: 
https://www.facebook.com/AutismTheatreProject 

The Voice Inside YouTube Channel: 
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtYHFiCT3o4DBvMYfu8fKOA 

Episode Transcript: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1751649/8765770 

Produced by Scott MacDonald 
Artwork by Sasha & Alexander Schwartz 
https://breakalegpod.buzzsprout.com/ 

Nicole Zimmerer:

Welcome to Break A Leg! A podcast that explores the relationship between disability and the arts. I'm your host, Nicole Zimmerer, and on today's episode our guest is Gena Sims. Gena Sims is a performer and the founder of the Autism Theater Project. She's also a fellow alumni of Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama. Hi, Gena, I'm so glad you're here!

Gena Sims:

Hey, I'm glad I'm here, too. And I'm glad you're here, too.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah!

Gena Sims:

How are you doing?

Nicole Zimmerer:

I'm great, how are you?

Gena Sims:

I'm doing well, I'm doing well for sure.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah, I think the last time we saw each other on... in person was like graduation, 2019?

Gena Sims:

Graduation, yeah.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

That's wild.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah. It's been like two years, man.

Gena Sims:

Two years ago, that's crazy.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah. And you're in Miami right now, right?

Gena Sims:

I am. And it's hot and humid.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Oh my god... same, same.

Gena Sims:

Yeah.

Nicole Zimmerer:

It's always hot in Texas.

Gena Sims:

Of course.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

And I loved seeing you virtually last week.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah, yeah.

Gena Sims:

When we did our Zoom interview.

Nicole Zimmerer:

So for those of you who don't know, um, Gena is producing a web series called The Voice Inside, which is from the perspective of an autistic teen. And along with these little short videos, she interviews people with disabilities, and last week Gena had me on to talk about, you know, what I do and my view of disability in the arts and disability in general. So, on today's podcast, we're kind of flipping the script, so to speak, and I'm interviewing here, so it's gonna be super cool, super fun. I'm glad I'm no longer in the hot seat, but you know, it's gonna be it's gonna be a wild ride.

Gena Sims:

Well now I'm in the hot seat.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

Yes.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah. So the first segment we have today is, as always, Spilling the Disabili-Tea where we take a look at a historical or current event about disability, and we have some color commentary. And today our Disabili-Tea that we are spilling is the fact that two days ago, on June 15 2021, Judith Heumann, aka the mother of disability rights, published a young adult book about her life with co-author Kristen Joiner. It's called "Rollin Warrior. The Incredible

Gena Sims:

Before your interview me, Nicole, may I ask what do Sometimes Awkward, True Story o a Rebel Girl on Wheels Wh Helped Spark a Revolution." A d it's now on sale. You can get it wherever books are sold. o like Barnes and Noble, o like, bookshop.org, or like, don't know, your neigh orhood independent bookshop. ut I'm really excited about it I haven't ordered my copy yet, ut I will, because I love Judy. So that is the Disabili-Tea. you love most about Judy?

Nicole Zimmerer:

Um, Ah, that's a really good question! I thought I was not gonna be in the hot seat, Gena, you're really good at this!

Gena Sims:

Haha, I've been doing this too much...

Nicole Zimmerer:

What I love most about Judy? Uh, well, if I'm being honest, I didn't know she existed until like a year

Gena Sims:

Yeah. ago, when I watched Crip Camp, which is the documentary on Netflix. Crip Camp starts in 1971 at Camp Jened, a summer camp in New York described as a "loose, free-spirited camp designed for teens with disabilities," and it stars Judy Heumann, and a bunch of other incredible people. And the film focuses on the campers who turn themselves into activists for the disability rights movement and follows their fight. And people that went to that camp, were the people that started the disability rights in America and it's like the whole journey, and you see it in Crip Camp. So, I'm seeing Judy from like a 20-year-old to like where she is now, and she still looks fabulous, by the way. I just, I think the thing I love about her is like, she reminds me a little bit of... like not to like toot my own horn, but like, she reminds me a little bit of me. I was like, "Oh right there are like spunky girls in wheelchairs. And there always have been spunky girls in wheelchairs, doing the hard work and like fighting the good fight and all that good stuff." And also, she's just like really rad, she's a rad human being and like, I owe her so much. But it's an amazing film. And I highly recommend Crip Camp. If you have not seen it, watch it, and like DM us... because I will talk about it until the cows come home.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah, yeah.

Gena Sims:

That sounds so cool though.

Nicole Zimmerer:

It's so good.

Gena Sims:

I just, I just looked up Crip Camp on Netflix.

Nicole Zimmerer:

The tea has been spilt. So Gena, let's get right into it like--

Gena Sims:

Oh!

Nicole Zimmerer:

--who are you? Why are you here? You know, all that good stuff.

Gena Sims:

Haha, why am I here...

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

I was born, I didn't choose to be... I'm just kidding. Well actually, I actually was, and I actually didn't choose to be, but I'm so happy I'm here.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

I am Gena, quite obviously. I'm an actress, singer, dancer. I studied musical theater at CMU, where I met Nicole. I'm the founder of the Autism Theater Project. I'm very passionate about helping people understand each other. And that passion drives the work that I do. And I'm very passionate about connecting to people. And, this may sound corny, but feeling people get to like a higher spiritual level all together. I just find it's so exciting. And now all of a sudden, I'm starting to get emotional, already, because I'm thinking about theatre, and the experiences I had on stage before, you know, this whole 2020 thing and full crowds and whatnot. And obviously, you know, the pandemic's phasing out, but it was difficult for me to go a whole year or so without that live theatre or concert experience (I also am a singer and I do concert work and stuff like that), because it's just so energizing and fulfilling for me to feel everybody just get to this higher spiritual level and just have so much fun all at the same time, and feel so connected, it just kind of energizes me for the rest of the week. So I was a little lower in energy during the pandemic. But thankfully, through my experience homeschooling my sister who's an autistic teen, she's 15 years old. I was inspired to start something that could help kids with autism. And that ended up leading to The Voice Inside, this web series I'm doing, that ultimately won't only tell the real stories of teens with autism, but also tell the real stories of teens with other disabilities, and also even teens who don't have disabilities. So my vision for The Voice Inside is basically for high schoolers to be able to go watch the series and be able to identify with a whole bunch of teenagers who have all different abilities and identify with the voice inside their heads. Because the reason it's called The Voice Inside is because we have a voiceover you hear the main character's thoughts.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah, yeah.

Gena Sims:

Uh, I'll stop there. That was a lot.

Nicole Zimmerer:

No, no, that was that was a great a great intro! You did like half my job for me. Love it.

Gena Sims:

I'm glad.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Love it. Um, I really, I want to rewind a little bit, and like, I want to, if you don't mind, I want to ask about like, when did you start performing? Like, how long have you been doing this? How long have you been like, in the grind, basically? Because we all know it is a grind. This industry is not very kind, but you know, we do it anyway, because we love it.

Gena Sims:

We do, we do. Well the grind started when I was 11, but it wasn't really a grind yet. I guess, actually no, it really started when I was 10. The first show I did I played a camel in this show called The Wheel of Fables. And my scene was called The Camel and the Pig. And I was one of the leads the other lead was the pig--

Nicole Zimmerer:

Ooh.

Gena Sims:

And my first solo was I'm a Survivor by Destiny's Child, and--

Nicole Zimmerer:

Oh my gosh, this makes so much sense! It makes so much sense.

Scott MacDonald:

As a camel?

Gena Sims:

Yes as a camel! I was like my... my line was like, "Now you are... now you are shorter than me, I'm so much better... da-da-da..." I don't know the rest. I just remember that, um...

Nicole Zimmerer:

It's a classic song now. Congratulations.

Gena Sims:

I love that song.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah, it's a good song. Was being the camel and it singing that song, was it like the seed that like led you to the Beyonce Musical in college? Because I saw that, and it was so fun.

Gena Sims:

Oh, I'm so glad! I'm so glad you thought it was so fun.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

That was so much fun. Wow, that was like two and a half years ago.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

Yeah we did do, we did do Playground musical about Beyonce. I was--

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

I still, I still like Beyonce, but I was really, I really liked Beyonce in college, I was listening to a lot of Beyonce and we ended up doing that musical, but I guess it was a seed. I think the real seed was planted when I was a little kid, and I saw Destiny's Child on Sesame Street, and I got so excited that like, I ran to tell my mom and I tripped and I like, hit my tooth on the floor, and it was gray...

Nicole Zimmerer:

Oh! Did you like... was it bleeding?

Gena Sims:

I don't remember, I just remember that it was gray.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Ooh...

Gena Sims:

And I don't know what we ended up doing about that. But eventually it fell out because I was so young, so...

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah because that was a baby tooth. Yeah.

Gena Sims:

Yeah. But yeah!

Nicole Zimmerer:

Wow, core memory right there, core memory.

Gena Sims:

Haha, core memory... but yeah, when I was 11 I was, I mean not when I was 11, when I was 10, that was my first show, and I thought it was a lot of fun. And then I went to middle school, I started taking drama classes and doing children's theater shows and stuff like that. And then I went to a performing arts high school, and whatnot. I think the moment for me that I decided I really want to be an actor I really want to tell stories, was when I was 13, and I had this weird kind of meta moment when I was 13 and I was on stage and I was playing this woman who was being blamed for the death of all these babies. And it sounds weird for like a middle school show, but that's what we did, I don't know. And I just felt like everybody, I felt like everybody understood where my character was coming from. And I just felt like everybody understood everything at the same time. And it was very meta and spiritual. And I was, I just love that moment. And you're gonna, just to prepare you, just you're going to get a lot that from me. Like, both me and my sister, who I'll talk more about, are very, like, spiritual people. We're a little like, I don't know, we're a little woo-woo... I remember like...

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

My clown...

Nicole Zimmerer:

I was about to say "woo-woo... woo-woo." I love the term "woo-woo."

Gena Sims:

"Woo-woo" haha yeah.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

Yeah.

Nicole Zimmerer:

What about your clown?

Gena Sims:

Yeah. Oh, like when I was in... we had this, this clown class in college. Funny, we had, a literal clown class. And our end of semester assignment was to like, be these clowns. And these clowns were essentially exaggerated characters that represent some element of our personalities. And mine was like this, Caribbean, know-it-all, spiritual like, psychic woman.

Nicole Zimmerer:

That sounds amazing!

Gena Sims:

That was my clown. So, yeah, haha.

Nicole Zimmerer:

What was her name? Did she have a name?

Gena Sims:

Sheila.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Sheila.

Gena Sims:

Yeah. Sheila the spiritual, Caribbean, know-it-all, clown... woman. Yeah. And then there, our clowns were not like really consciously created. They just kind of happened through these improv... just weird drama school stuff.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

Yes.

Nicole Zimmerer:

I remember getting to CMU and being like, "You guys have a clown class? That's kind of pretentious." Like... But I get it, like I get it. I get it, I get it. But it's a smidge pretentious. It's a smidge...

Gena Sims:

I mean... drama school is a smidge pretentious haha.

Nicole Zimmerer:

You're, you're correct!

Gena Sims:

Let's be real...

Nicole Zimmerer:

You are correct. You are very correct. I'm wearing a shirt right now that has Shakespeare on it, so I really have no room to talk... at all.

Gena Sims:

Gotta love Shakespeare.

Nicole Zimmerer:

You do.

Scott MacDonald:

Gotta love Bill.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Gotta love Billy. Gotta love Billy Shakes. Um, but I really, I want to ask you a question like, because you have an autistic sister who I'm guessing is like a major presence in your life from, you know, our conversations we've had, when did you start to incorporate autism and autism awareness into your art?

Gena Sims:

When I was 16... I started doing that. I started the Autism Theater Project the summer before my senior year--

Nicole Zimmerer:

Of high school?

Gena Sims:

Mm, of high school. Yeah, yeah. High School.

Nicole Zimmerer:

So it's been around for a while. Okay, I thought, I thought this was like a, you know, during the pandemic, it was like a "Oh, I'm gonna do this thing that I've been thinking about for years," but the Autism Theater Project has been around for a good while. Okay. Good to know for my own edification.

Gena Sims:

Well, it started off as just drama classes. It didn't start off as production. I was inspired to start doing these drama classes by this girl I met a Young Arts. I met this girl who was 17 years old and was already directing autistic kids in plays. And she was talking to me about that experience and about how the kids are just so open and honest and real, and how... what a cool experience that was. And I was like, "Well, you know, I've always wanted to do something that would combine autism and theatre." And I'm really into teaching, especially now because I homeschool my sister. And I've always been fascinated by the idea of helping autistic kids express themselves, and communicate and express their emotions. So I wanted to create a drama class that would help kids do that. So the summer before my senior year, I told my friends in school, I went to an arts high school, so my friends were theatre people as well. And I told them, you know, "I want to start doing these classes." And we started meeting and talking about different exercises we would do. And I would tailor those exercises so that they would work well for kids with autism. So we started doing the drama classes. And I've been doing that on and off, like on breaks from college and stuff like that, since then, since my senior year of high school. But the Autism Theater Project became a production company, when my sophomore year at Carnegie Mellon, I put up this play that was inspired by my sister called In the Life of a Child. And Barbara Mackenzie-Wood, who is a prominent professor there, ended up mentoring me and teaching me how to direct and how to put things together. And we ended up having this really cool connection, because Barbara's brother is actually autistic, and Barbara's passion for teaching people, just teaching actors in general, comes from her desire to be able to... get people to express themselves. Because when her brother was four years old, he ended up being taken away from Barbara's family. Barbara's um, older, she's like in her 70s, so when she was three or four years old, you know, this was way, way, way back when, like decades ago.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

You know, and because he wasn't able to talk and had whatever symptoms he had, he was taken away. And that obviously was like, such a big impact on her family. And Barbara actually told me that when her brother was taken away, she was saying, "I can make him talk! I can make him talk!" and she was like, begging for him not to go. And that desire to get people to like, express themselves and let it all out, is what drove her as an acting teacher. So that was really cool, it was really cool to have that connection with Barbara, and to learn from her, and to develop this play with her. And that's how, that's how the Autism Theater Project became a theatre company. I can go on, but I feel like I keep going on for a long time.

Nicole Zimmerer:

No, this is great! Like, you know, it makes so much sense. I think a lot of people forget that theatre is a tool for communication, and not just like, you know, "let me express all my emotions all the time." But you can actually like use theatre as a medium to like, communicate with others. And it's like one of the, one of the great gifts of theater.

Gena Sims:

Definitelty, yeah.

Nicole Zimmerer:

But yeah. So In the Life of a Child was the first production you did connected to the Autism Theater Project, right?

Gena Sims:

Mm-hm. We did it, we did it at Carnegie Mellon. And it was actually very collaborative. So I have the actors I worked with at Carnegie Mellon to thank for the way we did it. It was very movement based. Basically, the idea behind the play was that this little girl's named Olivia, which is my sister's name, she, I don't want to say gets bullied, because it's not necessarily like the other kids who were all like 10 years old in the play, had like, really strong negative intentions, but like, just like kids, you know, they didn't understand why she would do things like flap her hands or get upset about a noise. So they started to imitate her and they decided to make fun of her and that just overwhelmed or even more. So she has this negative, Olivia, the character has this negative interaction with these kids on a playground. And then, she wishes that she could go "somewhere over the rainbow" like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz to a place where the kids could hear the voice inside her head. And then she does, and she goes to somewhere over the rainbow and kids can hear the voice inside. Like uh, what it was the voice inside, they hear the voiceover of her own thoughts.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

And yeah, and in this magical Oz-like place, over the rainbow, the kids are like super nice and super understanding, and they're able to see her life story unfold, but like the life story was told through dance, and these Ingrid Michaelson songs, because at the time I was having this really strong Ingrid Michaelson phase. And I just felt like her songs express the emotions of me and my sister. So yeah, that's basically what the play was. We did it at Carnegie Mellon that was 2017? And then... the summer of 2018, I brought the play to Miami, and we did it at a couple theaters. We were able to do it for kids, here. And I did it with a different set of actors. Actors, actually, who went to my performing arts high school here in Miami, which is the New World School of the Arts. And that was a really cool experience. It was challenging, because it's a lot harder to do a play in the real world than it is in college when everything is so magically set up for you.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

But it was, it was so cool. Yeah.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah. It sounds like a great, it sounds like a great piece for kids and a great educational piece as well, because it's like, not only is it educational about like, you know, disabled people are people and we do have thoughts and feelings and emotions and, you know, just treat us like humans, which I think is a big theme in like all of my episodes so far of this podcast, have been like, disabled people are just humans like just, the same as, you know, the rest of us. But it also has, like the magical element that kids seem to, like gravitate towards with the, you know, the Oz-like place, so I would, I would love to see that. It sounds amazing.

Gena Sims:

Awesome, thank you.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah, um, so maybe like. I have a question about like, has your sister seen your work and what has been her reaction to it?

Gena Sims:

She did. She saw the play when we did in Miami. She was, she's not very verbal, at all, really, for her age because in fact she's 15 years old. She's much more verbal now than she was even a year ago, and then she was when we did the play, which was three years ago now. So she didn't say anything in particular about the play. But she seemed happy about it.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah, yeah.

Gena Sims:

So I don't, I don't really know what she thought of it, I just know that she seemed happy.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah, well, sometimes that's, you know, all we can hope for, right? It's like, I'm always nervous when my family come to see my work, because I know that they can like tell when I take inspiration to them. My family has this thing where like, "Don't say anything to Nicole over dinner, because we have no idea what's gonna end up here play. What's gonna end up in this stage in five years?" Like my cousin, when she got engaged, she said this thing of like, or we were at dinner and I was like, "Kat and her boyfriend," and Kat was like, "Excuse me, it's pronounced 'fiance,'" and I just like stared at her. And she was like, "Oh no, that's gonna be in a play." And it was! Because it was one of the most ridiculous things that I ever heard a human being say.

Gena Sims:

That's great.

Nicole Zimmerer:

But yeah, no, like, I think that's one of the great things about being an artist is like showing the people that inspired your art, what they helped create, in like a roundabout way. And like, I'm glad she had a positive reaction, even though she couldn't like, say it out loud. But you know, there's so many different ways to communicate with other human beings and like, yeah.

Gena Sims:

Yeah, that's what my sister's taught me for sure.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah. So the production of In the Life of a Child was when the Autism Theater Project first became a production company. But what was the inciting incident for this new web series?

Gena Sims:

Like I was saying before, during the pandemic, I was I think like a lot of people just feeling kind of like, "What am I doing... with my life?"

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

And I was homeschooling my sister. So my sister is a very, very big part of my life right now. She's 15. And it's been kind of wild, actually, now that I'm thinking about this past year, because the more time I've spent with her, the more I've been able to understand who she is, and what she thinks, you know? Before this pandemic, I'd been spending a few months with her, but I really had been at college. Most of the, most of these, you know, these last few years.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

And while I spent a ton of time with her whenever I'm at home, I didn't know her the way I know her now, and I just was so... I was, it's just been so eye-opening to understand her as a, as a teenager who experiences the world in a different way, and just has, expresses herself in such a different way, and has these barriers that make it so much harder for people to really, really know her, if that makes sense.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Totally, totally.

Gena Sims:

Yeah, yeah. And I just... My whole life, really since she's been born, so I guess the past, you know, the past 15 or 16 years. Or since she's had autism, so I guess that's the past 13 or 14 years, or since I've known she's had autism. I've been so frustrated with people who I felt like this didn't "get" her. And they didn't... they underestimated her. That's, that's the word I'm looking for. Okay. So after all of that, the short answer is that I get frustrated when people underestimate my sister. And I'm driven by this idea of getting people to see her potential, and getting people to commit to helping her fulfill her own potential. And I feel like if people understood her "voice inside," and people were able to know where she was coming from, it would be a lot easier to get people to believe in her and to see, see her for who she truly is and what she can truly do. So that's, that's the big, that's the big, major inspiration. And there were a few other inspirations. Like I said, I've taught these kids who have autism, starting when I was in high school, and one of the kids I taught was a nonverbal autistic kid, he was very young, like I barely remember him, and I think I only had a couple glasses with him, but he actually ended up being killed by his mother.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Oh no.

Gena Sims:

It's wild, this actually happened literally, like, last May? Um, yeah. So crazy, really crazy. And he was nonverbal autistic, he was like nine years old. And it took me a little while to realize that I actually knew him, and he was actually my student. And then when I realized that, that was just really, um... you know...

Nicole Zimmerer:

Heart breaking.

Gena Sims:

Yeah, it was, it was heartbreaking, it was also just really freaky, so... that added to my drive, and I was thinking, you know, "I need to do something, I don't really know what to do, but I need to do something." And it took me a while to figure out what to do. But then eventually, through conversations with my dad about wanting to make videos for kids with autism, I came up with this, The Voice Inside, my idea with my dad. And then I also started reading these books, about like autistic teens, and I started doing this research and I was so fascinated by these teens who are totally nonverbal. My sister is very limited verbally, like, definitely doesn't talk like your average 15 year old, but she is not totally nonverbal, like I can still communicate with her, which is... I'm grateful for that. But, you know, there are kids who like, their mouth just won't speak the words that are, that's inside their head. And it's very hard for them, to get people to see that they have potential because, because of the motor difficulties, the difficulties kids with autism have with like, using their bodies, and the sensory problems they have, they tend to make sounds and oftentimes they move in ways that are very unusual. So people will see that, and be like, "Okay, this doesn't look like a normal 15 year old" or whatever, "and they don't talk, so they must have the mental capacity of somebody who's much younger," right? And that's not necessarily the case. And there are all these people out there who are... like kids, like teens or young adults, but were like around my age, who don't speak, but they can type. But it's difficult for them to type, so they type in a very unusual way. And they're able to express their stories by typing. But a lot of people like don't believe that they're actually the ones typing.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Mm-hm. Yeah.

Gena Sims:

So anyway, that was also a big inspiration for me when I was thinking about this project. I just thought that was so fascinating. So that is, I think that's the end of that answer.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

Yeah.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Something you said that's really interesting, like the fact that like, as a society, we view communications, like there's a lot of stock put into verbal communication, um, and not so much nonverbal communication. It's really interesting, because I was like, "Oh yes. When I think about communication, I think of speaking, and you know, using my mouth and my... all everything connected to my mouth." And it's really interesting the fact that, like, if you don't have that ability, people automatically think you are, you know, intellectually disabled, which is really interesting.

Gena Sims:

Yeah.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Autism and intellectual disability are not the same thing. But many people, even doctors, often conflate and mix up the two. And this is a big issue because it means that children with autism, or children with an intellectual disability, aren't getting the services and the educational tools that they need.

Gena Sims:

Of course, yeah, for sure.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Many people with autism don't have an intellectual disability whatsoever, and many others with autism do have an intellectual disability. But just because somebody is nonverbal, or doesn't communicate the way you do, doesn't mean they have an intellectual disability. It's also like, not even like, verbal, because I've, you know being in the wheelchair, I've had people think that I have an intellectual disability, and I'm like, "Nope, just, just brain damage. But you know, that's it." Like, some people will CP have autism, some people in a wheelchair, have an intellectual disability, and there's probably people out there with all three. But just because you see someone rolling down the street, you can't assume things about them, or diagnose them from a distance. Like, it's the saying, like, if you assume things you make an ass out of you and me, but mostly just you.

Gena Sims:

Hahaha.

Nicole Zimmerer:

It's interesting, and it's also infuriating, the assumptions that strangers make when somebody doesn't communicate the way that they're used to. And then when that person doesn't communicate in a quote-unquote "regular manner," they just dismiss that person, you know, they kind of like dismiss them and throw in the towel and be like, "Well, that's that," you know?

Gena Sims:

Yeah, for sure.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah. So along with the new web series, you've also been doing some video interviews to go along with them. Can you tell us a bit about that, and how the interviews started?

Gena Sims:

Yeah I just kind of happened onto that. And it ended up helping a lot of people and people really liked it. So I was like, "Okay, let me do it more." But basically, the first interview happened because I wanted to create a video that could be some I guess, I guess you could call "press" for our first episode, which is called "Driving Mom Crazy." And our first episode is based off of a true story, every episode is and will be based off of a true story. It is based off a true story from this guy who has autism, about his difficulties trying to get his mom to let him learn to drive. Because like I said before, people with autism, they have motor difficulties, so it's hard for him to like, physically handle the wheel. And sometimes things, random things happen with people with autism, like, they might have their hands on the wheel and then all of a sudden they start shaking, or they have like, what some people might call a meltdown, or like an anxiety attack just happens out of the blue and then now they don't have control over their body. That thing can happen. So naturally, it is scary, it can be scary for a parent to let their child drive if they have that condition. But this guy, his name is Cody Clark, he's very successful. He has a very interesting story, because when he was first diagnosed, it was like in the early 90s and the doctor told his mother, you know, "you're never going to speak, you're never going to drive, you never going to be independent." And he does all of those things, he actually speaks for a living now, he's a speaker, he's an autism advocate. So I thought he would be a great interview, I wanted people to see the story behind the episode, the short So I interviewed him, that was my first interview. And film.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah. people really liked that, and families of people with autism, parents, they seemed very inspired by this story, and thought it was really helpful. And then I was like "this, people, people really like this. Let me do more of that." So I've done several interviews, and I'm doing more interviews. And I'm just in the editing process, so I can just get them up. You know. That's great!

Gena Sims:

And I interviewed you, because I heard, I saw something on Instagram about your podcast, and I think "Oh Nicole would be a great interview." And you said a whole bunch of really deep things.

Nicole Zimmerer:

I am super deep. I'm super, super deep. You should, well, I get deep when I, when it's like late at night and I've had a few drinks, that's when I get really deep. I'm kidding, I'm joking.

Gena Sims:

You're deep, you're deep all day.

Nicole Zimmerer:

I'm deep all day. I'm like the deep end of a pool.

Gena Sims:

Haha yeah.

Nicole Zimmerer:

I'm the deep end of a pool. But uh, yeah so like, you've done all these interviews and have you, what is like one of the main things you've learned from actually like speaking to these people? How has it helped you? And how has it like affected your art going forward?

Gena Sims:

What's a new thing I've learned? I've learned a lot of things. I guess the, the main thing I've learned is what it means to really believe in yourself. The thing about my interview with you and my interview with Cody, the guy I was just talking about, and this other interview that was really inspiring with this other guy who I'm planning on making an episode about, like a short film about his story in the future, we're trying to make that happen. And all of you guys just really believe... you actively believe in yourselves to the core. And for me, like I'm thinking about this interview, this interview I had with the last guy who I'm trying to make an episode about. And for me it was really moving to hear him talk about how strong he believes in himself and how he had, he just had one person, like one actor he was a fan of, come visit him because he sent him a fan letter, and tell him you know, "Always believe in yourself, that's what Frankie Valli told me." And I'll tell the longer, you'll see the longer story in the interview. And I was interviewing this guy, and he started crying about and just said, "you know, this guy who came to me and told me to believe in myself, he's why have a career," the guy I was talking to, he's a playwright now. Um like, and... This guy, his name's Matteo, so I can stop saying "this guy," his name is Matteo. Matteo has been bullied a lot. And he's had a lot of negative interactions with people, and people making fun of him for the things he does that are related to his autism. So he's, I got the feeling talking to him that he's been brought down more than he's been built up. But he just held on to that moment from this guy he barely knew, this actor and he just ran with it.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

And I just think that's so cool. And I, yeah.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah. It's good to have those moments. I'm thinking about, like, the moment that I hold on to even when it you know, because this industry is like not, it's not a fun time most of the time and you need that little like spark of like, "Yeah, but like, this happened," so obviously it's not all, you know, trash cans and... I can't think of another word to go with trash cans, um...

Gena Sims:

Garbage.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Garbage. Trash cans and garbage. It's not all Oscar the Grouch all the time. It's, sometimes it's really beautiful and special and magical. And I think that is part of the reason why people stay in this industry as long as we do when everybody else would be like, "Why am I doing this? I can make more money, give me something else." And then I'm like, "Well, do it. Do that, do the other thing." Um, but like, you know. It's a really rough industry, so I think that everybody needs like that moment of, of magic. And it's like a double-edged sword. I'm like, "Ugh, why am I following this dream when I have like, maybe two or three moments of like pure happiness?" But it's also like, the pure happiness was like something I've never even felt before, you know?

Gena Sims:

Mm-hm.

Nicole Zimmerer:

So long story short, like I totally, totally get where Matteo is coming from. Because like, those moments are so powerful to so many people. Yeah, yeah.

Gena Sims:

For sure.

Nicole Zimmerer:

It's like what Lady Gaga says, like "ninety-nine out of a hundred people can like not..." What, what's that quote?

Scott MacDonald:

She goes, "There could be a hundred people in a room and ninety-nine of them don't believe in you, but there's that one..." and she like--

Gena Sims:

Oh!

Scott MacDonald:

--said it so many times.

Gena Sims:

I like that.

Nicole Zimmerer:

If you Google it, she says it like 2 million times during like, I think it was the Star is Born born press conference?

Scott MacDonald:

Yeah, she said it like every press stop or something. I think that's what it was.

Gena Sims:

Well it's a good quote.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

It's a good quote.

Nicole Zimmerer:

It's very true.

Gena Sims:

Yeah, yeah.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah. Gena, so what are your, what are your hopes for, like, The Voice Inside? What do you hope it brings to the table and like, shows people? If anything. Or you, it could just be like a fun little project that you're doing, like, no pressure. But I think, I think you do have hopes and dreams for it.

Gena Sims:

I do, I do! Yeah, I want to see it be a place where teens can go, teens that have disabilities and teens that don't have disabilities, and they can go and they can watch all these stories about how people have overcome challenges in their lives, how real people have done it, in the form of these films. And they'll relate to it, and they'll be inspired by it, and they'll feel more confident by watching it. And also have more confidence in other teens around them, especially the teens who have disabilities. Because, like I was saying about my sister, you know, the big driving force for me is trying to get people to see her potential and take it seriously, honestly. I'm excited for kids, and also parents, and especially teachers, to watch these videos and be like, "Oh, wow! These are, these are real stories about what these kids," when it comes to the kids who have disabilities, or the kids who are, especially the kids who are nonverbal and whatnot, "what these kids are thinking and how they're overcoming challenges in their lives." And like, "Wow, I see that these kids are strong. That teenagers, in general, are strong and individual, and they're unique, and they're all very different. As a teacher," I'm pretending to be this teacher watching these videos, "I'm going to stop coming to my classroom or my therapy office and just kind of treating these kids like they're just..." I don't know...

Nicole Zimmerer:

They're not fully...

Gena Sims:

I feel like you have a good word for what I'm trying to say. What did you say?

Nicole Zimmerer:

That "they're not fully human yet"?

Gena Sims:

"Not fully human yet," yeah. And I think, obviously, for kids with disabilities, they can probably relate to that, that feeling very strongly, like they feel like "I am a prototype," I guess.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

And I think also just for, for kids who don't have disabilities to like, oftentimes like--

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

I remember being in high school and just feeling, yeah...

Nicole Zimmerer:

You felt like you're being talked down a lot, when you were like, "Actually, I have thoughts and feelings and emotions. And even though I am young, I am like... my emotions, and my ideas are valid." Is that?

Gena Sims:

Yeah, and I didn't have that, I didn't have that experience a lot. And I definitely don't want to compare my experience to the experience of a teen with disabilities, it's just a completely different, totally different ballgame.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Right.

Gena Sims:

And actually, I was blessed to have quite a few people who believe in me, and who wanted to know what I thought and what I had to say. But I did, I've also had, you know, strong experiences with adults who didn't see the value of my perspective in unfortunate circumstances. But um, yeah, so that's, that's the big vision for it. I really wanted to be big, it's a project that I want to keep going with, and I want to commit to for as long as it seems to be growing. And it's, and people seem to be interested in it. And you know, really in the long term.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah, yeah, that sounds amazing. I'm just thinking, in terms of like, the period of your life, where it's kind of the most, I don't want to say "volatile," but kind of the most "iffy," is like the teen phase, once you hit puberty you have to like, figure everything out. And I'm just thinking about like, my teen years and how, because even though I don't have autism, like, if I even had seen the show, I would feel comforted by the fact that "Oh, somebody with a disability, even though it's different from my disability, somebody wants to hear from their perspective. So they'll probably want to hear from my perspective," you know? Like, "My voice is worthy of, of getting, you know, attention," and, I mean we talked about this during my interview with you, my interview with you. About like, how representation is so important, because when you see yourself on stage, or on screen, on stage or screen, let's be honest, it's like, you feel seen, even if it's not your story, it's like, "Oh, yes, I understand that. And that makes me feel good, because I feel like I'm visible," you know?

Gena Sims:

Mm-hm.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

For sure. It's representation... yeah, that's a huge thing. Being a kid, because especially like, kids watch, spend so much time watching screens, not necessarily television these days--

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

--but like this, like this computer screen I'm looking at right now.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah. Gena, on that note, what would you like to see over the next 10 years in terms disability representation?

Gena Sims:

Like you were saying, I want people with disabilities to feel like they can look at a video or something in the media and feel like their story is being represented. I don't have a disability, so I can't say exactly how I personally would need disabilities to be represented because I don't have a disability. But what I want for people who do have disabilities, especially kids who, like I said, spend so much time watching screens and looking to the screen and the media to tell them what matters... to be able to look at the screen and the media and be like, "Oh, my story matters. People are interested in what I have to say," and people are interested in representing their unique perspectives. I'd like to see people becoming really interested in just a variety of all perspectives in general. And... the variety of all perspectives of people with different kinds of disabilities, because everybody's mind is so different. And I want kids in general, to feel like, the media is interested in the individual perspective, everybody's so different, rather than being interested in portraying a stereotype, which is what I feel like, when I look at the media in general, I feel like it's more, the people, the creators are more about putting out a stereotype of how a person is rather than really trying to delve into an individual's unique perspective and how complicated people can really be.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah, yeah.

Gena Sims:

Yeah.

Nicole Zimmerer:

That also seems like a theme in this podcast, is like, breaking stereotypes. We always talk about breaking stereotypes, because they are really prevalent in today's media, especially when it comes to disability. I constantly talk about the victim versus villain stereotype with disabilities. And it's something we gotta, we gotta shatter. It's like, we gotta shatter the glass ceiling, we gotta shatter stereotypes, we gotta shatter other things, I don't know. I only have those two on my agenda, but I'm sure there's something else we need to shatter, somewhere, but yeah.

Gena Sims:

I like how you mentioned that victim/villain thing.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

Because I think, yeah, I think this stereotype, this idea that people should look at people with disabilities as victims of their condition is so damaging, and it's just so ineffective. Like as, as a big sister, as a caregiver for my sister, as a teacher, etc. like, I just know that if you feel like somebody is a victim of their condition, then you feel like there isn't really potential for them to surprise you--

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah.

Gena Sims:

--in the way that they end up living their life.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah. Or if you think that we're a victim, it doesn't, like it doesn't help them grow, and it doesn't help you grow as a person. For me, the human experience is all about growth and learning and accumulating knowledge about the world around me. And then, you know, hopefully, that knowledge will come in handy at some point. But you know, it's just, I mean I think if we view people with disabilities as one way or another, if it's like a binary, if it's like a black and white thing, then we're not given the opportunity to like actually grow as people, you know? So, yeah. Well, Gena, I think that's a great note to end on. Thank you so much for being here. Is there anything you would like to plug?

Gena Sims:

Sure.

Nicole Zimmerer:

And how can our listeners find you?

Gena Sims:

You can find me on Facebook, my Facebook page is facebook.com/GenaSings. You can find the Autism Theater Project on Facebook, which is facebook.com/AutismTheatreProject. The Voice Inside YouTube Channel URL, I believe is in the description below. You can click on that to check out our web series. And I'm also on Instagram, @genasims19.

Nicole Zimmerer:

That's amazing.

Gena Sims:

Yeah.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Thank you so much. Uh, listeners, please go check out Gena, she's really a fantastic artist and a great friend of mine. I will sing her praises until the cows come home.

Gena Sims:

Oh!

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah! Yeah. I'm so excited that you were able to join us Gena, thank you so much.

Gena Sims:

Thank you. I'm so glad that you asked me to do this. This was a lot of fun.

Nicole Zimmerer:

Yeah. Of course! Thank you for listening to this episode of Break a Leg! And thank you to our guest, Gena, for joining us today. Follow us on Instagram and Twitter @breakalegpod, that's break a leg, P-O-D. Let us know what you thought of the episode or tell us who you think we should have on next. For a full transcript of each episode, use the link in the episode description. The easiest way to support this show is by leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts. And make sure to click that Subscribe button! Break A Leg! is produced by Scott MacDonald, and our cover art was created by Sasha and Alexander Schwartz. I'm Nicole Zimmerer and I will see you next time.

Introductions
Spilling the Disabili-Tea
Interview with Gena
The Voice Inside Web Series
Gena's Video Interviews
Hopes and Dreams
Plugs