Autistic Student Aims to Inspire as Lead Role in Theatre Production

In order to encapsulate the character of Usnavi de la Vega, the leading role of the Fall production of In The Heights, the chosen actor had to be able to act, sing, dance, and – oh yeah - rapid-fire rap hundreds of lines. Yet Aaron Saenz had a unique advantage when auditioning for the role: he is autistic.

Saenz has participated in acting classes and theatre productions since he was 10 years old. When he came to San Bernardino Valley College and discovered the Theatre Arts department, he wanted to become involved any way he could. For the past two years while attending SBVC, Saenz has auditioned for nearly every semester’s theatre production. Though he aimed for leading roles, he often was cast as smaller parts in the show, which he describes as still incredibly fun to do.

Then the Fall 2018 production was announced to be In The Heights, a story of a vibrant community in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood set to a score of salsa, hip-hop, and merengue music. Saenz had his sights set on the narrator Usnavi, a role that would require him to memorize numerous pages of rap narration. However, a unique characteristic of Saenz’s autism is that he has a great mind for details and memorization.

Learning the script would not be a problem for him in the slightest. Saenz and Julie Edwards-Matanga, musical director for the show, recently sat down with KVCR for an interview on “Lifestyles with Lillian Vasquez.” In the interview, Edwards-Matanga claimed that she was nervous to cast the role of Usnavi because it would be the first time she would have to teach a student how to rap for a production. However, Saenz came so well-prepared, her hesitation faded away. “I think the Aaron’s autism is a gift. I'm amazed by him and his wonderful brilliant mind,” she said to Vasquez. “He has made my job so easy because he came absolutely perfectly prepared.”

Saenz was cast as Usnavi, and was set to finally star in his first leading role, describing it as a feeling that he had never felt before in my life. “I did my first musical [at SBVC] 2 years ago, which was Avenue Q. I said that that was the happiest time of my life, and now being the lead in In The Heights, this might be the happiest time of my life.” The SBVC Theatre Arts Department presented this exciting musical in the SBVC Auditorium from December 6-9, 2018.

Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man behind the Hamilton phenomenon, this production was the winner of the 2008 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Choreography, and Best Orchestrations. Saenz was proud to show off his singing, dancing, acting, and yes, rapping skills on the theatre stage.

While many individuals consider autism an impairment in many situations, Saenz is grateful for his advantageous characteristic. “I've learned pretty quickly that is a trait that I have been blessed to have thanks to my autism.”