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The Play's the Thing

Boise playwright with autism honored at Kennedy Center

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To describe Christopher Huntsman as soft-spoken would be a major understatement. The young playwright's words come sparingly, sometimes 10-15 seconds apart, and always in hushed tones. But when asked about the creative process of crafting his award-winning play, A Journey to the Mind's Eye, the 19-year-old's eyes brightened. He sat up straight on the couch in his family's north Boise living room, his arm and forefinger extended.

"Here's the story," Christopher said, moving his arm horizontally in a straight line. "Then, there's rising action," he added, slowly raising up his arm. "And then..." He took another extended pause. "And then, climax. Descending action," he said, slowly bringing down his arm. "And of course, conclusion."

His description was simple. It contained no unnecessary words or phrases. In effect, it was the perfect response.

There are many words to describe Christopher, a recent Boise High School graduate: brilliant, creative, talented—and autistic, making his improbable story as an award-winning playwright all the more remarkable.

Better yet, on Labor Day weekend, Christopher and his parents will travel to Washington, D.C., where they will watch an excerpt from his play performed on stage at the Kennedy Center as part of the distinguished institution's Very Special Arts (VSA) Playwright Discovery Competition.

"But here's the thing: This is Christopher's first play," said his mother, Teresa Huntsman. "He's never taken a drama class. He has never been involved in theater."

It's a stunning revelation, considering Christopher's entry is a near-perfect 18-page play, ideal as a screenplay for a short film or episode of a TV series. When asked again to describe his story, Christopher quickly stood up from the couch and left the room, returning a few minutes later with two paper dolls representing the main characters in his play.

"This is Emma. She is 15-years-old. She is 6-feet, 1-inch tall. She has brown hair," Christopher said. "And this is Nick. He's 16-years-old. He is 6-feet, 5-inches tall. He has black hair. He lives in a very particular cabin."

Christopher took a long pause.

"And of course, he has autism," he added.

When asked if Nick was based on himself, Christopher broke into a slow smile.

"A lot of people think I relate to Nick," he said. "I'm not so sure."

Christopher was born in May 1996, seven years before his parents, Walt and Teresa, moved the family from Illinois to Idaho in 2003. The Huntsmans said they chose Boise from a Places Rated Almanac, deciding it was the ideal environment for their family.

"When Christopher was a baby, the first thing they do is tell a parent that there are milestones for the infant, like lifting his head or sitting up. He was delayed," Teresa said. "Christopher didn't sit up until he was a year old and he didn't walk until he was 2. When Christopher was 4 years old, he got a formal diagnosis on the autism spectrum."

Christopher attended Cynthia Mann Elementary, Hillside Junior High and Boise High School, concluding this past spring with what he called his "super senior" year to take extra academic classes before graduating in May.

"As for the future, well, we're still in the discovery phase of learning what he can do and how he fits in the world," said Christopher's father, Walt, who worked as a television producer and information technology associate before becoming a full-time caregiver for his son this year.

"I must tell you that it was quite a stunning moment to get a call from Washington, D.C., and someone from the Kennedy Center asking to speak to your son," Walt said. "Honestly, we had almost forgotten that Christopher entered the competition."

That phone call in July was a life-changing moment. Christopher learned his play was selected in the senior division (grades 10-12) from among nearly 400 international entries received by the Kennedy Center, and would be produced there Saturday, Sept. 5 and Sunday, Sept. 6.

"I can't think of anything else that brings chills to my skin or excitement to a young playwright than to hear an audience laugh or gasp or applaud your work. It's an amazing final event," said Betty Siegel, director of VSA and Accessibility at the Kennedy Center, from her D.C. office. "We hold all of our playwright discovery participants to a very high bar. And our responsibility is to enable them to excel in meeting our expectations; but, more importantly, their own expectations."

Back in Boise, Christopher said his play about Nick, Emma, autism and life's possibilities was designed to "inspire people who are in deep tragedy to not give up on themselves."

"And that's for people both with and without autism," he said. "Maybe I see things others don't."

His eyes twinkled once more as he took another long pause before saying softly, "I want to be legendary."

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