In the back room of a small, almost hidden bar called St. Mary’s Lyceum in the North Side, tech crews scurried around making last minute lighting checks.
Laughter and conversation from bar patrons and locals faded as a large door slid into place to separate the billiard room-turned-stage from the bar. Pittsburgh Fringe employees donning bright blue shirts directed guests to the seating area.
Out from behind a large gray curtain popped energetic 23-year-old Cody Clark, clad in a suit and tie.
“I’m very excited because I grew up [watching] Mr. Rogers, who has been a huge influence on me,” Clark said. “It’s good to perform in his literal neighborhood.”
He began fiddling with a Rubik’s cube, keeping the small audience engaged with his sleight of hand while also making humorous conversation. He tossed the toy in the air and when it returned to his hands it was miraculously solved.
Clark, of Louisville, Kentucky, performed three shows at the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival from March 31 through April 2. In addition to Clark’s show, “A Different Way of Thinking,” the fourth annual festival featured a musical called “Laundry Night” and a solo comedy show called “Mo-on-the-oncle.” Because Clark falls on the autism spectrum, he used the festival and his magic show to double as an autism advocacy event.
Growing up with autism, Clark said he had trouble finding a niche. His twin sister excelled in basketball and his brother in football, so his own lack of enthusiasm for athletic pursuits left him perplexed. But, during a family vacation, a magician called on the 11-year-old Clark to be a volunteer in his show. That’s when he found his passion.
He began practicing magic non-stop and met with other aspiring magicians to learn new tricks. Remembering his own feelings of isolation as a child, Clark wanted to be someone who kids with autism could look up to.
“Unfortunately with things like bullying, kids with autism don’t think too highly of themselves, and I’ve had my own struggles with that, but I like to use my shows to bring kids with autism to see someone who has succeeded,” Clark said. “It was a huge hit, and a great way for me to reach out to the autistic community.”
Local autism advocate Cori Frazer also sees the necessity for self-representation for people with autism, although they take a different approach than Clark does. Frazer, a graduate student at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, is an adult living with autism. They co-founded The Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, which takes a more community-centric approach to addressing the needs of people with autism.
The center represents those living with autism through legislative, social and community building efforts. The organization started in 2014 as a chapter of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Unlike other advocacy initiatives, the network is run primarily by autistic individuals, rather than those individuals’ parents.
“As an autistic adult, I went looking for a community and I found a lot of parents. I felt like we needed our own community that we directed that could center our concerns and provide what we needed,” Frazer said.
While the center focuses on building its own community, Clark has plugged into the communities surrounding Fringe festivals. He’s performed at nine Fringe festivals and countless independent acts. It’s through these festivals that Clark was able to get his start in professional magic and begin his journey into autism advocacy.
Originally beginning in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1947, Fringe festivals promote exploratory performance arts by featuring lesser-known performing artists. Cities across the country and the world hold their own Fringe festivals — typically through the United States Association of Fringe Festivals — which specialize in uncensored and alternative performances. Though each Fringe festival may have its own flavor, each strives to give its audience members a break from the big-name stage performers they’re used to seeing.
At Pittsburgh Fringe, submitted performances are unjuried, meaning local fringe organizers select them at random. This gives lesser known artists — including Clark — a chance to perform in front of large audiences. Last year nearly 1,000 people attended the festival.
Xela Batchelder, executive director and founder of Pittsburgh Fringe, said the unjuried aspect of the festival is what makes it compelling for the audience.
“The true Fringe experience is seeing a lot of shows and seeing a lot of things you’ve never heard of,” Batchelder said. “You come away with things you’ll never plan on coming away with and experiences you never knew you were going to have.”
To reach a broader audience, Clark has developed a kid’s show called Conductor Cody, which combines children’s love for trains with magic — especially since Clark’s two interests as a child were Thomas the Tank Engine and magic.
During Clark’s show at the Pittsburgh Fringe, he told stories about his childhood and about growing up with autism — such as making Velveeta Mac ‘n Cheese Clark with his grandmother to help quell his temper tantrums.
As Clark told the story, he magically pulled three boxes of the “ooey-gooey stuff” out of a seemingly empty brown paper bag.
“I like to make my magic more than just a stunt,” Clark said. “Stunts are fine, but I feel like my magic can really say something more than just ‘Wow, how did you do that.’”
Although Clark incorporates his experience growing up with autism into his act, he doesn’t want that to define his performance.
“Advocating will always be a part of who I am, but I want people to know that I’m a magician too when you take the autism off the table,” Clark said. “Although I use my magic to talk about how autism makes me different, a lot of the stories in my show we all can relate to.”
Both Clark and Frazer emphasize that individuals with autism aren’t defined solely by their diagnosis. Clark is a brother, a son, a magician, a student and a dreamer. Frazer is a grad student, a self-starter, a leader and a founder.
“I want people to know that our lives aren’t tragedies and that we are worthy of human rights and community living whether or not we graduate high school or use our mouth to speak,” Frazer said. “Whether or not we have an intellectual disability, we are all worthy human beings.”