It’s been a few months, but Wendy Laakmann is still awed by young actor ­Spencer Johnson’s performance in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

The drama based on the Mark Haddon novel of the same name kicked off Cascades Theatrical Company’s 2018-19 season in late August.

Johnson, 18, earned nightly ovations in the lead role of Christopher, a boy with autism. After he is accused of killing a neighbor’s dog, Christopher sets out, against his father’s wishes, to investigate the killing. He proves an intrepid sleuth as he ventures out of his bubble, meeting neighbors and eventually learning a shattering truth.

“He was amazing,” Laakmann said of Johnson’s performance.

Laakmann, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and practices at Bend Neuropsychology Clinic, said, “I’m a psychologist, and I work with kids on the spectrum. And he was so good I just could not believe it.”

The young man just pulled off another amazing feat: His first quarter at Southern Oregon University, partly funded by CTC patrons such as Laakmann.

Not long after the show’s run, CTC messaged its patrons asking if they would consider contributing to Johnson’s college costs. “We have received a donor pledge of up to $7,000 to match, dollar-for-­dollar, any gifts received to fund this scholarship,” went the pitch. “Over 1,300 people attended ‘Curious.’ If only 300 of you contribute $25 each, we will meet the goal of $7,000.”

Those who read the email also learned a little more about the young actor’s life off the stage: “What none of us at CTC knew is the obstacles he has overcome,” continued the pitch. “By the time he was a junior at Redmond High, long-term, long-distance parental absences left him responsible for his own daily care. While holding multiple jobs just to feed himself, Spencer continued to push himself academically, especially in the theater.”

Patrons such as Laakmann didn’t hesitate to pitch in for the cause.

“Just the amount of work he must have put in to make it so accurate. It showed such a drive and such a capacity to empathize that you don’t usually see in kids that age,” she said.

That sentiment is backed by Hilda Beltran Wagner, Johnson’s drama instructor at Redmond High, where she taught him his sophomore through senior years. She had him in mind when she took on directing the CTC show.

“He’s just an empathetic, observant and hardworking individual,” she said. “He did his research. With the permission of family members and groups, he went to some classrooms in some churches I think that had some autistic children in them. He went on an autism walk and participated in that to contribute and also he did a ton of book-type research into the part. I think he really took the responsibility seriously of representing a person very different from him.”

Though their personal details differ, Beltran Wagner and others noted an interesting symmetry between the actor and the memorable character he played on stage.

“I’m sure the character Christopher would be classified as gifted and talented,” Beltran Wagner said. “Spencer is as well, in terms of that designation in high school. And yet (the two had) totally different sets of conditions that are fighting against (them).”

Much like Christopher, Johnson displays a dogged determination even when he’s offstage. Johnson was determined to overcome his personal matters and succeed where he could have easily succumbed.

“So in that sense, he really embodied that character,” she said.

Personal struggles

Johnson’s living situation at home in Redmond deteriorated his junior and senior years.

“My mom was having difficulties,” Johnson said. He preferred not to go into specifics of those difficulties. “She needed to move away. And so she left to go to Virginia. My dad was … working in the Texas oil field.”

His mom left in June 2017, and he and his older sister shared the apartment until December of last year, when she moved to Bend, he said.

“So I was staying there pretty much by myself, and then my dad had to close down the apartment because it was costing too much,” he said.

For the rest of his senior year, Johnson had the option of staying with his sister at her apartment in Bend. “If I was able to get to and from, there was a spot. It was just financially difficult for me to move back and forth,” he said.

“I was too involved in plays. My job, my entire life was in Redmond. And so … I’d stay at my buddy’s house and sleep on his couch, or if it came down to it, sleep in my truck,” he said.

Love of acting

Johnson credits his father for his work ethic, as well as pushing him toward theater. According to Beltran Wagner, though, Johnson had a love-hate relationship with acting in the beginning.

“He kept coming back and being interested in more,” she said. “What I realized was that other kids really trusted him. It was really profound, actually. When I realized this, it made me look at him a little differently. And I started learning a lot about him.”

By his senior year, Johnson had blossomed into a respected leader in the school’s theater program. That impact is still being felt.

“The easier thing would have been for him to drop out at that time because he was actually finished with almost all his requirements,” Beltran Wagner said. “But he was growing in the program and experiencing leadership opportunities and lead parts and really serving as a leader in the theater community and as a role model for younger kids. And that was really important to him because he had always wanted to do that.”

Theater at Redmond High was “literally what kept him in school,” she said. “And he slept in his car in order to do it.”

Diving in

After graduating in June, Johnson worked construction, and in his free time, what there was of it, he dived into prepping for the role, spending time around autistic youth and reading about autism.

President of the CTC Board of Governors Richard Choate counts himself among those who appreciated Johnson’s acting — and not because he outshined the others in the cast.

“I went and I actually saw the story as opposed to, ‘Oh look, the star,’” Choate said.

“He had the opportunity to be a star, but I (don’t) think that’s what happened. I think I saw an excellent ensemble piece by all the people, with him as the centerpiece. I actually got to see the story. That’s theater, as far as I’m concerned.”

Since the start of his senior year, Johnson had harbored a dream of attending Southern Oregon University in Ashland, also home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It started his junior year, “When we went down for a class, we checked it out. Everybody was able see some plays and walk around a little bit. That’s when I knew I really wanted to go there,” he said.

In fact, SOU was the only college to which he applied.

“And I got in. And then (financing) was a little bit difficult for me, and I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. It seemed like I could only take a certain amount of loans out. I wasn’t quite sure how to do this and that. So I said, ‘I think I’m just going to go to COCC.’”

Even as the show was being staged and August gave way to September, his dream of attending Southern Oregon almost slipped away. Beltran Wagner and other castmates encouraged him to just take the chance to go to Ashland, assuring him that it would work out.

“He had been so passionate about it, and then we can say he spun out a little bit, and withdrew from SOU, and this was all happening while the show was opening,” she said. “And I really wanted him to keep going for it.”

She had a plan to approach the CTC board about launching the scholarship fundraising campaign, “but I wanted him to say yes first before I went to the board,” Beltran Wagner said. “So I really talked with him quite a bit. And eventually he came around to saying, ‘OK, it doesn’t matter what, but I’m going to say yes to this.’”

As Johnson recalled it, “Hilda came up to me one day, her and a couple of the other castmates, and they said, ‘Just go. Just try it out and see how it is. You can always come back to COCC if things don’t work out.’”

“And so that’s what I ended up doing. I just decided to stick with it and say, ‘All right.’ I called up and got all my classes back, and showed up in September. I was looking into trying to figure out money this way and that way. And then Hilda called me up one day and said, ‘Well, we got a scholarship going for you.’”

Scholarship campaign

When the scholarship was only an idea, Beltran Wagner approached Choate, who suggested she pitch the idea at a CTC board meeting.

“I always bring this up, because I don’t think people know,” Choate said. “If you’ve got something you’re interested in proposing, if you’ve got a complaint, I recommend you … just come to the board meeting and talk to us.”

Beltran Wagner and “Curious Incident” cast member Susannah Harrison asked the board about launching a scholarship campaign on behalf of Johnson — who, by the way, is the first member of his family to attend college.

The board was all for it, according to Choate.

“I thought, you know, why not. You know? I mean, the kid really has talent. He had a lot of issues in his life. They got him committed to going to school,” he said. “A lot of kids, when their parents send them to school, they don’t have the same kind of enthusiasm.”

An anonymous donor pledged to match up to $7,000. Once CTC put out the call to its patrons, donations started to pour in, Choate said. Although some were larger donations, most were “reasonable denominations, but there were a LOT of them,” he said. “By and large, it was a huge response.”

The $14,000 will be parceled out over the next two years, Huskey said. When she contacted Johnson at school to discuss details on dispersing the funds, “He was so grateful and so appreciative and he had no idea that we were going to do this for him,” she said. “He (will) be set up for the next hopefully four quarters — so five total quarters we’ve got covered for him.”

Huskey added that when she spoke to Johnson about the scholarship, she asked him, “So how’s it going?”

“He goes, ‘I’m living my dream. This is amazing,’” she said. “He’s so happy. You couldn’t be giving the money to a more grateful, deserving young man is what my takeaway is.”

“It was really something,” Johnson said. “I didn’t even know what to say. I still am speechless about it. It’s given me so much freedom.”

He plans on studying psychology and theater at the school. The SOU Bridge Program works one-on-one to help students such as Johnson transition into college and figure out loans, and he plans to get a part-time job, he said.

Beltran Wagner, who played such a critical role in his getting to SOU and getting the scholarship up and running, said she’d like to go the extra mile for a lot of her students.

“He’s really just an amazing kid. He’s just a great kid. He showed really exceptional talent,” she said. “His resilience and his work ethic despite not being in an environment that supported, that is exceptional. Without people present in his life every day to help with all these challenges of transitioning to an adult, he managed to do that on his own.”

Psychologist and CTC patron Laakmann considers her donation to Johnson’s education to be money well spent.

“When I read the story that he really hasn’t (acted) very much, and he’s struggling, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, this kid needs to go somewhere,” she said.

“Somewhere” could have included Los Angeles to pursue acting instead of a college education, which was an option, Johnson said.

“That was something that popped in my mind,” he said, ??but I’m very happy that it didn’t happen.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0349 or djasper@bendbulletin.com

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