Playwright Tito Livas on creating ‘SQUEAK’


Tito is an actor, educator, playwright, and member of Plan-B's Theatre Artists of Color Writing Workshop, where he has created his plays "Organic" (which was produced as part of LOCAL COLOR, Plan-B’s series of audio plays during the pandemic), "American Dream," "Shine A Light" (commissioned for the Play at Home initiative and part of the COVID-19 Response Collection housed in the Library of Congress), and SQUEAK.

Regional acting credits include Plan-B, National Theatre for Children, TheatreWorks USA, Walt Disney World, Princess Cruises, Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Salt Lake Acting Company, Pioneer Theatre Company, Utah Opera, The Public Theater, and The Old Globe. He has also appeared in many Hallmark movies, industrials, and print and television ad campaigns.

Tito lives on an urban farm in West Valley with his husband and two sons.

If I were to share all the ideas I listed when I was commissioned to write for Plan-B's Free Elementary School Tour, you would see everything from dealing with thoughts and ideas that were different from those of your parents, to having same-sex parents, to navigating life as a foster kid, to escaping into imagination when things get rough, to understanding why some of our wishes don’t come true, to growing up deaf ... and that’s just a sampling. Ultimately (inevitably?) I landed on a play about my oldest child.

SQUEAK is the story of what I think it's like inside his brain, the difficulties he has within himself and his interactions with others, and how to better serve his neurodivergence.

Oliver was born with methamphetamines and other drugs in his system. He was placed with me and my husband Doug as a newborn. We knew he was likely to have some sort of developmental issue, be it mental or emotional. Because meth is such a new drug, there’s not much information on how it affects developing babies while in utero. The consensus from our doctors was that we might see delays in his formative years, when he hits puberty, or both.

We started testing Oliver as soon as he was old enough. Professionals met with us in our home to test his motor skills (fairly advanced) and cognitive skills (fairly behind). "Okay! We knew this was a possibility, let's proceed with a plan that will help him as best we can." And so began our search for help.

We found a Montessori school with a mantra of fostering a love of learning for every child, rather than throwing information at them to memorize. It was a place where Oliver could just play while learning from both teachers and peers. And for two years that worked great! The combination of the hard work of his wonderful teachers and what we were doing at home helped Oliver progress: he was able to better communicate and was learning how to interact with others.

But once he entered kindergarten, things got more difficult. He couldn’t sit and focus on a task for longer than two minutes. (That’s not an exaggeration.) The principal observed him on several occasions. Each time, over the course of three hours, she would time him to see how long it would take before he would abandon his task, stand up, and run around the classroom. Or start talking to (pestering) another child. Or leave the classroom to wander the halls.

Two minutes.

Needless to say, it was frustrating for everyone involved. Oliver was labeled “challenging” by his teachers and “annoying” by his peers. All because of something out of his control. It was heartbreaking. He didn’t understand why he wasn’t liked, why the other kids didn’t want to play with him, why the teachers couldn’t just work with him the entire day. He was great one-on-one, but without someone dedicated to guiding him, his mind would wander, his focus would waver, and he wouldn’t be able to get back to center. Then his emotions would spiral. If he wasn’t allowed to play with a specific something or someone, he would become a crying mess, have a meltdown, and require quite a bit of attention to calm down.

It was no surprise when his school asked us to pull him out until we figured out a way to help him be less distracting in class.

Did I cry when they told us that? Of course I did.
Did I cry on his last day? Of course I did.
Did I also make sure he didn’t see me crying and pretend that everything was fine and it was just the last day of school for everyone? Of course I did.

The following week was his first therapy session at a local agency serving neurodiverse children. Which was both disappointing and validating. Their approach with Oliver was pretty much what we were already doing, including breathing exercises involving physical touch to bring him back to center when overstimulated or melting down. It took Oliver a while to warm up to and feel comfortable with his therapist. But after three sessions, she was able to get a sense of what Oliver is like on a daily basis, and confessed that she wasn’t sure how to help us.

A children’s neurodiversity therapist was unsure what to do to help our child. You can imagine our reaction.

Next up was an appointment with his pediatrician to try and get him on meds for his newly diagnosed ADHD. Because he was only five, and because they don’t usually prescribe ADHD meds for kids that young, Oliver received the lowest dose possible. And the result has been incredible.

He can focus, stay on task, have a full-on conversation, and be himself instead of a puppet to the chaos going on in his brain.

But we are lucky. Now that we have a full diagnosis, we have the means to get Oliver the help he needs. We can afford the medication, we have insurance, we have a support system in place.

What happens to the kids whose families don’t have that? Families can’t get the help?
Neurodivergence is much more common than people realize.

I hope SQUEAK will help students and teachers realize that “that kid” in their class who needs constant attention, can’t sit down, can’t focus, who seems annoying and pestering, is probably not acting that way on purpose. Chances are they can’t control it.

I get it. I live with my kid 24/7. I know how frustrating he can be, I know how draining he can be, and I’ve lost my cool more times than I can count.
As frustrating as it is, we can't control what "that kid" does. But we can control how we react.

Dismissing "that kid" serves no one.

My hope is that students, teachers, administrators, and parents - anyone and everyone who watches SQUEAK - will come away with a little more patience and a lot more understanding of what goes on inside the minds of kids whose brains work a little differently.

Kids like my Oliver who, by the way, graduated from kindergarten at a different school last spring.

SQUEAK by Tito Livas receives its world premiere as Plan-B's Free Elementary School Tour, serving K-3 students statewide September 2023-May 2024. Here's how to bring SQUEAK to your school at no cost, as well as details on low-cost (September 9) and free (October 14) public performances.