While discussing his character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, actor Brandon Michael Mayes undergoes a different sort of curious incident.
The more he describes the thoughts and feelings of a 15-year-old neighborhood sleuth with high-functioning autism, the more he disappears into the role. His posture stiffens. His torso leans away from the conversation. His eyes avoid connection. He speaks in a staccato rhythm.
“I utilize a lot of points of focus,” Mayes says about how he creates the boy named Christopher, glancing at walls and demonstrating as he describes his process. “There’s facial tension because a lot of times the facial expression and the feel of the emotions don’t match. There is a lot of hand tension, upper body tension, points of tactile comfort. I play a lot with the edge of my shirt. When I get a chance, I actually play a lot with my socks.”
As he says this, he crosses his legs and runs his fingertips along the top of his shoes. Then, just as quickly as the character appeared at the table, he’s gone.
Because Christopher’s thinking and emotional life follow different paths than most people, Mayes says the role — which he played in October at Horizon Theatre and now plays through February 9 at Aurora Theatre via a coproduction — required him to learn a new way to perform.
“I had to relearn how to act, in a way, in order to do this,” he says, “because normally you’re experiencing a character through their emotions, through their subtext, through how they listen completely and become engrossed in what is happening right in front of them and how it will affect them. As Christopher, there are clear times where, whatever is happening to me, I make the choice to not pay attention.”
Everyone is connected, Mayes says. “Though the scale or the situation may be different in each play, if you’re portraying someone who doesn’t think the way you do or comes from a different place, the whole point of the art is that you find the empathy no matter what. That’s what brings everyone — onstage or off — into the story.”
Mayes, 25, grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and attended the two-year Florida School for the Arts (associate degree in acting and directing) and Brenau University with the Gainesville Theatre Alliance, graduating with a B.F.A. in 2018. He now lives in Little Five Points. He’s learned that his favorite roles are the ones that require him to stretch his boundaries. He’s played characters 20 years older than himself (like Odysseus) and “a lot of fathers.”
Mayes decided to pursue acting at age 16 after working with graduate students visiting his high school. They showed him the passion and work it requires. He moved to Atlanta after college and earned his first professional stage credit in a 2018 staging of A Christmas Carol at Theatre Buford. His work as Christopher at Horizon helped him book an agent. He’s interested in film and television, too, and is taking classes at Drama Inc., an Atlanta acting studio that guides actors as they explore the metro area’s TV and film industry.
To help him understand how to play Christopher, Mayes started with the script and the Mark Haddon book on which it’s based and then dug through mental-health websites to learn about autism symptoms and common traits among children on the spectrum. The whole cast visited the Tapestry Public Charter School to see how teachers and students on the autism spectrum communicate and interact.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time walks the audience through Christopher’s detective-like mind, using projections of math, photos and text to show how he processes information. At one point, the set’s walls fill with images from his brain. “I feel like I’m in a Windows screen saver sometimes or standing in the middle of an explosion of stars,” Mayes says.
Look for him next as Avram in the Paula Vogel drama Indecent (at Theatrical Outfit most of March), where he’ll use his musical abilities as one of seven actors playing more than 40 roles as well as klezmer music. He auditioned with the clarinet, one of three instruments he’s played since childhood.
That means he’ll be going from one Tony Award-winning drama to another. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won five 2015 Tonys, including best play. Indecent was a 2017 best-play nominee, winning Tonys for its direction and lighting.
Mayes appreciates the time he’s spent with Christopher. “I feel really, really blessed to be a part of work like this,” he says. “It’s not of me, it’s bigger, touching so many people and so many important topics. I love that. Love it. I don’t want to do anything else.”