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A Young Actor Refuses to Be Upstaged by Tourette Syndrome

Jamie Sanders is building a career in the theater—while changing how his audiences think about Tourette's.
Jamie Sanders.

Jamie Sanders.

On a frigid day in New York's Washington Square Park, Jamie Sanders, a 23-year-old writer and performer, pulled out his phone and showed off a self-curated Spotify playlist on his phone called "Tic Songs."

"There are certain songs I find that when they're playing I don't 'tic,'" he says. His playlist includes Linkin Park's "The Little Things Give You Away" and Perry Como's "It's a Lovely Day Today." "There's a rhythm to them that settles well."

Much like any actor starting out in New York, Sanders, who has Tourette syndrome, has been keeping himself busy auditioning for parts on both stage and screen.

"Generally, my tics don't affect my auditions," he says. "Even if I'm having a rough day or I'm stressed out over the audition, once I step in to the room I snap in to performance mode. Of course, once I leave an audition I'm usually an absolute mess."

Sanders also regularly makes YouTube videos that shed light on, and sometimes make light of, what he calls his "neurodivergence." In one clip, "What Does Having Tourette's Feel Like?" he uses pop-culture references to describe the feeling of trying and failing to suppress his tics. "It's like being a Transformer," he says in the video, "except without the part where you're a robot or actually turn into anything. It's just the contorting and weird noises."

For Sanders, the most fitting metaphor to describe the feeling of Tourette's is the rattling lid on a pan of boiling spaghetti. "When I was little, my mom would always cook spaghetti with the sauce in this pan that had this glass top, and you see the steam build up," he says. "I would pick it up and it would go pooooff. And I thought, that's how it feels."

Sanders' tics, which have lessened with age, range from the very slight (a snuffle here, a grunt there) to the more noticeable (scrunching of the nose, twisting of the shoulders, jaw, wrists, or ankles).

"I still do hold myself incredibly tight in my back and shoulders, but my jaw doesn't lock up like it used to, and I don't feel shame over wiggling my nose or making a face at someone mid-conversation."

None of it distracts from his outsize presence and personality. At his favorite diner near the park, opting for a grilled cheese sandwich, Sanders' voice easily rises above the din of lunching locals and tourists.

"It's fine if you're an adult," he continues. "But when you're sitting in a quiet classroom surrounded by judgmental kids, and teachers who don't necessarily understand, you become the class clown.... I didn't get to introduce myself on my own terms. People would see the sound, and the motion, and the weird faces, and the shaking, before they saw the nervous sad kid who just wanted to talk to someone."

When we met, Sanders was in the middle of learning his lines for his first major acting role, the part of Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time with Kansas City Repertory Theater. The play, written by Simon Stephens and based on the novel by Mark Haddon, immerses the audience in the mind of Christopher, and his never-named autistic condition: Christopher has a genius flair with mathematics, but also a tendency to short-circuit in social situations or in moments of information overload.

"It's a representation of someone whose brain is firing differently than other people's," Sanders says of the play. "And I'm a person whose brain fires differently than other people's. I feel like it allows an audience to experience the overwhelming nature of being like Christopher." One reviewer noted that Sanders' Christopher was "variously endearing, sympathetic, exasperating, and awe-inspiring."

Growing up in a theater-loving household—his parents are actors, Tony Award winner Maryann Plunkett and Jay O. Sanders—Sanders found an outlet in performing from a young age. He went to Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, more popularly known as the Fame high school, and developed a passion for improvised comedy on the side. While studying drama at Emerson College, playing George in the soda fountain bit from Our Town, he was anxious about his tics disrupting the gentleness of the scene. "I said to my teacher, 'What if it comes out during the performance?' And [the teacher] said, 'Then it's part of the performance.'"

"Even though my tics mostly leave me alone on stage, I feel as though I stopped holding myself as tightly out of fear of them getting through. The acceptance that they could come and there's nothing wrong with that led me to relax a lot more. Not just onstage but in the rest of my life."

Sanders' ambitions range from doing Shakespeare in the Park, where he first saw his father perform, to doing something "big" with his YouTube channel. He's also intrigued by the possibilities of motion-capture performance, along the lines of Andy Serkis' work in Lord of the Rings and the rebooted Planet of the Apes films. "I feel like the way I process movement and physicality could lend itself to that sort of performance," he says.

And, one day, Sanders hopes to play a role he just missed out on in high school—that of Cyrano de Bergerac. It's a part for which he has some affinity. "At the end of the day, if he'd just gotten over the fact that he had a big nose, people would've liked him," he says. "In many ways, the only person holding him back was himself."