The fund’s Autism Theater Initiative will be staging a special performance of Disney’s “The Lion King” at 1 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Minskoff Theatre; “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark” at 2 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Foxwoods Theatre, and “Wicked” at 1 p.m. March 2 of next year at the Gershwin Theatre.
The shows are presented in what the initiative called a “friendly, supportive environment” for both children and adults with autism and their families or friends. But in no way does that mean the performances are toned down or fundamentally changed, according to Theatre Development Fund director of accessibility programs Lisa Carling.
“If there are cases where there are strobe lights or sudden bursts of sound, those might be modified slightly to soften it, but overall, it’s the same wonderful performance, and we always encourage the actors to give it their all,” Carling told WCBS 880. “There’s no need to tone anything down, so to speak. Any adjustments are technical.”
Everyone involved in the performances is prepared in advance, Carling said.
“We do training sessions with the house staff so the ushers know what to expect, and the cast as well – they’re prepared. It is an atypical audience,” she said. “There’s apt to be vocalization or movement during the performance, and it in no way means that the audience is not enjoying it, They’re having a wonderful time.”
There are also extra accommodations in the lobby, she said.
“If children or adults get restless and they want to get up, stretch their legs, or have some quiet time, we have everything, you know, that anyone could need. We’ve got wonderful fidgets, very soothing; a tactile, squishee ball; coloring magazines to look at; very comfy bean bag chairs,” Carling said.
The Broadway performances especially for those with autism began in 2011, with a sold-out performance of “The Lion King.” Since then, a performance of “Mary Poppins” and a second staging of “The Lion King” also have been called a success.
Alan Hilfer, chief psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, said the effort is about making theatrical productions accessible to those with disabilities.
“The analogy here for my point would be when we began to make theaters and arenas wheelchair accessible. This is making these events accessible to a different kind of disability,” Hilfer told WCBS 880.
Grover doing the “Michigan is Listening” pose outside of the Fox Theatre.
For most children, attending a special event like “Sesame Street Live” is an outing filled with songs, laughter and, if they’re lucky, a hug from Elmo or Cookie Monster.
Children with autism may be at the same event, but they sometimes see things in an entirely differently way. A sudden change in lighting, the huge amount of sensory stimulation and sudden, loud noises like confetti cannons may cause an adverse reaction, upsetting the child and parent.
That is why this Friday’s 7 p.m. performance of “Elmo Makes Music” is a milestone. The show will be presented as what is being called an Autism Friendly Performance, a first for the Fox Theatre. The goal is to both help families feel comfortable within this environment and to educate staffers, performers and audience members on what makes the theater experience more enjoyable for children with autism spectrum disorders and other sensory difficulties.
“It is impressive that this iconic theater is standing up for autism and has the courage to support this initiative,” said Stefan Kogler, one of the event’s organizers and co-communications chair for Autism Speaks, North America’s largest autism science and advocacy organization.
Kogler also is parent to Brogan, his 12-year-old son with autism. Kogler said it is notable that nothing was changed in this performance of “Sesame Street Live” to make it palatable to these families. Rather, the VEE Corporation, the producers of Sesame Street Live, and Olympia Entertainment worked with Autism Speaks to ensure a pleasant, successful experience for those in attendance.
For example, the theater is providing production notes to parents ahead of time, to prepare their children for what to expect, should anything be a potential trigger. Quiet areas will be set up inside the venue to allow families to take a break for a few minutes and extra spacing will be incorporated in some seating areas to allow for room to move around. Also, gluten-free concession food options will be made available.
These are small changes for sure, Kogler said. But they make a world of different to a family that might otherwise decide staying home is easier than a trip out.
“In many cases, it’s difficult to go out as a family because we’re not sure how Brogan is going to react to the environment,” Kogler explained. “Someone might think he’s acting out. They look at me like I’m a bad parent. I’ve had people ask me why I’m not disciplining him.”
Helping Brogan and others learn to adjust to their surroundings also is an important part of working with them, so having an autism-friendly environment provides a safe zone to do so, Kogler added. And he’s come a long way since his diagnosis at age 4. In fact, Kogler jokes that while his son was largely silent until then, “we cannot keep him quiet” now.
A long-term goal for Austim Speaks is to enlist more venues to join this effort. This is one facet of its “Michigan is Listening” initiative, which began last July. The initiative is a statewide awareness program that asks the people of Michigan to pledge to tell 10 people about autism.
Since then, groups including the Palace of Auburn Hills and all of Michigan’s White Castle restaurants have stepped up to become destinations that have committed to offering welcoming environments to individuals on the spectrum.
“We wanted to partner with locations around the state that are committed to making their environment autism-family friendly. We were really pleased with how Olympia Entertainment and Tom Wilson (President and Chief Executive Officer of Olympia Entertainment) embraced this idea,” Kogler said.
“If everyone in the state just told 10 people about autism, it would be such a help in raising awareness, helping families receive an early diagnosis and give these kids a fighting chance. The more educated we are the better,” Kogler said.
Olympia Entertainment, a Detroit-based company owned by entrepreneurs Michael and Marian Ilitch, is one of the country’s most diverse sport and entertainment companies and the largest organization of its kind in the mid-west. The company owns and operates Detroit’s Fox Theatre, City Theatre and also books and operates Joe Louis Arena and books Comerica Park.
Tickets ($35, $22, $17 and $9) are on sale now. A portion of the proceeds from the sales of select tickets ($9 to $22 range) will be donated to Autism Speaks and can be purchased by calling the Olympia Entertainment, Inc. Group Sales department at 313.471.3099. Tickets are available to all members of the public and purchasers should specify they are interested in the Autism-friendly performance.
For audiences with Autism, Broadway’s grandest theaters stage musicals to last a lifetime.
At a matinee of the Broadway show “Elf” on January 5, the audience was oddly restless. When the curtain rose, revealing a rosy-cheeked Wayne Knight wearing a white-and-red suit, a girl screamed, “Hi Santa!” followed by a boy’s cry of ”Quiet!” During the first dance number, as a line of elves popped off tiny little kicks, a child ran down the aisle and pelted a squishy toy at one of the dancers. Without missing a step, the elf made a one-handed catch. Throughout the first act, the audience grew increasingly noisy, but the actors, impressively, remained locked-in.
“There’s no sound like a theater full of autistic people,” says leading elf Jordan Gelber. “It was non-stop, except when there was music or a song. Then it was like all the sounds died away.”
This audience, made up entirely of people on the autism spectrum and their families, was there because of the Theatre Development Fund, a sprawling charity whose Autism Theatre Initiative has been producing afternoons like this since 2011. Several times a year, TDF turns a normally staid Broadway house into an autistic child’s paradise. Once you get used to the noise, you realize this is the happiest Broadway audience you’ve ever seen.
The project is the brainchild of Lisa Carling, director of accessibility programs at TDF, whose goal is to open Broadway up to what she calls “a neglected audience.”
“It’s not okay anymore for families with a child or adult on the autism spectrum to stay home,” she says, “to not be able to go see a Broadway show like any other family.”
Before the matinee, Carling stood in the back of the theater, her striking gray hair making her easy to find. She said she was nervous, but that everything was going according to plan. Dozens of volunteers roamed the space, helping families get their discounted tickets, buy concessions, and navigate the cramped Hirschfeld Theatre lobby—an experience that can be overwhelming even for people not prone to sensory overload.
Upstairs, the bar was closed—a concession from the theater’s ownership, which allowed TDF to set up an activity space where restless audience members could burn off excess energy. There were also coloring books, noisemakers, and a huge reserve of the squishy balls known as “fidgets,” which volunteers handed out to anyone who asked.
“We try to get them back at the end of the show,” said volunteer Trish Mahalko. “Sometimes they walk, and that’s okay.”
Across the mezzanine, along a walkway lined with Al Hirschfeld’s striking pen-and-ink caricatures of forgotten productions like “Jacobowsky and the Colonel” and “St. Louis Woman,” the house manager’s office had been converted into a quiet area—a place for the over-stimulated to listen to classical music, put in earplugs, or lie down under a heavy lead blanket.
Inside the theater, a 1920’s-era Arabian palace on Manhattan’s West Forty-Fifth Street, there was a buzz usually absent from a Saturday matinee. The crowd found its seats. The lights dimmed. The audience cheered. “Elf” was about to begin.
The preparation for an autism-friendly matinee goes far beyond fidgets. TDF spent just over $117,000 to buy out the 1,424-seat theater, then resold the tickets at prices ranging from thirty-five to fifty-percent less than face value, a discount that Carling calls “crucial.”
This was the first ever Broadway show for many in the audience. To ready them for the experience, TDF collaborated with a group called Autism Friendly Spaces, which specializes in a technique called “social stories”—a standard teaching tool that combines words and pictures to explain new concepts to people who have trouble learning verbally. The social stories cover a range of issues that might crop up during an afternoon in the theater district, including navigating crowded spaces, dealing with unfamiliar theatrical sights and sounds, and understanding that, although the story of “Elf” is the same as the motion picture, they will not be seeing Will Ferrell.
“We try to focus on prevention strategies as much as possible,” says Jamie Bleiweiss, co-founder of Autism Friendly Spaces. “Preparing the audience ahead of time—before they come to the show—is the most important part.”
Based on the recommendations of Bleiweiss and other experts, TDF requested a few changes from “Elf’s” producers. The house lights were not completely dimmed. The actor’s microphones were turned down slightly. Volunteers at the front of the house used glow sticks to warn parents of anything that might be startling. Anything that could not be changed was incorporated into the preparatory materials given to the parents. For their next autism friendly performance, an April matinee of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” TDF asked that the villain Arachne hang herself by the waist instead of the neck. The producers refused, so a warning about the staged suicide will be included in the materials sent to parents before the show.
“That’s fine,” says Carling. “It’s a negotiation.”
Though nothing unusual was required of “Elf’s” actors, they were warned that the audience might appear restless, even if they were rapt. Don’t let it get to you, they were told. Just tell your story.
“Our underlying philosophy is, we don’t compromise the integrity of their performance,” says Bleiweiss. “Ever.”
Elf” was TDF’s fourth autism-friendly matinee, after “Mary Poppins” and two performances of “The Lion King” in 2011 and 2012. Last year, Micah Hollingworth of Jujamcyn Theaters, owners of the Hirschfeld, contacted TDF after taking his son, who is on the autism spectrum, to one of the “Lion King” shows.
His son resisted his first trip to the theater, but Hollingworth and his wife—who also works in the industry—insisted, eager for a way to teach their child about their work.
“The entire time there, he was clearly anxiety-ridden,” Hollingworth remembers. “And then the volunteers started interacting with us. They had the picture story. They had the fidgets and other things that he had a familiarity with, and he was able to participate and watch the entire show. He had a great time.”
His fear of theater eased, Hollingworth’s son has since been able to enjoy an ordinary Broadway performance. Hollingworth’s hope is that, after one or two autism-friendly performances, other people on the spectrum will be able to make the same transition. For him, the highlight of the “Elf” matinee was seeing parents let their guard down.
“They don’t get this opportunity often, right?” he explains. “You see people come in and sit down, and their shoulders drop. They exhale for a moment. We’re in our seats, we’re gonna see our show, this is great. That’s really magical.”
“This job is show business,” Hollingworth continues, “and sometimes in the role I’m in, it feels like more business than show. For one afternoon, in this setting, I could honestly say to myself that what I did mattered, and will matter for these families for some time to come.”
For a long-running show, an autism-friendly performance is irresistible. It guarantees a full house, positive press, and an audience eager to spend money on souvenirs. For actors who have been in a role for some time, the energy boost can be invaluable.
Before the curtain rose on “Elf,” Beth Leavel, the actress playing the stepmother to Jordan Gelber’s Buddy, did her make-up in her dressing room on the third floor of the Hirschfeld.
“We’ve been doing this show for a while,” said Leavel. “It’s nice to have an audience that may make us think a little differently. That’s great for an actor. It’s kind of a little energy gift for us.”
After each performance, TDF sends out surveys to the audience, the responses to which have given Lisa Carling a trove of stories that could bring a tear to the eye of even the most cynical Broadway veteran. After “The Lion King,” she heard from a mother whose autistic son “does not usually show affection.” During the performance, he held his sister’s hand for the first time. At the same show, there was “a little boy who doesn’t relate to anything, doesn’t want to be hugged, doesn’t hug toys, doesn’t want to be touched in any way,” said Carling. Quickly overwhelmed, he and his mother left shortly into Act I, taking a stuffed-animal Simba as a souvenir. On the train ride home, the boy wouldn’t let go of his new toy.
“And then there was a child, non-verbal, putting a blanket over his shoulders at home after the show,” Carling recalls, “saying over and over, ‘I’m the Lion King! I’m the Lion King!’ Again, the parent had tears in his eyes when he wrote to us.”
After intermission at “Elf,” not everyone returned to the theater for the second act. In the activity area, Sam Khichi sat with his young son Kiertan, waiting for the rest of their family to finish the play. Kiertan played with a pinscreen while Khichi explained that, though his son usually has trouble sitting still, he made it through more than an hour of “Elf” before getting too restless to continue.
“I think with him, it’s probably hard to follow the story, but I think he likes the lights and the sounds and being able to move,” Khichi said. “He likes the Christmas trees, the elves, and Santa. It’s his first play. Even kids with special needs love Santa.”
Actors at a dress rehearsal for “Annie” by the Open Door Theatre. The community theater company includes people with special needs.
When the blue curtain opens at Open Door Theater’s Jan. 19 performance of “Annie,” the show will begin, a little differently.
The house lights will stay on, dimmed. Audience members will have stress balls to squeeze during the performance. They will be free to get up and move around during the show. And if the musical feels too overwhelming, they can escape to a quiet “chill-out” room down the hall.
This matinee is the Acton-based theater’s first autism-friendly performance, modeled after similar shows on Broadway. Actors and other involved in the play received special training developed for them by the Autism Alliance of MetroWest.
“Bright lights and loud sounds and smells, for folks that have a lot of sensory issues, can be distracting and debilitating,” said Nannette Ohman, executive director of the alliance. “They smell more, sound is louder.”
The performance at Open Door, a community theater company whose cast includes people with special needs, is one of the first in the country. Other than the Broadway shows, Open Door directors involved in the special matinee could find only two other similar performances adapted for people with autism, in California and Montana.
AMC movie theaters around the country, including in Framingham, schedule monthly sensory-friendly movie showings, where the lights stay on and the sound stays low. AMC works with the Autism Society, and their slogan for the monthly shows is: “Get Up and Dance, Walk, Shout or Sing.”
Director Teri Shea first got the idea for an autism-friendly performance after she read last spring about Broadway performances of “The Lion King” and “Mary Poppins” for theatergoers with autism, reducing noise during the performance and leaving the lights on low.
“They just modulate the whole thing so it’s less intimidating, less jarring,” said Rick Woods of Lunenberg, who plays Daddy Warbucks in the Open Door musical. His 22-year-old son, Lee, who is autistic, plays a servant; other actors in “Annie” have also been diagnosed with autism. This is the third Open Door production to feature both father and son as actors.
When Lee was 7, his parents took him to see a Disney on Ice performance of “Pocahontas.” Lee had been diagnosed with autism, but the performance seemed tame — until part of the story where shots are fired.
“My son was up the aisle and out the door,” Woods said.
In “Annie,” Shea eliminated Miss Hannigan’s shrill whistle-blowing for all performances, not just the autism-friendly matinee. The theater group also got special permission to shorten the play, said J. Samatha Gould, president of Open Door’s board of directors.
Members of the autism alliance also wrote a “social story” to help autistic theatergoers understand what will happen during the musical. The 24-page, step-by-step guide, with pictures of what will happen during “Annie,” starts with an explanation that the show is like a movie, except the actors are real people on the stage.
The story gives details about the performance — it is at the Raymond J. Grey Junior High School in Acton — and describes how ushers will help audience members find their seats.
The cast includes Rick Woods, Megan Kaye, Paul Jannke, and Lee Woods, who has autism.
“When it is time for the show to start, the theatre will get darker and everyone will get quiet,” the story reads. “I will try to be as quiet as I can during the show so that I can hear everything.”
The alliance created a training session for the cast and crew, telling them that they might hear audience members making sounds during the performance. The biggest change they notice may be seeing the audience, which is usually obscured by darkness.
“The lights should be up a little bit and not completely out,” Ohman said. “We would have folks who would have an aversion to the very loud noise sit away from the orchestra.”
Long before movie theaters began to offer autism-friendly performances, the alliance rented a movie theater and held movie nights.
At “Annie,” the audience may be noisier than usual, but Shea tells the actors that every show is different. Sometimes, she says, Friday night performances are quieter than Saturday night shows because theatergoers are tired from work.
“Because ‘Annie’ is so family friendly and children oriented, I was hoping some people would be more willing to bring their child to see the show if they knew that we’d be accepting of them doing that at this performance,” Shea said.