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.
The Theatre Development Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides access to live theater, said Wednesday it bought all the tickets for the matinee on April 27 at the Foxwoods Theatre and will offer them at a discount for children and adults on the autism spectrum. Tickets range in price from $35-$80.
The Spider-Man musical will be the fifth show in the fund’s autism-friendly program. The first was Disney‘s “The Lion King” in October 2011, followed last year with performances of “Mary Poppins,” a second performance of “The Lion King” and one of “Elf: The Musical.” Each time, the shows got enthusiastic feedback from grateful families.
Lisa Carling, the Fund’s director of accessibility programs, said surveys taken after previous autism-friendly performances showed strong interest for one of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”
“We’re grateful to the show’s producers, management and creative staff and crew for accommodating the Autism Theatre Initiative and uniting with us to make the show an unforgettable experience for all,” she said in a statement.
Autism disorders strike one in 100 children, according to U.S. government estimates. Children with the diagnosis are often sensitive to loud noises and harsh lights and find it difficult to sit still or remain quiet. Autism spectrum disorders include both severe and relatively mild symptoms.
The Broadway shows have been slightly altered to make those with autism more comfortable, including cutting jarring sounds and strobe lights. Quiet areas with beanbag chairs and coloring books, staffed by autism experts, also will be created inside the theater for those who might feel overwhelmed.
The Fund, which has consulted an advisory panel of experts in the field of autism, has also made itself available to consult with other theaters attempting their own autism-friendly performances. It also publishes downloadable guides telling children with autism what to expect during the show, including the plot, what ushers do and what to do during a curtain call.
“We are delighted to have the opportunity to share our production with those affected by autism,” said “Spider-Man” producers Michael Cohl and Jeremiah J. Harris in a statement.
- Spider-spider Man Stage Show To Have Autism-friendly Overhaul (contactmusic.com)
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.”
This is a blog post by Scott Evan Davis, a composer/lyricist based in NYC. Besides writing for the theatre and cabaret community, he also spends his time teaching musical theatre to children.
Six months ago, I had the privilege and honor of being hired by Arts Connection, (a company that hires teaching artists to work within schools to create the arts) for a very unique task. The students at Spectrum School, at PS 94M, (a program for children with autism), had spent the past few years working on Broadway Junior Shows created by Musical Theatre International (MTI). The Spectrum School, however, had something different in mind for this year.
The students expressed a desire to write and perform their own musical this year. Their teacher, Tessa Derfner, and principal, Ronnie Shuster, followed through in the most outstanding way. They contacted Arts Connection, and together figured out a way to make this daunting task happen. Freddie Gershon, founder of MTI, provided the funding, and I was hired to help guide the students musically and lyrically, and to create an original musical to be performed by the end of the school year.
From day 1, one thing was clear: The students wanted the world to know what dealing with autism was like on a daily basis. They wanted the musical to take place in a school, on an ordinary day, under extraordinary circumstances. They wanted to explore the idea that one day, after being beaten down by bullies, they each received a superpower which they could use to save the school from bullies. What they really wanted to do was teach the bullies the RIGHT way to behave. Not with revenge but with understanding. This was the heart of the story. We decided to call the musical “Powerful Day”.
This needed to be THEIR musical, and for that, THEY had to come up with the ideas and words that would be made into songs. Watching them come to life while they were singing never ceased to amaze me. There were students who were extremely shy who I watched become completely present while singing a song. There were also jobs behind the scenes that were just as essential to the process. We wrote about seven songs, completed the script, filmed videos, and rehearsed like professionals. Their energy and dedication was unyielding.
By the end of the process, we all knew that we had something special. Freddie Gershon and his wife Myrna, along with some representatives from MTI, came to watch one of the final rehearsals. Much to our surprise and awe, they brought Broadway composer and musical theatre icon Stephen Sondheim along to watch as well! Each of the 5 performances was better than the last. The students were asked for the first time ever to sing at the graduation ceremony that month. The school, teachers and I were awarded the MTI COURAGE IN THEATRE AWARDS for 2012, and afterwards we were all treated to a Broadway show.
I truly believe it was some of the most personal, and connected music that I will ever have the good fortune to write. The message was, “If you want something, and are willing to work for it, ANYTHING is possible, no matter who you are, or what challenges you have”. To be able to give each of them a voice, and to truly listen to them, was something very special for me. The love, support and encouragement from their teachers was just as important to the process as the dreams the students had to create their own piece of theatre. Thank you PS 94M for your courage and dedication. This experience for me was the essence of what theatre should be.
To learn more about Scott, visit www.scottevandavis.com.
Can children with autism spectrum disorders have the same experiences as those without? The nonprofit service organization Theatre Development Fund in New York City (best known for operating the TKTS Discount Booths) encourages these experiences and has launched an Autism Theatre Initiative to present autism-friendly performances of Broadway shows such as Disney‘s “The Lion King.”
Please click on the link below to see the Picture Gallery
- Two More Autism-Friendly Shows Coming to Broadway (healthland.time.com)