“If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.” That saying is heard frequently these days around Lincoln Center as final plans take shape for the Big Umbrella Festival—the world’s first large-scale performing arts festival featuring works for young audiences with autism (April 10–May 6). The catchphrase is a shorthand way of acknowledging that no two individuals with autism are alike, and that creating meaningful arts experiences for them requires out-of-the-box thinking by artists, institutions, and audiences.
Lincoln Center’s first foray into serving young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) came in 2015, with Trusty Sidekick Theater Company’s acclaimed Up and Away, the nation’s first production commissioned by a large cultural institution for young people on the spectrum. The sold-out runs were hailed by young audiences, their families, and the media, and the waiting list was long. That was followed, in 2017, by Campfire, another Trusty Sidekick production. Again, there was such a clamor for tickets that “we could be presenting those shows to this day and still not be able to meet the demand,” says Peg Schuler-Armstrong, Lincoln Center Education’s Director of Programming and Production.
Lincoln Center Education’s Executive Vice President Russell Granet believes it was clear that there was an unfilled need, and that Lincoln Center was ideally suited to take on the challenge: “We have a single unified mission, which is to bring the greatest art to the largest possible audience,” Granet says. “If we’re serious about that, then we have to be serious about working with people with disabilities. With 1 in 68 young people diagnosed with ASD, this is a hugely underserved population.”
The Big Umbrella Festival—which is expected to welcome an estimated 5,000 audience members—centers on three staged, multisensory productions: a reprise of New York–based Trusty Sidekick’s Up and Away at the Clark Studio Theater; Light Show, a multisensory journey from the beach to a moonlit wonderland created by London’s Oily Cart; and Oddysea, an immersive theater piece set in an undersea world, created by Australia’s Sensorium Theatre. All three productions will be performed for the general public on Saturdays and Sundays, and on weekdays for school groups—at the Clark, in the Samuels Teaching Studio, and off campus at venues in the outer boroughs.
On April 14, the festival officially kicks off with two special free performances in the David Rubenstein Atrium. Headlining is Grammy-nominated artist Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could—who will also perform for school groups at the Bruno Walter Auditorium from April 4 to 6—while Actionplay Chorus will appear later that afternoon. In addition, a one-day symposium on April 19 will take a deeper dive into the intersection of arts and autism, with speakers drawn from the visual arts (architect-turned-artist Sean Ahlquist); television (Sesame Workshop’s Cynthia Barron); and theater (Oily Cart’s Tim Webb and Mickey Rowe, the latter believed to be the first actor on the spectrum to play Christopher, a character with autism, in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time).
The festival will also feature adapted performances across the Lincoln Center campus, many of them offered by resident organizations, including the New York Philharmonic, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, New York City Ballet, and Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Big Umbrella’s longest lasting impact may grow from an ambitious weeklong professional development component, which will bring 40 artists and arts administrators to campus for a week of intensive training and networking. Granet explains that there are many successful arts experiences for the ASD population that are intimate and customizable. Each performance of Up and Away, for example, has an audience of just eight young people, each paired with one actor. “At that scale, which we call ‘small-batch theater,’” he says, “we can’t keep up with the demand, but we can teach others how to do this work.”
Actors need to learn new techniques that are akin to jazz, according to Trusty Sidekick’s associate artistic director and cast member Spencer Lott: “You’re playing a one-on-one concert with your audience member while staying in key and hitting your cue with the rest of the ensemble and within the framework of the larger show. It’s a conversation that is totally customizable.”
Such so-called “relaxed performances” require flexibility not just from artists but also from presenting institutions. “The challenge is to get the whole organization to fully embrace this work,” says Schuler-Armstrong. For Up and Away, for example, although the show itself lasts just one hour, engagement begins long before show time and continues afterward. Prior to coming to the performance, ticket buyers are linked to an orientation video, which is known as a “social story.” When they arrive, they are met in the lobby by cast members and escorted to the Fogg Family Air and Wind Laboratory, which doubles as a lounge where children and families can retreat as needed. In the theater, five life-size replicas of hot-air balloons await, each holding audience members and the actors/musicians. When the show ends, audience members are escorted back to the lobby in parade fashion, with singing and dancing.
No detail is too small to achieve what the New York Times called “radical hospitality”: There are even discreetly placed boxes of tissues for tearful moments. “What causes the emotional reaction in parents is watching your child go in sort of suspicious and then seeing him relax and engage and even scream and not have anybody get upset about that,” says Barbara Rowlandson, whose ten-year-old son attended Up and Away. “Autism is so isolating; the opportunity to go and interact and to see the joy and wonder and engagement is…I can’t even describe it.”
Granet explains, “We saw early on that there were parents who walked into the theater stressed—wary because of how their children are sometimes treated during performances—and about 10 minutes in they started to take a breath. That was a beautiful thing to see.”
Schuler-Armstrong hopes that the Big Umbrella Festival will not be a culmination, but a jumping-off point: “I would love for the festival to continue, and for it to be citywide with other organizations participating. I want a festival that families will look forward to year after year, where they know that we’re bringing them the most thoughtful, beautiful work and that there’s no wrong way to participate.”
For more information, visit BigUmbrellaFestival.org.
Madeline Rogers is a creative consultant to nonprofits and former director of publications of the New York Philharmonic.