“You might be wondering how I got the greatest job in the world,” writes Harry Smolin in remarks he delivered to the cast of Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera in November.
At 18, Smolin may be one of the youngest influencers in the industry. As a special consultant for the Theatre Development Fund’s Autism Theatre Initiative, Smolin—who himself has autism—is the voice and logic behind adjusted autism-friendly performances of Broadway shows. As TDF’s Director of Accessibility Programs Lisa Carling says, “Harry keeps us honest.”
“I actually inherited a love of theatre from my grandmother,” Smolin tells Playbill. “When I was little, she was always acting out fairy tales with me and my brother, so that’s what got me interested in theatre, but I was never an onstage guy. When I was a little kid, I was always on my computer and I was fascinated by all that technical stuff and I wanted to find something that I could do [with] these programs. I was never good at art, but I thought I may be able to work with sound.”
One of Smolin’s therapists, Samantha Armstrong-Blanco, happened to be married to sound designer Alan Blanco. Smolin and Blanco met, and while sound design didn’t pan out, an introduction to TDF did. “They had done a couple of autism-friendly performances before, but they had never been able to see them from the perspective of someone who actually has autism,” says Smolin.
TDF debuted its first ever autism-friendly Broadway show, Disney’s The Lion King, in 2011 with the help of consultants and educators. “TDF has a very successful program for elementary and secondary school student with hearing and vision loss,” explains Carling. “We bring them to specially scheduled Wednesday matinees at Broadway shows, and we kept hearing through special ed teachers, ‘We have classes of students on the autism spectrum, what can you do for them? How can you make Broadway accessible to them?’
“This is a very neglected audience,” continues Carling. “This is a community that needs to just relax, be themselves at a performance and not worry about typical audiences who might object or have a misunderstanding.” TDF buys out a full performance and sells the tickets to members of the ATI email list at a 40-50 percent discount. “It’s an opportunity for a community that has very few chances to do things together as a family.”
“Their house is like a kind of prison cell in some sense,” adds Harry, “with the fact that this kid cannot go out without being kicked out of places. So they don’t go out.”
Smolin found his place in the wings serving his community and living his Broadway dream since 2013. On behalf of TDF, Smolin screens Broadway shows with his mom, Alison; so far he has seen 53, including the most recent—and surprising—show to put on its first autism-friendly performance, Phantom.
“Phantom is one of the most challenging shows to make autism-friendly,” says Smolin. But surveys of ATI patrons kept turning up the same results: People wanted to see it. So, as he does with each show, Smolin attended with his mother to determine how to make it accessible to theatregoers with autism.
As with other autism-friendly productions, the sound does not go above 90 decibels; gone are gun shots (and even guns pointed towards the audiences); lights dim to half instead of a full blackout; the show removes strobes, flashes, and bright light effects.
But Phantom created challenges that previous shows like Mary Poppins, Elf, or Matilda had not. The chandelier crash could frighten audiences and the masked Phantom posed a barrier to an audience who processes the world on a literal level and fears of disguises.
What’s more, “some autistic people cannot process the rhythm of music,” says Smolin of following plot through song. “They process [words] better with dialogue, or it’s easier when characters break into song after speaking a little.”
The team at Phantom was willing to change whatever necessary to provide a meaningful experience for the ATI audience. But TDF never changes the script of a show, no matter the mature themes or complexity of the plot. In that vein, Smolin created “Phantom Made Easy: A Scene by Scene Guide to What’s Happening on Stage.” The 28-page guide outlines the characters and onstage action one bullet point at a time. It’s diligent work, and Smolin takes his role seriously.
Often what’s most concerning to Smolin isn’t what’s happening onstage at all. Smolin fixates on speaker placement, the width of the hallway from the street entrance into the theatre, the distance between seats, the automation of bathroom sinks—all conditions that theatre-goers with autism could be perceptive of or confused by in a world of amplified senses and literal processing. As Alison Smolin learned at their recent visit to Kinky Boots, which will present its first autism-friendly show May 7, the seats in the Hirschfeld Theatre are extremely close together, which her son noted could upset people who don’t like to be touched. (A disclaimer will warn ticketbuyers that those sensitive to this must consider before buying a ticket, or be sure to get an aisle seat.)
As much as his job focuses on audience preparation, Smolin also readies performers for an unconventional house. “‘You’re going to see people rocking back and forth in their seats flapping,’” Smolin tells the company a few days before the designated performance. “What I want to say is that even if it looks like people aren’t immersed in the show or paying attention to it, they still are.”
Smolin will be featured on the Theatre Accessibility panel at BroadwayCon 2017 Saturday, January 28 at 11AM. Tickets for the May 7 ATI performance of Kinky Boots will go on sale at the end of March. Visit tdf.org to sign up for the email listserv.