The initiative was born with the suggestion of a TDF patron. "One of the impetuses was a teacher who was bringing kids to our performances for hearing loss," said Victoria Bailey, TDF's executive director. "She said, 'There's another population of kids at our school who are on the autism spectrum. Is there anything you can do for them?'"
TDF began an 18-month effort to make that suggestion a reality. Lisa Carling, TDF's director of accessibility programs, asked for help from theatre pros like Chaikelson with children on the spectrum and elicited professional advice from Dr. Jamie Bleiweiss, co-founder of Autism Friendly Spaces and an assistant professor at Hunter College specializing in autism spectrum disorder. The paramount concern was making the occasion comfortable for families.
TDF found a willing partner in Disney, the producer of both The Lion King and Mary Poppins. "What's important about Disney is, because they are a large corporation, they are sensitive to access and disability issues," explains Bailey.
Once they settled on The Lion King as the first initiative show, Dr. Bleiweiss and her associates attended a show. They returned with a series of notes and recommendations on how to make the musical more palatable for its coming audience. "What you're looking for is loud noises," says Bailey. "Strobe lights are really bad. We ended up with seven or eight cues that got toned down, and adjusting the lights so there's a little more ambient light."
For Mary Poppins, strobe lights were eliminated, the tap sounds on the number "Step in Time" were softened, and the actors playing Mary Poppins and the Banks children all lowered the volume of their voices in certain songs.
The Lion King sold out within hours. Still, Bailey didn't know what to expect when she attended the show. "At the performance, one family had to leave after a half hour," she remembers. "I felt dreadful and went to talk to the mom. But she was elated. Her child had sat still for half an hour, which was twice as long as they had before."
Audience members at Mary Poppins had similar experiences. "He's sitting down and watching the show," said Helen Yohannes of her son Caleb. It was their first Broadway show together. In preparation, they had been listening to the cast recording for a month. "I'm very impressed. I'm so proud of him."
"It gives the child an opportunity to see theatre, but also as a parent or grandparent you don't have to worry," says Fran Linker, whose grandson Max has gone to both The Lion King and Mary Poppins. "You can just relax."
The performers, too, get something out of it: a good audience.
"These kids don't get to the theatre very much," says Bailey, "so they really embrace the experience. I talked to some of the actors at The Lion King afterward, and they said the energy and excitement from the kids was significantly different from what they're used to."
To learn more about TDF's Autism Theatre Initiative and about future performances, visit tdf.org/autism.
(This feature appears in the July 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)
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