By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen |
When it comes to families with a special needs child who is on the autism spectrum or has Tourette’s syndrome or sensitivity issues, there aren’t a lot of public activities they can participate in without worrying they may be asked to leave.
These children – and adults – in varying degrees have behavioral, social interaction or communication issues that may include distractive repetitive body movements such as hand flapping and spinning, verbal grunts or word repetition, and sensitivity to loud noises or bright lights.
Jane Kleiman, Red Bank, has a 16-year-old son on the spectrum who has anxiety, gets easily upset by things he doesn’t understand and may speak loudly during performances at the Two River Theater and the Count Basie Theatre.
But that’s OK.
Both of those venues as well as the high school theater company at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, regional theaters including Tony Award-winning McCarter Theatre in Princeton and Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, and shows on Broadway such as “The Lion King,” “Come From Away” and “Wicked,” have offered performances designed for people with these disabilities.
Often called relaxed performances, you may also see them referred to as autism-friendly or sensory-friendly performances.
“At relaxed performances it’s OK to talk. It’s OK to get up. It’s OK to be himself,” Kleiman said about her son. “It’s really nice that there are major arts institutions that care.
“For some families it’s not easy to find someone who can care for a child with a disability,” she explained. “So the whole family goes or nobody goes, and relaxed performances make it possible for families to do things in the community.”
In other words, it’s nice not to be shushed, stared at or judged. Everyone is less stressed. You’re wanted.
A relaxed performance usually features lights dimmed in the seating area, not off; patrons talking and vocalizing, leaving and re-entering; assistive technology and comfort devices tuned on; lowered sound with staff warning of upcoming loud noises. A family gender-neutral restroom may be designated; a quiet, calming place to relax may be offered, and an activity space with a live video feed of the show and fidget toys may be available if a break from the seating area is needed.
Kate Cordaro, director of education for Two River Theater said they are still new at this, learning best practices and ways to reach intended audiences and looking for partners, such as the Arc of Monmouth.
She also visits area high schools early in the year recruiting students to work with a team of professional actors and technical crew to mount an adapted version of a play for the A Little Shakespeare project.
For the first time in five years, one of the eight performances of “The Comedy of Errors” staged earlier this month was relaxed.
“I explained to the students that adjustments would be made and how that was done and they were really interested,” she said. “It’s important that the show is the same. That the kids on the spectrum see the same show as everyone else.
“Loud noises are taken down a certain percent and the use of a strobe (light) may be cut, but the show itself is the same,” she said.
Also on the schedule is “The Young King,” from Australia and for children 8 and older, in April. One of its eight performances will be relaxed. Two other shows were offered earlier this season.
“It takes awhile to build an audience,” Cordaro said. “The more experience, the more we can adjust.”
New Jersey has the highest rate of autism in the country with 1 out of every 41 children born today having autism. This is more than AIDS, cancer and diabetes combined, according to POAC Autism Services, a Brick-based nonprofit organization that provide free events, training and education for parents, recreational and support services to children and training for police and first responders.
I can’t overemphasize the importance of having community activities that welcome children with autism and other special needs,” said Simone Tellini, director of Program Development at POAC. “So many families are hesitant to bring their children to the theater for a variety of reasons including concerns about how they will react to the sights and sounds. By providing these sensory friendly performances, the Basie is, in fact, giving the gift of theater to so many families who would not otherwise have felt comfortable participating.”
Additionally, Count Basie is donating a portion of ticket sales to POAC to help it continue to provide its free services.
Kleiman said she also took her son to No Shush!, a kid-friendly classical music experience by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra at the Count Basie Theatre that encourages chatter, questions or dancing. But sometimes, she said, it’s hard to tell if her son enjoys himself.
“He wasn’t asking to go back to the theater, but the second time we went he was excited and completely remembers the first show,” she said. “It’s still a new experience, but the more exposure he gets the more he understands and articulates.”
She also takes her son to A Little Shakespeare and said the Elizabethan language doesn’t bother him.
“The sounds appeal to him,” she explained. “He’s not trying to follow along and can’t keep up but the sounds, for him, are more like music and that’s fine.
“All the shows are welcoming,” said Kleiman, who teaches a monthly yoga class for parents of children with disabilities. “They are really trying to do this right and I appreciate it so much.”
The New Jersey theater community has come a long way. The first of these kinds of events began in 2011 at Paper Mill Playhouse with the Pushcart Players, an award-winning professional theater and arts-in-education company for young audiences, said Robert Carr, director of programs and services and Americans With Disabilities Act coordinator for the New Jersey Theatre Alliance, a 31-member service organization.
He called it “a game changer for a lot of families” and noted “New Jersey is a leader in the field.”
“It’s a different way to include a wider audience to enjoy theater,” he said. “It offers families the option, maybe for the first time, to come to the theater together rather than leaving a child and caregiver at home.”
And the idea is spreading, he noted, with museums offering programming with trained docents during special hours.
“For a lot of us in the cultural field, we’re looking at this as sort of new territory,” he explained. “As our audiences start to age, we’re looking at what we’ve been offering in the past and how to augment for the future.”
Now, the majority of relaxed performances are for children, but Carr said theaters want to keep everyone engaged as they get older.
“People today socialize with friends who may be blind and deaf,” he said. “When they travel or go out they gravitate to an organization that offers accommodations. They expect it.”
Paper Mill Playhouse’s relaxed performances began because of a phone call from a parent in 2010 who wanted to bring a special needs child to “Peter Pan” but thought it might be “too much” and thought a sensory seminar would help, said Lisa E. Cooney, the theater’s director of education.
At the time sensory seminars – where patrons are guided around the stage and encouraged to touch costumes and props – were for adults.
That got the ball rolling. Experts in autism were consulted and a plan was developed, but she needed a live theater model. Hence the Pushcart Players “Stone Soup and Other Stories” the following year, Cooney said.
After cycling through all the shows Pushcart Players offered, Cooney worked with Theaterworks USA in New York City and Arts Power National Touring Theatre in Cedar Grove and continues to do so.
Once they understood how to tweak the show they used the format as a sort of cookie cutter for other shows and it has grown considerably, Cooney said.
In 2013, Paper Mill expanded their relaxed performances to include the main stage productions starting with Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” said subsequent shows have included “Mary Poppins” and “Annie.” Next season its production of “Beauty and the Beast” will be a relaxed performance.
“It’s been very rewarding for the theater,” Cooney said, and noted some parents bring children who are not on the spectrums but may have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
“The word is out that Paper Mill is welcoming,” she said. “We can’t be everything but we try to honor every request.”
And parents are grateful and supportive. After one performance Cooney said a mother came up to her and shared, “That’s the first time I ever heard by son sing.” He was 17.
The list of theaters and events offering relaxed and inclusive opportunities is growing. Here is a selected list of upcoming shows and events:
COUNT BASIE THEATRE
99 Monmouth St., Red Bank
“Meet Your Seat” event for ticket holders for the shows is 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 2.
“Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site,” 4 p.m. April 12.
“Jazzy Ash & The Leaping Lizards,” 4 p.m. April 23.
“My Father’s Dragon,” 4 p.m. May 3
765 Newman Springs Road
On the Brookdale Community College, private tours for groups and schools. Museum partners with Autism New Jersey (formerly COSAC), POAC, and New Jersey Autism Warriors for tours that have grown to three per year, said Catherine Clark, arts & fund development manager. School tours for special needs students also have increased.
Wonder Wing for children age 6 and younger to explore, Becker Wing for age 7-12 for hands-on learning, plus art galleries and revolving exhibits. Sensory room available to chill out.
For more information, contact Catherine Esposito at 732-224-1988 or firstname.lastname@example.org
TWO RIVER THEATER
21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank
“The Young King” April 20–22 (relaxed show 4 p.m. April 21, for ages 8 and older. This is last of five plays this season that included relaxed shows.
Spectrum Theater Summer Classes
Two weeks of theater classes designed for students age 10-17 on the autism spectrum led by experienced teaching artists to improve interpersonal communication, verbal, body awareness, and self-confidence. Focus on movement activities and storytelling through theater games. For more info, call Amanda Espinoza, education assistant at 732-345-1400 x1804 or SummerCamp@trtc.org
OTHER AREA AUTISM-FRIENDLY EVENTS
iCan Bike, Aug. 13–17th at Brookdale Community College for people with disabilities. For more information, contact Babbette Zscheigne at 732-861-3786 or email@example.com or https://icanshine.org/lincroft-nj/.
Autism Day at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson is May 3, 2018. The park will be transformed into a sensory-friendly environment for individuals on the autism spectrum. For more information call Gersh Academy at 631-385-3344 or https://www.gershacademy.org/sixflags
MC CARTER THEATRE
91 University Place, Princeton
Plans for the 2018-2019 season includes two relaxed performances, one from the main stage season scheduled to be announced Friday.
PAPER MILL PLAYHOUSE
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn
“The Lightening Thief” by TheatreworksUSA, 10 a.m. April 22, for ages 7 to 13.
NEW VICTORY THEATER
209 W 42nd St., Manhattan
“Black Beauty,” 3 p.m., March 18, age 6 and older
“Air Play,” 11 a.m. April 14, age 5 and older
Pre-show resources will be available closer to the performance.
Theater Development Fund (TDF), a nonprofit corporation dedicated to assisting the theatre industry in New York City and also runs the TKTS discount tickets booths, launched the Autism Theatre Initiative in 2011. It buys out a Broadway house and sells tickets directly to families with an autistic child.
Shows that participated this season include “Wicked” “Aladdin,” “Cats,” “The Lion King” and “Come From Away.” For more information, visit www.tdf.org/nyc/40/Autism-Friendly-Performance
This article was first published in the March 15-22, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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