By ERIK PIEPENBURG
Earlier this month the Theater Development Fund, the nonprofit organization that runs the city’s TKTS discount ticket booths, announced it was starting the Autism Theater Initiative, which aims to make theatergoing accessible to children and adults living on the autism spectrum. The program kicks off on Oct. 2 with a sold-out matinee of “The Lion King” for what TDF, in a news release, calls “the first ever autism-friendly performance in Broadway history.”
“Parents of autistic kids are concerned,” said Lisa Carling, TDF’s director of accessibility programs. “They want their child to be comfortable, and they don’t want people thinking they are bad parents because they can’t calm their child down. It’s so important for families who are raising kids with autism to feel they are in a friendly place.”
For the special 1 p.m. performance, TDF bought out the entire Minskoff Theater, which has about 1,600 seats, and sold tickets at a discount. TDF worked with autism groups, including Autism Speaks, to help spread the word. Although the Oct. 2 performance is sold out, Ms. Carling said feedback on the initiative has been so positive that TDF is considering organizing additional autism-friendly performances in the future. (More information about the program is at tdf.org/autism.)
(Another New York cultural organization, the New York Transit Museum, recently started an outreach program to make children with autism feel comfortable in a museum setting and to help them learn to be at ease in social settings.)
Ms. Carling recently spoke with ArtsBeat about why TDF decided to create the program, what Disney thought of changing “The Lion King” and adapting the Minskoff, and what theatergoers should prepare themselves for during the performance. Following are excerpts from the conversation.
Q.What kinds of modifications or adjustments are needed to make a Broadway show comfortable for a person with autism?
A. Children with autism are all unique but there are some similarities, mostly sensitivity issues. Very loud sounds might be upsetting. Bright lights, and strobe lights in particular, may be an issue because epilepsy is a complication in a child with autism.
When we had a panel of autism experts take a look at “The Lion King” they came up with about seven places in the show where they felt it would be beneficial to tone the sound down or bring the lighting up or down. A very slight softening of the production, in terms of light and sound, is a mild change.
Q. But why a separate performance for kids with autism? Why not just make adjustments during a regular matinee?
A. We wanted to create an environment that was welcoming to children and their parents so they could come in and not be afraid of judgment from other theatergoers who might not understand why a child is doing repetitive movements, or rocking back and forth, or why a child might need to wear headphones or get up in the middle of a song and take a time out in the lobby.
Not only did we need a production that was tempered toward this audience, but we also needed the whole house — the ushers, other audience members, the cast — to be on board with a very welcoming atmosphere.
Q. How did Disney react to the idea? Was there any concern that changes to the show would be disruptive to the cast, or that the creators of the musical wouldn’t want their show modified?
A. Disney has been a wonderful partner. Early on they were receptive to making adjustments to the production, and to making accommodations in the lobby by designating areas that could be quiet areas. We have areas where children can sit down in a beanbag chair or play with a squishy ball or use crayons and paper or listen to music.
The adjustments to the show are slight. It’s still “The Lion King.” It’s not a watered-down show. The running time is a bit shorter because length was a concern. We heard that children after an hour may need to get up. But I suppose adults are the same way.
Q. The Minskoff is one of Broadway’s biggest theaters. Were you concerned that there wouldn’t be enough interest to fill the whole house?
A. We had a wonderful reception from families buying tickets. That was the first indication. A woman from upstate said to me, “I can’t go to our local theater because I don’t want people staring at me.”
But no one has been able to tell us what the effect will be of having around 600 children and adults on the autism spectrum in the theater at the same time.
Q. TDF has a program to make Broadway shows accessible to people with disabilities, including sight or hearing loss. How is this program different?
A. Hearing or vision loss has been part of regular performance schedules on Broadway. But those are situations where it was a regular performance, and all the audiences weren’t necessarily there for the services of our group.
The autism community felt somewhat different in terms of wanting the comfort of having the whole space to themselves. It was logical then to buy the whole house.
Q. It’s probably hard to foresee any complications, but do you have any thoughts on what audiences might experience during the performance?
A. If a child becomes upset by noise and needs to leave will that affect a child sitting down the row? We just don’t know. We’re doing educational sessions with the house staff and cast so that people will be familiar with the possible types of behavior, and will know how to be comforting.
We also are relying on parents to know their children. If a child is becoming upset, we hope parents will know when to go in the lobby for a time out. For the most part we anticipate that everyone is going to have a wonderful time.
More information on TDF’s autism outreach program is at tdf.org/autism.