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By MARK BLANKENSHIP and MARK PEIKERT
In many ways, the October 2nd matinee of The Lion King was like any other performance. The theatre buzzed with families, people sang along with their favorite songs, and the actors gave it their all.
But this show was special. It was Broadway's first "autism-friendly" performance and the debut of Theatre Development Fund's Autism Theatre Initiative.
Overseen by TDF's Accessibility Programs (TAP), the Autism Theatre Initiative creates a friendly, supportive theatre environment for children or adults with an autism spectrum disorder. Because people on the autism spectrum often have trouble adjusting to mainstream social situations, and because they often fidget or make noise, they typically can't attend live performances. Loud sounds and bright lights might aggravate their symptoms, and their behavior might disturb performers or audience members.
"My son can’t stop waving his hands, and I know that people pay a lot of money for tickets [to Broadway shows] and I would never do that to them," said Dottie [last name withheld], who brought her 22 year-old autistic son to the performance. "We go to movie theatres, but we’ve never been able to do something like this."
But everyone should be able to attend the theatre. That's why TDF worked with Disney Theatrical Productions and the Nederlander Organization (which operates the Minskoff Theatre, where The Lion King is running) to make sure the October 2 performance was welcoming.
For instance, TDF asked a team of autism experts to identify elements of the show that might disturb autistic patrons. On their advice, almost a dozen technical changes were made to the sound and lighting design, toning down the loudest noises and eliminating potentially upsetting elements like strobe lights.
However, this was not a watered-down Lion King. The design changes didn't affect the storytelling, and live elements of the show---dancing, singing, puppetry, music---were performed with full energy.
The preparations didn't stop with the show itself. When audience members needed a break, they were free to visit a "quiet area" in the lobby, which featured beanbag chairs, coloring books, and toys. Colorful signs reminded patrons that if they felt overwhelmed, they could take deep breaths, squeeze someone's hand, count, or relax.
Families could also rely on 40 volunteer ushers who joined the Minskoff's regular ushering staff. Wearing bright yellow shirts, this team of trained autism specialists was stationed throughout the lobby and in the theatre itself, ready to answer questions, soothe nerves, and hand out "fidgets," small toys that patrons could play with as they watched the show. "They were so helpful," says Lisa Carling, director of TAP. "They were right there in the aisle to hand a child a fidget to hold." The theatre's regular staff was just as attentive. "I didn’t even have time to ask about an elevator before the ticket taker pointed me to it," Dottie said.
Everyone at the sold-out performance seemed to share this spirit. The audience was noisy---and some of the fidgets made noise, too---but the cast didn't let it faze them. Many of them, in fact, said they were eager to perform for such a unique audience. Meanwhile, when parents and children needed to get up during the show, their understanding neighbors shifted out of the way. Even the sudden appearance of a little girl on stage mere moments before the show began---she was aided in her Broadway debut by the steps leading from the orchestra to the stage---elicited a slapstick chase involving her mother and an usher, rather than the usual stern warning.
The inclusivity made many people emotional. "I cried when I walked into the theatre," Dottie said. "This was the first time my son has ever been able to go to the theatre."
Because the response was so strong, TDF hopes to continue the Autism Theatre Initiative in New York City and throughout the country. "There's obviously a big need," says Victoria Bailey, TDF's executive director. "I think that it's incumbent on us as a service organization to go out and teach people [in other theatres] how to do it themselves. There are families with children on the autism spectrum all across the country who want to go to the theatre."
During The Lion King's intermission, Dottie said, "I hope there are more performances. This is really an amazing thing."
If you have a friend of family member on the autism spectrum who might want to attend an TDF autism-friendly performance, you may sign up at www.tdf.org/autism to get new on future performances.
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor. Mark Peikert is the managing editor of CityArts Magazine.