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Finally, an Arts Fest for Children on the Autism Spectrum

Date: Mar 23, 2018


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Inside Lincoln Center's groundbreaking Big Umbrella Festival


The seed was planted back in 2012 when Peg Schuler-Armstrong attended a professional development session at the New Victory Theater about creating work for children on the autism spectrum. "It was unlike anything I'd ever done, yet it just made so much sense to me," says Schuler-Armstrong, the longtime director of programming and production at Lincoln Center Education. "It lit a fire in my belly. Although Lincoln Center's accessibility department has been around for decades, we had never devised work for this audience. If we're for everyone and we want everyone in New York City to feel welcome here, then we weren't being entirely true to that mission since we weren't filling a gap in arts programming that we identified."

Schuler-Armstrong pitched the idea of commissioning a show for children on the autism spectrum to her boss, and in 2015 Lincoln Center premiered Up and Away, an intimate, immersive, multisensory production created by the New York City-based Trusty Sidekick Theater Company. Not only did this singular show get excellent reviews and sell out every performance, it was embraced by its traditionally underserved target audience.

That's when Schuler-Armstrong and her collaborators realized they had to think bigger.

After years of planning, Lincoln Center is set to debut the three-week Big Umbrella Festival this April. Billed as "an arts festival for children on the autism spectrum and their families" and featuring theatre, film, music, storytime, and dance experiences, it's the first event of its kind in the U.S.

Like TDF's own autism-friendly performances, many Big Umbrella offerings are relaxed performances, i.e. preexisting work that's been adapted for children on the spectrum. But the three shows on the schedule -- Oily Cart's Light Show, Sensorium Theatre's Oddysea, and an encore engagement of Up and Away -- were all devised specifically for this audience. These productions don't just accommodate the spectators' sensory sensibilities, they engage them with personalized interactions.

"By using a much more sensory approach and not relying on what you can hear and see onstage; doing a lot of one-to-one work; and employing touch, smell, taste, and the kinesthetic sense, we found we could make a successful piece of theatre for this audience," says Tim Webb, the artistic director of Oily Cart. The U.K.-based theatre company has been crafting shows for children with disabilities (profound and multiple learning disabilities, autism, and deafblind) for 30 years. Webb actually led the New Victory workshop that so inspired Schuler-Armstrong, and he also served as a consultant when Trusty Sidekick was developing Up and Away.

Although each Big Umbrella show is unique, they do share certain qualities. All three are immersive adventures. Up and Away, which was loosely inspired by Jules Verne's novel Around the World in 80 Days, is set up in the sky on a balloon ride; Oddysea is an underwater journey; and Light Show synthesizes a trip to the beach. All three feature sensory elements such as misters, mirrors, and touchable puppets and sets. And all employ a ratio of one performer to each child on the autism spectrum, which means audiences are extremely small, just six to eight kids along with their families.

There are also lots of online resources (intro videos, character guides, social stories) so families can prepare their children for the experience. And, of course, there's staff support on-site, too. "We'll have all kinds of volunteers out front helping families," says Schuler-Armstrong. "On that, we took a page from TDF's autism-friendly performances' book."

That compassionate atmosphere continues throughout the show. "Everyone sits together, the artists intermingling with the audience. It's never us and them," says Webb. "We respond as best we can to any interventions from the young people themselves. If they want to ask questions or make suggestions -- and we really hope they will -- we want them to feel that it's their world and we're welcoming them into it."

"There's no wrong way to experience the show," says Drew Petersen, the artistic director of Trusty Sidekick. During Up and Away's previous runs, audiences' reactions were diverse. Some tried to taste the clouds as the balloons virtually sailed into the sky. Others refused to sit still and ran around the space. But no matter what happened, the performers just went with it. "It's like jazz," Petersen says. "There's an element of improv. We're not playing different songs; it's the same song but we've got different solos. It's almost like a dialogue with the kids. There are so many moments of pure, unfiltered joy as they comment on what's happening."


In addition to the performances, Big Umbrella is hosting professional development tracks for artists and administrators, plus a day-long Intersection of the Arts and Autism Symposium. It's all part of Schuler-Armstrong's plan to spread the gospel about programming for children on the autism spectrum far and wide.

"The festival is making a statement, yes, but it's also an opportunity to bring all kinds of interested parties together to talk about the work and to train them in the work," she says. "If I ran the world there would be a festival in every major city. We would move toward making relaxed performances not just an occasional, one-off special event, but something that's built into every theatre's schedule. That's the only way we as the theatre community can say we really welcome all comers."

Visit Big Umbrella Festival's official website for a complete lineup of events and to purchase tickets.


Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Light Show by Oily Cart. Photo by Neal Houghton.

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