• Creating an Autism-Friendly Performance: Insights from “The Lion King” and “The Nutcracker”

    Posted on November 5, 2014 by Jessica Ryan in Accessibility.



    A patron attending the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s autism-friendly performance of “The Nutcracker” poses with a ballerina.

    “Thanks for having The Lion King autism performance. We loved it. It was my dream to get my son to see this show, and you made it happen for our family.”

    “My family had the honor of attending the autism-friendly production of The Nutcracker. We not only saw an amazing production, but we got to experience the added joy of watching my 8-year-old autistic son have a great time; he was treated with dignity and respect. Our entire group was amazed and thrilled to see the sincere kindness and compassion of each staff member and volunteer . . . Once again, Pittsburgh has proved that we are willing to take that extra step to make someone’s day extraordinary. Keep it coming Pittsburgh! You are amazing!”

    These are just two of the quotes shared with Vanessa Braun, Manager of Employee Engagement and Director of Accessibility at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and Alyssa Herzog Melby, Director of Education and Community Engagement at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (PBT), after their organizations’ autism-friendly performances in 2013. Thanks in part to their efforts, Pittsburgh, only the third city to develop an autism-friendly production of The Lion King and home to one of the first (if not the first) professional ballet companies to present an autism-friendly show, has become a pioneer when it comes to offering autism- or sensory-friendly performances.

    Last Friday, I interviewed Vanessa and Alyssa to learn more about what made their productions so successful. They shared a wealth of helpful information about the process of putting together an autism-friendly show, and today I’d like to highlight eight of their key insights that are especially relevant to others who may consider presenting this type of programming.

    1. Organizational buy-in is essential. Vanessa and Alyssa both belong to organizations that completely bought into the idea of autism-friendly programming. Along with several colleagues, they became inspired after hearing reports of autism-friendly programs performed in other cities. To help ensure that inspiration became reality, Alyssa created a distinct list of selling points for everyone at PBT and had one-on-one conversations to build support for an autism-friendly performance. In her case, as well as at the Trust, it was an easy sell. It soon became clear that everyone believed in doing these programs and they could move forward.
    2. Learn from people who have done this before. Both Alyssa and Vanessa spoke with others who had gone through the process of developing autism-friendly programs to learn from their experiences. For example, two of Vanessa’s colleagues first heard about sensory-friendly performances at the 2011 Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability Conference (a great resource for anyone interested in the intersection of arts and accessibility). In 2012 they returned to the conference and sought out staff from Theatre Development Fund, which had produced sensory-friendly versions of The Lion King and Mary Poppins through its Autism Theatre Initiative. They also met with individuals involved in Houston’s recent autism-friendly performance of The Lion King. All of these interactions helped the Trust know how to prepare for its performance and gave staff a better idea of what to expect.
    3. Capitalize on local resources. In addition to the great resources available across the country, there are many individuals willing to help right here in Pittsburgh. For instance, the foundation community helped make discounted tickets to these performances possible. Both Alyssa and Vanessa also worked closely with Lu Randall of Autism Connection of PA, who trained staff and performers about autism and the behaviors they might see at the theater. While planning her performance, Alyssa held a focus group with young adults on the spectrum as well. They watched a video of The Nutcracker and suggested some minor changes to make the event a better experience for patrons with autism.
    4. Autism-friendly performances aren’t all that different from other events. As Alyssa says, “The goal is to try to maintain the artistic integrity of a performance. Modifications are minimal.” Therefore, the primary differences between autism-friendly performances and other events are environmental. At the autism-friendly versions of The Lion King and The Nutcracker, patrons found the atmosphere in the theater more welcoming. They appreciated seeing wide smiles from ushers and volunteers, and they thought that the friendly volunteers who greeted them in parking garages set a positive tone before the shows even began. During the performances, patrons generated a constant hum of sound, but both Alyssa and Vanessa agree that the noise level didn’t really differ from that heard during student matinees. Because of the inclusive environments carefully cultivated by the Trust and PBT, the extra sound didn’t bother anyone. As Vanessa remarked, “No one was shushing or telling people to sit down; that was huge.” People felt free to respond to the show, and “anytime someone felt moved in the audience, they reacted immediately. It was genuine and pure.”
    5. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. When asked what advice they had for others thinking about offering sensory-friendly shows, Vanessa recommended, “Don’t be afraid of it.” Alyssa concurred, saying, “You will make mistakes; be okay with this.” In Pittsburgh’s Cultural District, we have built relationships with the disability community for several years, and we still have a lot to learn. It takes time to refine programs, but the disability community is willing to help out and grow with us. In addition, Vanessa and Alyssa observed that not all shows will have as many audience members as The Lion King, an international phenomenon. However, as Vanessa says, it’s important to “be willing to offer things like this to show your long-term commitment to the community.” Know that it may take some time for sensory-friendly shows to become part of families’ routines, but also know that even shows with lower attendance can make a big difference for the families who do attend.
    6. Good communication is key. According to Alyssa, “Communication with the community is key, as is working with communities hand in hand.” This communication can make a huge difference by ensuring that an organization is ready to present a performance that meets the needs of the disability community. Vanessa adds that “communications before the show are huge.” Pre-visit emails, stories, video tours, and other communications can help patrons become more familiar with an experience, which should allow them to feel more comfortable and relaxed at shows. Some families may use pre-visit materials and communications more than others, but those who do need them appreciate having the option available.
    7. Performers enjoy being part of autism-friendly performances. Before The Lion King and The Nutcracker, some performers felt nervous, but after going through training and the performances, they gave positive feedback about the experience. Zazu from The Lion King mentioned that he wished theaters adopted relaxed rules during more performances, and one dancer even said that doing this for the community was the highlight of his career.
    8. Members of the disability community appreciate having the option to attend this type of programming. At and after both shows, many people said they had never been able to attend a performance with their entire family before. Since quotes are the best way to convey patrons’ sentiments, I’ll share two more here. The first is from the parent of a child who attended the autism-friendly performance of The Nutcracker:

    It was so amazing to see a sixteen year old who is ‘trapped in his own world’ react to the dancers, lights, and music on stage. We as parents who live in a world of isolation at times because not everyone can relate to having an autistic child, were a group of parents watching the performance knowing we were not alone in our journey, as all around us were parents taking the same journey. We were finally able to relax in an atmosphere where the noise of our children and the flapping of hands was not seen as odd.

    A parent who attended The Lion King with her daughter provided the second quote:

    The show was awesome, the volunteers so very helpful, and the extra efforts to accommodate families with special kids were very, very appreciated! From the kids on the streets handing out manipulatives, to the ushers welcoming us with literally open arms, to the smiles from the ticket takers, it was obvious there was a lot of time and energy put into making the day special . . . Please, please, please continue to offer these special events at the Benedum. Our daughter LOVES musicals and this is the only way we are able to attend theatrical productions in an economical way. KUDOS to you all for being the frontrunner in such an undertaking.

    Hearing Vanessa and Alyssa speak about their productions made me even more excited for the PSO’s sensory-friendly performance next June! You can now visit pittsburghsymphony.org/sensoryfriendly to learn more about the concert. Tickets will go on sale Monday, and you can also return to our blog to learn even more about the program next week!

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