It might not be the first thing one might think about when pinpointing cultures and scenes that have proven to be continually accepting and forward-thinking in their attitudes about autism, but the world of both Broadway and theatres across the country have made great strides in the past few years to make the experience of seeing a show accessible to all audience members, including those with autism.
In fact, as we’ve reported on before, the past year has seen both local and Broadway-level shows put on special autism-friendly versions of their performances in which the lights and sound are made less intense. The autism-themed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was one of the more high-profile instances, and this fall Lincoln Center Education will debut the play Up and Away, which was commissioned by Trusty Sidekick Theater Company specifically for young audiences with autism. The show is loosely inspired by Around the World in 80 Days and involves audience members being invited to be part of the show, with each audience member sitting in his or her own life-sized hot air balloon.
Trusty Sidekick is one of a growing number of theater companies that are expanding their purview to make audience members with unpredictable needs, able to take part in seeing a show. While Trusty Sidekick is more focused on immersive-type shows in which they can create environments for their audience members to explore, other companies are more singularly focused on providing a theater experience for those with autism, such as Actionplay.
Actionplay is a nonprofit theater organization that is dedicated to bringing children and adults on the autism spectrum equal access to education, arts, and culture and has found particular success through their theater endeavors. Namely, the organization holds a 25-week course in which 12 teens and young adults are challenged to develop their improvisational skills, write songs, and create original scenes based around a topic of the group’s choosing.
“It’s the social/communication piece that people with autism have the most difficulty with, and theatre really allows for people to come together and learn these skills in an organic way,” says executive director Aaron Feinstein, who also directs the shows.
It is by looking at this growing trend of theater companies being set up to assist audience members with autism and other developmental disorders that the recent actions of Broadway actor Kelvin Moon Loh begin to make much more sense. A few weeks back, Loh was performing in The King and I when a young boy with autism began making loud noises during the show’s intense whipping scene in the second act, leading to him being chastised and glared at by other attendees.
Loh, bothered by the seeming insensitivity of the audience, took to his Facebook account to write a post urging other members of the theater community to exercise more awareness towards their fellow audience members. “When did we as theater people, performers and audience members become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others?” Loh wrote in the post.
Loh’s post soon went viral and he has since used this newfound spotlight to let parents of children with autism know that there are advocates on stage that are there to support them. And considering the growing number of theater companies and productions focused on such audience members, the number of on-stage advocates will only rise from here.