Theater can unlock a child's imagination. But the bright lights and loud sounds that delight so many children often keep children on the autism spectrum away. New York's Lincoln Center Education wants to change that with a new show called "Up and Away."
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For an hour or more — with the help of costumes, sets, and actors — make-believe becomes real. A world of wonder unfolds before kids' eyes.
It is an intimate show, designed for just eight audience members. They sit in pairs in four colorful hot air balloons to travel with the Fogg family, inspired by Jules Verne's classic novel "Around the World in Eighty Days."
Instead of being quiet and still, the children are encouraged to interact. In fact, each actor accompanies a child throughout the show. And all the actors are teaching artists, which helps them guide the young people with autism.
"We have experience working with kids of all ages, one on one and in groups, so that's helpful." said Robert Stevenson, who plays Phil Fogg.
"There's a mantra that we've been using to talk about our audience which is, if you've met one autistic child, you've met one autistic child" says Peter Musante, who plays Carl. "That's true with audiences, they're different every time, because it is so much of a tailored experience."
The show has a very deliberate structure, so the children know where they are traveling. It is an itinerary with a purpose, says Jonathan Chapman, the artistic director of The Trusty Sidekick Theatre Company, which created the show.
"We knew that we needed an agenda. Children on the spectrum need to know what is next and the order of things to feel safe," Chapman said.
There is comforting banjo music throughout the show, and the lighting is soft. All the lights are behind screen so when the children look up there are no blinding lights to disturb them.
Parents and caregivers can sit in the balloons too — in the back seats, that is. And what Catherine Vinci saw of her 11-year-old son Jake delighted her.
"He was locked in and participating, even how quickly he took to meeting his character and the concept of being in a balloon — going up and away — not something that he would normally do, so he was really engaged, and that's very rare to see, him intent for so long," Vinci said.
Lincoln Center Education does not want that accomplishment to end when the show closes in November.
Executive director Russell Granet hopes this show is just the first of many created for children with autism because Lincoln Center Education believes theater is for everybody.
"We just have to be proactive about creating the experience to make sure we celebrate difference. 'Up and Away' is unique in that we celebrate every child's difference in that audience. They get to be themselves and will be celebrated for who they are."