This is part of a series from Ilene Dube of The Artful Blogger.
The lights go low. There’s a rumbling sound coming from back stage, and soon the music grows loud. Characters come out dressed in wild costumes, and bright lights shine on them. For most of us who go to the theater, this is the experience we look forward to.
For those on the autism spectrum, such a theatrical experience can be downright terrifying. On May 21, McCarter Theatre in Princeton is inviting adults and children with autism, and their families and caregivers, to a special autism friendly production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Fiasco Theater Company conjures this tale with 10 actors and a piano through June 9 at McCarter Theatre in Princeton.
The Tony Award-winning musical weaves together beloved fairytales. With help from Autism Arts Initiative and Eden Autism Services, the May 21 performance will offer people with the disorder the experience of professional musical theater.
For those on the spectrum, external noises and light can be overwhelming, even painful. They may respond by kicking the seat in front of them or behaving in ways that disrupt the experience for other theater-goers.
Autism spectrum disorders are marked by a collection of symptoms arising from atypical brain development that results in problems with socialization, communication and behavior. Although the disorder can be mild to severe, in general children with autism have difficulty communicating and making friends. Many find it painful to look people in the eye, and as a result their ability to understand what others are feeling may be impaired.
Autism affects one in 88 children in the U.S., according the to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the incidence is about twice that in New Jersey.
McCarter is the first regional theater on the East Coast to present an autism-friendly performance. Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn will follow in June with a production of The Little Mermaid.
This autism-friendly production begins with a “social story” on the McCarter website that outlines the experience of attending a play and includes photos of the Berlind Theatre, lobbies, restrooms and ushers.
The play’s directors and designers have adjusted certain sensory elements to be less intense for those sensitive to lights and sounds. For example, the house lights will be kept at a low level throughout the performance.
The levels of music and sound effects will be lower, although parents of children who are especially susceptible to sound are encouraged to bring headphones or earplugs.
Attendees are encouraged to be themselves during the production. It is understood that some audience members will make noise during the show. If the noise gets to be too
much, families are welcome, though not obligated, to step out of the theater. Specially trained ushers will be available with tools to help a child relax and return to the seat when ready.
The actors have had training in terms of what to expect in noise or movement from the audience, and look forward to helping children and adults with autism experience live theater.
It is understood than for some, 15 minutes of theater may be a meaningful experience, and if families choose to leave after that amount of time, it is OK.
Into the Woods is a musical in which fairytale characters –Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf, Jack, a Giant, a Witch and Rupunzel — interact as they try to get their most desired wish: a child, a prince, a wife, gold. In the first act, the characters seem to get what they want and have the happy ending they hoped for.
The second act shows what happens after “happily ever after,” when characters start questioning if they made the
right decisions or got what they really wanted. Although the play focuses on fairy tale characters and stories, and is a family-friendly show, it is not a play specifically for kids. It contains serious themes like losing a loved one, what it means to grow up, and what people sacrifice to get what they desire.
Additional autism-friendly accommodations include: Gender-neutral family bathrooms, a quiet area and activity area staffed by trained volunteers, ushers and theater staff specially trained by Eden Autism Services, permission to bring snacks and drinks into the theater, and gluten-free snacks available for purchase. Service animals are welcome, as long as the box office is notified when making a reservation.
The musical ends with finding hope in the journey. Families of children with autism can find hope in theater experiences that are welcoming, and where they can connect with others who share the experience in a darkened room. And that, after all, is what theater is all about.
In addition tot he special May 21 presentation, Into the Woods runs at the McCarter Theater through June 9.
All tickets are $25 and are available by calling the ticket office at (609) 258-2787 or in person at 91 University Place in Princeton.
The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.