Thanks to the generosity of some individual donors, Bay Area Children's Theatre is able to take Story Explorers on the road! We are able to visit a few special needs classrooms this year and present our sensory-friendly, interactive shows designed specifically for them! Words don't do the experience justice, but I think this photo by Melissa Nigro captures beautifully the wonder and meaning that performing these shows brings to me.
When people would ask me prior to the opening of Story Explorers what creating theatre for autistic children looks like, I would lay out specific elements: emphasis on sensory experience, less reliance on verbal storytelling, more reliance on moments and patterns, inviting and non-constrictive seating, loose script and song structure that allows for interaction, etc. Now that the show has closed, I believe all of these elements can be encapsulated into two words: openness and flexibility.
Creating a theatre experience where autistic children and their families felt welcomed meant letting pre-conceived ideas about theatre get challenged and revised. It meant creating space for ticks, interruptions, outbursts; for runners, dancers, sing-alongers; for kids who loudly and unabashedly share their opinions about the show mid-performance. It meant making it easy for parents to exit the space if needed without feeling like hundreds of eyes were watching them. It meant structuring the show in such a way that if a moment really connected with a kid, we can linger there just a bit longer than rehearsed.
In order to accomplish all of this, it was paramount that we assemble a team of actors who worked well with children, who could improvise and think on their toes, and who were open to a collaborative and often amorphous creative process. In short, we needed actors who were also teachers. Director Hannah Dworkin and I both decided early on that it made sense for us to be two of the performers, since the knowledge we had gained from the research and in-classroom workshops for the show seemed inextricable from the final performance. This didn't feel like a show to "hand-off" to actors. We found excellent collaborators in Anna Smith, André San-Chez, and Austin Zumbro, each of whom contributed ideas, talents and hard work to bring the show to fruition. We also had a ton of fun, playing and joking around along the way - another form of being open and flexible with each other!
Even though there was a script, we all understood that the show could change depending on the moment. If a child vocalized or spoke, we responded or repeated back what we heard. If a child seemed keen to help us perform part of the show, we invited them to the stage area and encouraged them to do so. If a child backed away from us, we respected their space and didn't insist on interaction.
One particularly memorable exchange I had was with a boy who made it very clear at the beginning of the show that he would provide his unfiltered commentary throughout. For example, of Sharky, the Story Shark, he declared "That's not a shark! That's a stuffed animal!" One of my tasks in Story Explorers was to float an inflatable astronaut around the room during our outer space sequence, asking kids to high-five it, which would result in a "Whoosh!" and the astronaut floating away. When I asked this boy to high-five the astronaut, he said, with a rather serious expression on his face, "I'd rather high-five one ounce of atmosphere." So, I pinched my fingers in the air, as if I had grabbed a speck of dust, and held my hand out to the boy. "Here," I said, "One ounce of atmosphere." I knew I had successfully made contact when a small smile crept onto his face. He high-fived my pinched fingers, and I released the ounce of atmosphere back into the... well, atmosphere.
This is just one of the many magical encounters we all experienced throughout the run. These moments would not exist if we were insistent on keeping the show running on one track every single time. Because the actors had practiced openness and flexibility with each other during rehearsals, everything flowed quite well when needing to practice it with our audiences. A visible transformation would occur where parents - who at the beginning of the show would be tense and concerned with monitoring their kid - would discover that they could relax a bit, and that their kid's behaviors were neither shocking nor disruptive in this theatrical space, but rather accepted and incorporated into the show experience. I think the cast (and our stage/house manager Chris!) would agree that performing Story Explorers often left us speechless and moved.
Of course, this does not mean that we got everything right. Being open includes the strong possibility of getting things wrong, which is why we are conducting post-show surveys and encouraging our audiences to get in touch with us and tell us what they thought about the show. We want to make sure that we stay connected to the community we're reaching out to, instead of simply patting ourselves on our backs without a second thought.
The journey of Story Explorers isn't over - we are looking at future opportunities for the work, possibly turning it into a local touring show. Personally, I want to carry what I've learned from the experience about openness and flexibility into my other work. As a writer (indeed, as a human being), I can fall into the trap of rigidity, whether it's having a narrow viewpoint or only wanting things to be executed my way. While there's something to be said for asserting oneself and one's boundaries, there is also great value in balancing that with an open spirit, one that can loosely grip instead of clutch; one that can have intense, critical dialogue without it turning into a fight about who's right. I also want to see my life as full of open possibilities rather than merely consisting of set tasks and goals. As Shades, one of the characters in Story Explorers, raucously tells us:
"Your life is your own story,
A story to explore,
Your life is your own story,
A story no one's ever heard before,
Now you can tell your story,
A story to explore,
Yeah, you can tell your story,
A story no one's ever heard before!"
Rehearsals for Story Explorers have begun, and for the past two weeks, we've been able to visit special needs classrooms to try out elements from the show. We've been getting positive responses from the students and teachers, as well as helpful feedback as we continue to craft the work together.
One element of Story Explorers we are really excited about is Sharky, the Story Shark! Sharky is a soft, friendly puppet who serves many different functions in the show. First, Sharky is a sort of buffer between the children and actors, in case the human-to-human interaction proves undesirable. Sharky straddles that line between person and object, which can be more inviting for a child with autism. He was intentionally constructed with a singular facial expression, so there would be no need to read emotional or social cues. Sharky also verbalizes in a nonsense "shark language," sending the signal that in our theatre space, everyone can communicate in their own way, without needing to follow the norms of verbal language.
Every interactive element in the show is offered to Sharky as well as the kids, turning the puppet into a sort of example or guinea pig. If a kid is feeling uncertain about a moment in the show - say, playing with clay - they might look over and notice that Sharky seems OK touching the clay and decide they will as well. Sharky is also very huggable and pettable. Lots of kids enjoyed interacting with Sharky in our classroom visits. In a few classes, they also immediately called out his name "Sharky!" when they saw him enter the room - which made me think I named him well.
Last month, while in London, I had the privilege of visiting with Oily Cart Theatre, one of the few companies dedicated to creating productions for young audiences living with special needs. Specifically, Oily Cart focuses on children with autism spectrum condition (ASC) and/or profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). While developing Story Explorers, I knew it would be paramount to visit with and learn from an organization that is already doing the work - and Oily Cart has been creating this work for over 30 years.
My day started with Oily Cart's Artistic Director Tim Webb picking me up from my hotel and driving me out to South Ockenden where we would watch performances of Light Show, the company's latest offering. On the way (to and from), I was able to barrage Tim with question after question about what goes into the creative process for sensory-friendly work. He was very patient in answering all of my questions and adding insight that I would never have considered.
The performances of Light Show were captivating and eye-opening. The artistic concept of the piece was paper, so everything from the set to the seats to the costumes to the props were made to look like white sheets of paper. The three actors - Plane, Fan and Hat - were all objects that could be made from paper. The story of the show was a day at the beach, and was sectioned into different moments about the beach. Each moment centered around a brightly colored object. Orange heated pads were brought out to simulate the heat of the sun. Then came sun tan lotion in bright orange containers. There was also a segment with a large, elegant silver and blue raincloud, followed by a mischievous purple raincloud that sprayed water at the audience. The show featured original music accompanied by a double bass. Each song was thoughtfully composed, but remained lyrically simple enough for all of the children to follow.
It's difficult to capture in words what the experience of watching Light Show was like. And perhaps that's the point. The work that Oily Cart does is to create theatre that does not rely on verbal language or abstract concepts which must be followed in order to be enjoyed. While there is a structure to the show, the audience doesn't necessarily need to track a protagonist's emotional or social journey, nor is there a pressure for audiences to "understand the plot." Light Show put more emphasis on moment-by-moment experiences than on laying out a linear storyline. Each performer is trained to respond in the moment to a child's reactions. Tim described it as a "grand communication system," where the actors are hoping to connect with each audience member in a language that makes sense to them - be it lights & color, music & sound, the feeling of suntan lotion on the skin or drops of water on the face.
This doesn't cover half of what I learned from my visit with Oily Cart, and unfortunately, I didn't snap any photos during the show, because I wanted to take in the show live as much as possible. But suffice it to say, I came away from that visit feeling more equipped and prepared to venture into my first sensory-friendly work. I'm excited to think through ways to tell stories that my neurotypical brain doesn't often consider. I can't wait to explore and develop and learn more and be corrected. I am entirely indebted to Mr. Webb, their wonderful touring company, and all of Oily Cart for allowing me to be a fly-on-the-wall, and to witness one of their magical productions.
Now that the in-class sessions for Story Explorers are over, I have the task of taking the stories and artwork generated by each class and transferring them into a new theatre piece. What exactly that means is entirely nebulous, which is both a wonderful and terrifying thing. Before I even attempt to put anything onto the page, I’ve entered into “research mode” for the work, soaking in stories and perspectives from as many sources as possible. Recently, I was able to watch two eye-opening films that got my mind and imagination churning. This blog post is about the first. I’ll share about the other film in a future post.
This documentary follows the film-making process of Zeno Mountain Farm, a non-profit organization that hosts camps for people with and without disabilities. Their LA camp offers a unique film-making session during which camp participants star in a fully-produced film. For most of the participants, their disabilities mean they won't be accepted into mainstream Hollywood fare. Zeno offers them a chance to live out their movie star dreams.
Becoming Bulletproof walks us through the entire process from actors’ acceptance into the camp to casting to filming and, finally, to the movie premiere of Bulletproof Jackson, a classic-style Western. Along the way, we see the struggles that go into any film-making process as well as the unique challenges that come from working with a cast comprised of folks with a variety of disabilities. The documentary does an excellent job of showing the huge heart and dedication of both the production team and the cast as they work hard to make the film a reality.
Through this documentary, I observed that the process of creating film (or theatre or any performing arts, for that matter) with a cast of disabled players isn’t necessarily all that different from working with those who are labelled “able.” Every actor has their particular difficulties to work through in their craft. Some thespians are hopelessly tone-deaf. Some singers can’t dance to save their lives. Some dancers aren’t able to emote in the same way an actor can. And yet, we don’t think of these performers as disabled. They simply have a particular skill set in which they excel.
What I saw while watching Becoming Bulletproof was individuals working with their disabilities with the help of a very open-minded production team. In a wheelchair? They will make it work with the character you play. Having trouble with verbal clarity? They will hone in on your emotive facial expressions. Not able to recall your lines well? They will modify the lines in the script without compromising the story or switching you out for another actor.
These kinds of decisions require an open mind and heart as well as a deep respect for the dignity of each person in the room. It got me thinking that maybe some of the “rules” of theatre that I operate by are actually just “norms” that can be revised or redacted as needed. I need to enter into the creation process for Story Explorers, and indeed every play I write, with a similar openness to the Zeno film camp. My goal may be a little different with Story Explorers: we’re creating a sensory-friendly work for children with autism and other behavioral/cognitive needs to enjoy with their families as audience members. However, there is something about how Zeno Mountain Farm goes about its creative process that I want to channel as I continue my development of Story Explorers.