Early on in Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale themed musical, “Into the Woods,” one of the characters sings, “Into the woods, and who can tell what’s waiting on the journey?”
If the woods in the song and fairy tales can be used as a metaphor for life and the uncertain path through it, who indeed knows what lies ahead? And if theater is an occasion to refresh, reflect, and, perhaps, renew, then the Tuesday, May 21, autism-friendly presentation of that 1988 Tony Award-winning musical at McCarter Theater is a particularly meaningful pause for families with loved ones living with autism.
McCarter Theater “wanted to create an autism-friendly program for some time. The goal is to be inclusive,” says general manager Thomas Muza at a recent staff session to plan the mainstage presentation, a first for any East Coast regional theater company (though Broadway theaters have already presented such events).
While the disorder is well known, autism is a mysterious group of developmental brain disorders, collectively called autism spectrum disorders (ASD). It affects 1.5 million Americans, including one percent of the children in the U.S. (one in 49 children in New Jersey). Causes and cures are elusive.
Some common behaviors associated with the disorder include an inability to respond to others, the repeating of sounds or phrases, and making and repeating body motions. Additionally, for those with the disorder, external sounds and light can cause pain or be overwhelming. The levels of severity range from the seemingly unnoticeable to readily apparent.
These symptoms and behaviors obviously can clash with the normal ritual of theater-going. That is something that Tricia Rich, the Montgomery-based mother of 21-year-old Alex, experienced years ago when she and her finance-industry husband took their ASD son and her unaffected daughter to see “Beauty and the Beast” on Broadway.
“The kids were little, and it was the first show that we took him to. We just assumed that it would be fine and that there would be a lot of children there, but he ended up kicking the seat in front of us constantly. We couldn’t stop him. The people in front of us got upset, and we ended up leaving. We might have said something to the people that (Alex) has autism. But we realized that people paid money to come to the show, and we didn’t want to be disruptive to the people who came to enjoy the show too.”
Since an autistic child or adult’s behavior can be disturbing to others, family members and caregivers, such as Rich, often find themselves under a great deal of stress while attending public events. And then there is the constant unknown. “Sometimes you have to leave because the noise or the crowds or waiting in line is disturbing to the child or adult. Sometimes you really don’t know what is going to happen with your child until it happens. It all depends on the degree of challenges that your son or daughter on how smoothly it is going to go,” says Rich.
Rich says that sometimes parents walk a very fine line when they take their autistic children into public settings, but McCarter’s presentation can make that walk easier. “It opens up another opportunity to families that have limited opportunities where they will feel comfortable. You want your kid to experience the things that others enjoy. If you feel that you can’t take them, they’re never going to have those experiences.”
Twenty years ago the idea of such a production would probably never happen, but, as Rich says, today is different. “Now everyone knows someone that is affected. It is so prevalent.”
Lisa Carling, director of the New York City-based Theater Development Fund’s (TDF) Accessibility Programs, explains the creation of the Broadway initiative and arrives at a similar perspective. TDF pioneered the autistic-friendly audience-only presentation in October, 2011, with the presentation of the Broadway blockbuster “The Lion King,” produced on both screen and stage by the Walt Disney Company. The popularity of the event demonstrated a need that TDF has met through subsequent autism audience presentations of “Mary Poppins,” a second “Lion King,” “Elf,” and this past April’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”
“We have a strong accessible program for specially scheduled matinees,” says Carling during a telephone interview, “and we kept hearing from special education teachers, ‘what can you do about children with autism?’ So we talked to people in the industry and found that it was best to open it up with the autism family, rather than school groups. We settled the idea of designated performances, and Disney was very supportive of it.” Disney is an autism-friendly corporate leader whose entertainment resorts offer accessibility. In 2012 it received an award from the United Kingdom Autism Foundation for its accommodation of autistic guests.
Carling says that personal connections to the disorder also make the presentations viable to management and performers. “Elf,” performed at a theater owned by the Jujamcyn Theaters, was championed by a Jujamcyn executive who has an autistic child. And for “Spider-Man,” Carling says, “our psychologist talked to about 50 people (involved with the production) to prep them as to what to expect from the audience. When they were asked if they had or knew of people with autism in the family, a third of the group raised their hand. It’s staggeringly prevalent now.”
To make a show autism-friendly production elements are adjusted to reduce startling sounds or lighting effects. House lights may be on at a higher level than during a routine production. Autism specialists are on hand to assist in quiet areas for those who need to leave their seats during the performance. And tickets are offered at reduced rates ($80 general admission for the Broadway productions). Additionally, since many with autism seek routine and predictability, information about the story — as well as pictures of the production and theater — are available online to help families prepare.
McCarter Theater is following that approach and partnering with the Forrestal Village-based Eden Autism Services to inform the staff and provide support. Representatives from both organizations have been in communication with TDF and were on hand to view the “Spider-Man” production.
At the recent planning session, which Tricia Rich attended, Eden’s associate director of communications, Aileen Kornblatt, Muza, and members of McCarter Theater’s front-of-house house staff and production staff review the highlights of the “Spider-Man” production and then put the pieces for the presentation together. An online social story is released. Professionally trained volunteers are preparing to visit the theater. Eden Institute staff sets the date to train box office and front of house staff. Information is being sent to schools and social service agencies to make families aware of the opportunity. Bean bag chairs are being considered for a quiet area.
Kornblatt, echoing Carling, says that it is helpful that the members of the group presenting “Into the Woods,” the Fiasco Theater, are supportive and know people with autism. Muza, who says that the company members readily agreed to the idea of the special presentation, adds that while there are considerations for this particular audience, everyone is working to create a normal theater-going experience. “We hope that it’s just like any other performances. Pick up tickets. Go to the concessions. Go into the theater.”
But there are differences. There will be no waiting in line. The concession stand will offer gluten-free snacks to conform to autism-related dietary needs. Approximately a dozen trained staff members will be visible in T-shirts, and tickets for McCarter’s 360-seat Berlind Theater are $25.
To help offset revenues normally generated by a regular performance of a McCarter mainstage production, local support is on hand. Dina Elkins, the executive director of the Princeton-based Karma Foundation, says the McCarter initiative reflects several of the foundation’s interests. “The reason (to support the night) is our connection to autism and our interest in exposing kids of all ages to the arts in general. The McCarter project is a great way to expand that.”
Noting that autism has touched her personally, Elkins says that Karma has funded a number of autism-related projects. Last year, for example, the foundation supported a competitive program to award grants of $2,500 to up to 20 organizations to provide programs and services to help people with autism in New Jersey. The grant to McCarter is of a different and larger category. Additional support for the McCarter presentation is coming from TDF, Autism Speaks, and Autism New Jersey.
Such efforts are welcome, says Rich, who has taken her son to see two autism-friendly Broadway presentations, “Elf” and “Spider-Man,” and she looks forward to an opportunity closer to home. “The difference,” she says about the specific audience presentation, “was that it was okay that (Alex) wasn’t quiet all the time. Even if he made sounds, we knew that it wasn’t going to be disturbing because others were also making sounds. There’s something comfortable about being in a place where others are going through the same thing. There’s no judgment.”
The experience, instead, brings something that most will judge priceless. “You’re among other families who understand what you’re going through. It is much more comforting. You’re feeling happy that everyone is enjoying themselves. That’s great.”
And as the musical says a few lines before it closes, “Into the woods to find there’s hope of getting through the journey.” Sometimes to find that hope, one just needs to be in a friendly place.
Autism-friendly presentation of Into the Woods, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tuesday, May 21, 7 p.m. $25. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.