Broadway’s Autism-Friendly Performances are a Hit!

Autism Speaks Staffer Kerry Magro recently sat down with Lisa Carling, Director of accessibility programs for the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) and Derrick Davis, a Broadway actor who’s part of the ensemble of Disney’s “The Lion King,” to discuss the recent success of the TDF’s Autism Theater Initiative (ATI). ATI announced that 3 autism-friendly performances would be hitting Broadway during the 2013-14 season. (the next one is SPIDERMAN: Turn off the Dark on Saturday November 16 at 2pm) To learn more and buy tickets for these performances go to www.tdf.org/autism

Kerry Magro: Thank you both for taking some time to speak with us! Lisa, can you tell us more on how the Autism Theater Initiative started?

Lisa Carling: It started quite a few years ago actually. In the past we’ve been very active on our outreach to students with disabilities. Schools however started asking us what can we do for individuals with autism. Then we started talking to parents, and professionals in the autism field. What we thought best would be to buy all the seats for a show so we could offer autism-friendly performances to the community. We stuck with this and we would only sell tickets to those families and close it off to the general public. Our ticket buyers list has grown from 200 individuals in the autism community to now 5,000 names in 2 years.

This program is unique because we are targeting families. We want this to be something special and wonderful for families to do together. There really is a benefit from just having some extra help for these families.

KM: What kind of adjustments did you consider making for these Broadway shows to make them accessible for individuals with autism?

LC: We always approach the show with the mindset that we want it to be the great same product it always was. We didn’t want to alter the story or acting in anyway. What we did ask, if artistically possible was if technical adjustments could be made in sound and lighting to make the product more sensory friendly.

An example would be in The Lion King when Mufasa is falling there is a strobe light to show him falling. In the autism-friendly performance we asked them to turn that off and use a dim light instead. Another example was steam blasts. They are very loud and surprising in the show and we asked them to lightly soften them. Things from this technical perspective are so important to us.

KM: Derrick, tell us a little bit about your role in The Lion King in these autism-friendly performances?

Derrick Davis: I currently am in the ensemble and am an understudy for Mufasa and Scar. In my first autism-friendly performance almost a year ago I was in the ensemble and then in last month’s performance I played the lead role of Mufasa. It was a really special experience being able to play that role for this audience.

KM: What would you say is the biggest difference of acting in autism-friendly performances vs. regular shows you’ve done on Broadway?

DD: The biggest difference to me is, when you perform during a regular performance, audience members hold their applause for the most part until the end of each scene. With the autism-friendly performances these children explode with joy and appreciation whenever they want. We hear their feedback instantly. Another highlight, because the lights aren't completed dimmed, is that we get to see the audience’s faces and their excitement.

KM: How has the reaction been from the audiences you’ve been part of?

DD: It has been very positive, not only from the children, but also from the families because it’s the opportunity for them not to worry about the sounds and the lights and they can just enjoy it. The families were very appreciative of that.

KM: How has the feedback been since this program started?

DD: For the immediate Broadway community and The Lion King cast, it is thrilling to do this performance. So many people have expressed that this is their favorite show of the year because we are able to give it to the community. The immediate feedback and change in dynamic is uplifting.

This initiative will make the world so much more accepting. What Autism Speaks is doing in pushing the community towards acceptance is specifically with theater what we want to encourage people to do throughout the world today.

LC: The feedback has been wonderful! Parents would say that it’s so great that our kids could just be themselves. We didn’t have to apologize. We didn’t have to explain. This was the overwhelming response. No one is there to judge. And don’t we all want that?

A parent came up to me during a performance of Lion King in London crying explaining a story about his son with autism being over stimulated in a grocery store and crying. He felt so blessed to have the opportunity to be somewhere where his kid wouldn’t be judged and could just be who he is.

The actors have also been so warm and so appreciative of these types of performances. Really brings everything full circle.

KM: So Lisa and Derrick, what is next for you in terms of the Autism Theater Initiative?

DD: My plan is to stay on board with The Lion King. I’m really enjoying the show and hope to be part of future autism-friendly performances!

LC: We hope to encourage more and more Broadway shows to do autism-friendly performances. We are hoping to encourage more regional theaters to provide more autism-friendly performances. We provide autism advisory partnerships for theaters, as well.. We hope to provide more opportunities for those other communities out there too.

I guess a future question is emphasizing shows for adults with autism. So much of the emphasis is on children. How can we make a show sensory-friendly for these older individuals? It’s part of a bigger question that I’d like to explore going forward.

KM: Thank you so much for your time today and for what you are doing to help our community!

You can learn more about the Autism Theatre Initiative here.

Here's a short clip from the Theater Development Fund on what an autism-friendly performance looks like.