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Your ATN@Work: The Arts + Autism = Improv Opera

Our Autism Treatment Network center in Columbus, Ohio, teamed with local groups to present an autism-friendly – and very fun – opera

By Amy Hess, shown here with (left to right) daughter Sophia, son Henry and husband Tom. Amy represents Nationwide Children Hospital’s on the national Family Advisory Committee of the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN). Located in Columbus, Ohio, Nationwide is one of 14 ATN centers across the U.S. and Canada.

What happens when you mix four opera singers, one box of stage props, a dash of operatic terminology and the imagination of an audience? You get Opera Columbus's Improv Opera.  With multiple choice questions, Improv Opera allows the audience to decide the fate of the performers as they create a world-premiere opera that is being performed before their eyes.

Last month, I helped train the volunteer ushers for the Improve Opera’s first sensory-friendly performance. Janet Rife, CAPA’s volunteer coordinator, told me that, for this show, they had specially selected ushers who had an interest or background in special education or otherwise working with those with disabilities.

The performance was the latest production of the Arts and Autism in Ohio Initiative. The Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) is proud to be a part of this collaboration alongside Opera Columbus, the Ohio Arts Council, The Center for Autism Services and Transition at Ohio State University, Helping Hands Center for Special Needs, the Autism Society of Columbus, VSA Ohio (our state organization on arts and disability) and CAPA (the nonprofit operator of Columbus’s historic downtown theaters).

Designed for inclusion
The performance featured open seating and an informal format that was designed to be more engaging of audience members on the autism spectrum. These sensory friendly, or “relaxed,” performances have become increasingly popular in in Columbus – and across North America – thanks in part to the awareness and educational outreach of organizations such as Autism Speaks.

Opera Columbus is just the latest of our local performance groups helping to make the arts truly accessible for all.

The audience takes charge
As you may have picked up, the idea of Improve Opera is to allow the audience to guide the direction of the production.

The cast came prepared with large boxes of props overflowing with the hats, coats, swords and other accessories that would allow them to transform into any of the characters that the audience might select.

The audience members shouted out suggestions and laughed as the cast transformed their ideas into the unique opera that unfolded before our eyes.

The cast members did an amazing job of working with the audience to solicit not only ideas, but also characters and the objects they would use.

We ended up with a Tenor named Ross as the hero. The audience decided he would find a magic bird house that allowed him to eat a prize for breakfast.

Throughout the production, the cast and their guests continued their dynamic interaction. I loved how audience members freely moved around the room to get closer to the action as they continued to shout out ideas. 

Fittingly, the high point came with the finale: An audience member asked if she could sing with the baritone. He enthusiastically agreed, and she came up on stage and sang the classic aria from Figaro to the delight of her parent, the cast and the audience.  Music is a motivator!

And this was just the latest opportunity for our newly formed “Arts and Autism” team to provide the kind of training and support needed to increase access to the arts in Ohio. 

We have more outreach work planned in 2016, when we will also hold our second annual Arts and Autism Conference at the Columbus Museum of Art. The conference will focus on educating cultural institutions, artists, educators, families and others about how and why the arts can benefit a more diverse audience – including those with developmental disabilities and other special needs.

And this just in! The New Albany Symphony, Columbus Dance Theatre and Jym Ganahl will collaborate on sensory-friendly performances of Peter and the Wolf at the McCoy Performing Arts Center, New Albany, Ohio, on February 6 and 7. If you’re in the area, please join us.

* Learn more about the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network here.
* Find the ATN center nearest you 
* Explore our archive of ATN expert-advice blogs and news stories 

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.