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Theater Magic for Children on the Spectrum

June 17, 2013

Freddie and Myrna GershonFreddie Gershon has been busy for a long time. After graduating from Juilliard as a music student, he’s been successful as an entertainment attorney, a talent magnet, a film and theater producer, and an early proponent of protecting intellectual property.

Now he and his wife Myrna, also a veteran of the entertainment business, are adding to their list of accomplishments: championing children with autism. 

To date, the Gershon’s have given more than a quarter million dollars to a theater program that serves children with autism and other special needs children.

It all started in 2009 when Mr. and Mrs. Gershon attended a performance at P94, a school for children with significant emotional, developmental and social deficits—including many on the autism spectrum—located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

The teachers were working with kids on a production of “Willy Wonka Jr.”, one of Mr. Gershon’s Broadway Junior productions which he developed over the years to provide out-of-the-box theater productions of popular shows for children all over the country.

Mr. Gershon described the scene in a 2011 blog post on The Huffington Post:

Finally, P94 has to perform WILLY WONKA, delayed by one week and when they do, it is in a hot auditorium that can only run a single fan, because students cannot be heard above the noise of any other cooling device.

The kids now seem calm and confident. They know the music, the words, and the dance steps. They are acting supportive and helpful to each other. During the performance, they reach out to help move a cast member gently if he or she is in the wrong place. They don't get flustered if they get off-track to the music. They are proud of their achievement.

One of the Oompa Loompas (a little boy who is Autistic and really non-verbal) is so pleased at his success that when he finishes one of his dances, (in the middle of the show,) he looks down at the audience and shouts, "I did it, Papi!" The audience responds, cheers in kind yells, "Go star!" "You're beautiful!"

We asked Freddie Gershon a few questions via e-mail about this program and his relationship to autism. Here’s what he had to say:

What is the biggest success of the program so far? What has been the reaction from the families of the autistic students in the program?

The success was having Ronnie Shuster (the principal of P.94) tell me that her children were disappointed that there was no school show because there was no money for a school show and that they no longer qualified for a Department of Education/Shubert Foundation grant.  It was then that Mrs. Gershon and I gave them the money to do a show.  We were surprised within two weeks when we found out that they had elected not to do another show licensed/administrated by my company or by Disney and they elected instead to write an original musical.  Because they wrote an original musical, they were awarded a Courage In Theatre Award because we have never had a school write an original musical so far-reaching – with an original script – and although they collaborated with their accompanist and an original score on a story which was so authentic – about what it’s like to be different and to be bullied – it was wonderful.  The reaction of the families and the autistic students to doing a show that was so close to their hearts that they created with costumes that they created, with sets that they created, and that they actually performed their work on a stage with an accompanist was so remarkable that when I asked Ronnie Shuster, the principal, what her next wish list was, and she said to bring a similar program to kindergarten and to her lower grades and to the grades that were below all of the grades below middle school and then to take the children from middle school and let them have a comparable program on a high school level, it was very easy to say “go for it – it will be done.”

What results would you like to see from this program?  Do you foresee a movement to expand it nationally?

I’m not sure, nor is Myrna, what results we’d like to see from the program but the most important thing is for people to keep an open mind, to be willing to try non-invasive, experiential, joyful, gratifying and rewarding programs like the school musical and see what positive impact it has on the brain, on behavior, on the capacity to learn and to grow emotionally and to see how children respond to newfound respect and deference from their teachers, their parents, their siblings and their colleagues in their schools.  

For the next 18-24 months, we’ve retained Dr. Robert Cancro and a team to do medical observation, focus on plasticity of the brain and try to learn more, educate ourselves and freely disseminate the results so that any special needs school, summer camp, private school, public school – whoever it may be who cares – can bring these children joy, help them in their desire to navigate school life and then daily life.  I don’t believe that it is within the Gershon’s province to address prevention of autism or a cure for autism but certainly we can help increase awareness, dispel some fear and misinformation and provide a bright and shining moment in these children’s lives and in their community and with their families along the way. 

We already know that there is an effective spillover into reading, language arts and required curriculum and that when students express themselves artistically and learn about teamwork and how others depend on them and therefore how to be responsible and how to mentor their colleagues and interact with them and how to communicate through word and action.  The autistic children are in the same space as all these other kids in America, a life-enhancing space.  This is not just about teaching a song or a scene or painting a set or making a costume or creating a prop.  It is about giving a child a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem.  Giving them a role to play whether it be big or small, giving them a goal, to reach for something, to stretch for something, to attain a level and to be applauded for it, they can accomplish what they have to do on whatever level they feel comfortable but they learn quickly that the only way they could do it is to work in a collegial, collaborative fashion and by using their own imagination and creativity and inventiveness as a team and as individuals. 

This takes a bit of financial lubrication, encouragement by wonderful teachers, nurturing by a school administration and usually a great principal, and the reward of being celebrated by their teachers, by their schoolmates and by their families

Is there anything else you’d like to share with the Autism Speaks community about your foundation’s work with autistic children?

Every autistic child should be given a chance to shine in this fashion, with all the tools and nurturing it takes to make the best of their lives.