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Theatre at its best can transport an audience to a different world. But the one American child in 88 who is affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder often suffers from sensory sensitivities and specific triggers that can preclude his or her engaging in such flights of imagination.
This weekend, thanks to the efforts of some passionate Northwestern University students, a number of children who under most circumstances would find it unbearable to attend a conventional stage play will experience the magic of theater – on their own terms.
Theatre Stands with Autism’s “Diving In!” charts a new course for theatre at Northwestern. The hope is that the young people on the autism spectrum who attend can “dive into the experience, which will take them someplace they wouldn’t go,” says NU senior Pamela Carmasine.
It will be obvious from the outset that this is not a typical play. It does feature costumed actors and live, original music. But it is sensation- and movement-based, and, lacking a traditional narrative storyline, invites its audience to participate rather than watch from their seats.
Since children on the spectrum tend to like routine, the NU production team has chosen to prepare, not surprise, them. Each family who registered to attend received a DVD that acquaints the child with “what to expect and what is expected of them,” says Anna Marr, co-producer of “Diving In!”
A personal escort, an “Adventure Guide,” will be in the lobby to meet each ticketed youth. Prepped with information from parents about each child’s preferences and needs, the guide will accompany the child as the interactive undersea drama production unfolds.
At each child’s pace, guide and child will enter a dome that serves as the “underwater” stage set. There children can clap or sing, play in sand or water, and interact as they wish with the characters who inhabit the play.
Two student groups at Northwestern, the Purple Crayon Players and the collegiate chapter of Autism Speaks, joined to stage this first-ever NU production especially for children on the spectrum.
Though “Diving In!” lasts less than an hour, it was years in the making.
Anna Marr says she and co-producer Melanie Gertzman, both NU seniors, “began dreaming about it sophomore year.” The two are both theater majors and members of Purple Crayon, a student-run community service organization that produces theatre for youth.
Like everyone involved in the production, each has a personal connection with youth on the autism spectrum. Melanie’s concern was perhaps sparked by her second major, psychology, says Anna, whose own interest originated with the families she has met through her mother,
a teacher of children on the spectrum.
The collaboration coalesced when Erik Yarnik, president of Autism Speaks U Northwestern, contacted Purple Crayon. The resulting production was two years in development. Anna admits, “It’s been a lot.”
By last May, Anna and Melanie had outlined a year’s work on the play so they could “pitch it as a special project to Purple Crayon,” she says. The co-producers also drew up a play-related course – an SOS, or Student- Organized Seminar – that they presented for University approval.
Anna and Melanie taught the yearlong class, during which the cast, crew and production team spent one session a week studying Autism Spectrum Disorder and another creating “Diving In!”
Over the summer, one of the guides went to London and worked with Oily Cart, a pioneer in the field of theatre for youth with disabilities. As further background on their prospective audience, the SOS producer/teachers presented academic research and documentaries about autism. They also enlisted the help of Jacqui Russell of Chicago’s Red Kite Project. Ms. Russell co-founded Chicago Children’s Theatre and, inspired by Oily Cart, has gone on to create multi-sensory live shows specifically for children with autism.
Pamela Carmesine, secretary of Autism Speaks U and a participant in the seminar, says Ms. Russell taught the group “about sensory triggers and the coping mechanisms kids adopt as they interact with the environment” and how to put that knowledge to work “to make the play accessible” to children on the spectrum.
“Diving In!” was “devised” rather than written as a script. “Devising,” a process familiar to NU drama students, starts with a theme and proceeds with the creation and development of characters.
The devised production is particularly suitable for Theatre Stands with Autism, as it results in a fluid and flexible vehicle for multi-sensory experience.
While work on the production moved along under the direction of Darcy Coussens and the other principles Anna calls “the Dream Team,” she was cultivating an audience.
Flyers, social media and visits to schools and clinics were among her public relations tools. The biggest challenge, she says, was reaching the parents of children on the autism spectrum. “Parents are slow to trust that people will take their child where he or she is,” she says. To help those involved in the productions do just that, parents were asked to submit a profile of their child.
Five children at a time will experience “Diving In!” To ensure the children’s maximum enjoyment and safety, their performances are separate from the two scheduled for Northwestern University and Evanston community members. The hope, says Pamela, is that audiences will “go into it ready to be swept away, that they will get out of their own heads. It’s about having fun.”
For Anna, Melanie and Pamela, the dizzying demands in the final days before performances of “Diving In!” coincide with the hectic lead-up to graduation.
Speaking for them, Anna has no regrets. “This is what I’ve worked for for four years,” she says. “I can’t imagine a better payoff than seeing those kids.”
Children’s pre-booked performances of “Diving In!” will be May 10 at 7 p.m. and May 11 at 10 a.m., 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. The Northwestern University and Evanston communities are invited to attend May 9 at 10 p.m. or May 10 at 9 p.m. All performances will be at Shanley Pavilion.