This part of my personality solidified long before I had children. I’m the person who, as a child, used to “perform” musical theater numbers for my parents and their friends in our living room with my siblings. I’m the weird friend who knows all the lyrics to The Pajama Game or Little Shop of Horrors. And as an adult, I’m the person who stays up late to watch the TONY awards, or watches the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade just for the musical acts featured before the balloon floats end up in Herald Square.
Living in New York City, it’s pretty easy to be a theater-lover. I have it all at my fingertips! Also, I am not alone; I have found my tribe of fellow theater-geeks, and we all “pray” at a little place in the West Village called Marie’s Crisis. But I digress…
When I gave birth to my twins, I knew I would want to share this passion with them. Certainly, Fiona has been that child that I can share theater with. She saw her first Broadway show at age 5 – it was Annie. A few years later, she saw Matilda. Fiona is a natural theater-lover and has seen multiple off-Broadway and regional shows, too. I love that I have a daughter to share this with.
But Quentin? Quentin is not exactly what you would call a “good” audience member. He has never even been able to sit through a movie theater movie. At the same time, I know he loves a good spectacle. He adores the circus. He has been mesmerized by live music. But at events like these, we also see him running dangerously close to the edge of what is acceptable. He often likes to get “into” the live performance himself, by rushing the stage. He will grab microphones to sing into, guitars to strum, drums to hit, and yes… he even once rushed into a circus ring during a tightrope act, dancing directly under the tightrope performer! (We have yet to return to a circus since that nail-biting moment.) So I’ve been contemplating how – or when, if ever – I could get him into another show.
Enter the Theater Development Fund and their Autism Theater Initiative. This program, begun in 2011, has created autism-friendly shows several times a year for big Broadway shows. And this is not the first time this program has appeared on this blog! Two years ago, my friend Crystal Bueno wrote a guest blog post about taking her kids to see Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark. I knew that I had to wait for Quentin to be mature enough to make it worth my while to purchase theater tickets for him. I also knew that I had to see a show with him that I wanted to experience as well, preferably something with a big spectacle.
Yesterday, I got my moment. I was finally able to indoctrinate him into my religion! (Sort of like a baptism, I suppose… but while holding your Jewish mother’s hand and receiving a Playbill.) Together, Quentin and I saw The Lion King on Broadway, at an autism-friendly performance. What makes a performance “autism-friendly”? Several adjustments have been made:
- The house lights are never completely turned off; they are left dimmed so that the audience will be more comfortable.
- Loud noises are kept to a minimum, and if there are going to be loud sounds, ushers alert the audience with light sticks on the side.
- Quiet areas are set up in the lobby and at various levels of the theater, stocked with quiet toys, bean bag chairs, and books.
- Volunteers are on hand to help audience members who might have to leave mid-show to take a break. They also hand out fidget toys to keep wandering hands busy or calm.
- A printable social story about going to the theater was made available online prior to the show, as well as a video to prepare guests before arriving.
I did my job to prepare Quentin as best as I could. I printed out the social story and read it to him. I created a schedule for the day, which included having a slice of pizza for lunch in Times Square before seeing the show. I brought snacks, a book to read, and his iPad for the subway ride and emergencies.
Quentin did an amazing job. He got very excited as soon as we saw the marquis with “The Lion King” emblazoned on it, just as it was in the social story. He giggled as we entered the huge theater, amazed at all the seats. I told him we had to clap at the good parts, and he started clapping right away. So when the curtain went up and the first note was sung, I was sure he would do a great job. However, I was not prepared for the biggest surprise of the day: My tears.
Something in me snapped when the “Circle of Life” was sung and those amazing animal-clad actors started lumbering down the aisles and onto the stage. It was as if the dam had been broken; tears began running down my face and would not stop. I want to describe these feelings to you, but first you should really take a look at the experience I’m talking about. Here’s a video of the Lion King cast performing the same number in a different theater:
The crying took me by surprise; I was not expecting to be breaking down in tears at the same moment that I watched my child smile and laugh. I cried as a release, for all the pent-up energy it took for me to get him through the subways and Times Square. I cried for all the planning that went into getting there that day, but also for all the energy it took me to get anywhere with Quentin on any day. I cried because the music is beautiful, and the song reminds me of the universal feelings that all parents have for their children. I cried for the visual beauty before me in that theater, which is truly like nothing else I’ve ever seen on stage. And I cried because there I was, experiencing a Broadway show with my autistic son, and hundreds of other autistic people and their families.
This was not a typical audience and I think everyone there could feel it. There was an audible hum, as if real live animals were joining the animal actors on the savanna. I could feel the communal awe and excitement of the humanity around me, and I cried because I was a part of it. An audience filled with autistic people makes the show come to life. It’s no longer a prim society event; it’s group expression. I joined in, gleefully, “Ohhhh, wow! Quentin, look at that elephant!” I stage-whispered. I imagine this audiences like this existed in Shakespeare’s time, when the Globe Theater was filled with chatter and hecklers. This felt more “real” than your typical theater experience.
My tears finally subsided and I enjoyed watching Quentin watch the show. However, he did have a hard time sitting still. He stood and sat, repeatedly. He scrambled on the floor when he lost his chewable necklace. He touched the blond woman’s hair in front of us. He made strange sounds. He leaned on me and sat on my lap. The beauty of all this is that he was not the only one in the audience doing this. I could relax, knowing that this was an audience that understood. However, when he requested to read his book toward the end of the first act, I knew we probably would not last longer. He even audibly requested, “I want home.”
So at intermission, we got a pack of Twizzlers (a promised candy reward) and we went on our way. I was not concerned that Quentin could not make it through the show longer than that; this was his personal best for sitting still. As Timon and Pumba say in the show, “Hakuna matata…” It means “no worries!” Thanks to this autism-friendly performance, I truly felt like it was a hakuna matata moment.
For more information about TDF’s Autism Theater Initiative and to sign up notifications about future ASD-friendly performances, CLICK HERE.