Monday, April 30, 2012

Anything can happen if you let it.

Ryan at his first Broadway show.
I could start by saying that Mary Poppins isn't the best Broadway musical for kids; it's a long and very uneven show, with lots of slow, talky parts between the fun production numbers (I completely agree with the New York Times' review). But I don't want to diminish the amazing experience we had seeing a special autism-friendly performance of Mary Poppins on Broadway this weekend.

The good folks at the Theatre Development Fund (TDF), working with Autism Friendly Spaces, offered the second-ever performance of their Autism Theatre Initiative to make Broadway shows more accessible to families with a member on the spectrum. They opened a door for our kids that many of them had been unable to go through previously without generating lots of disruption and dirty looks.

TDF thought of just about any obstacle that might keep a person with autism and his family from feeling comfortable seeing a show. In advance of the performance, ticket holders could download a customizable social story written specifically for the event. There were designated quiet areas where kids could take a break if the show became too much for them, and fidget toys and earplugs to use during the performance. The production team made slight adjustments to the lighting and sound of the show to make the sensory experience less jarring. Volunteers throughout the theater held up unobtrusive glow sticks to alert the audience to loud parts (like applause). The entire theater staff and cast went through sensitivity training. The volunteers handed out PECS cards with relaxation techniques and a handy cheat sheet to show the difference between what each character looked like in the movie vs. the play.

Seriously, these people thought of everything. The ladies room was turned into a "family restroom" so moms could take their 12-year-old sons to the bathroom without issue. While I was standing outside Ryan's stall before the show, I made eye contact with another mom standing outside her too-old-for-the-ladies-room son's stall, and we both smiled and remarked how wonderful an event this was already. There was no question I would keep an eye on her son while she used the restroom - everyone in that room got it.

At curtain time the house lights dimmed but did not go out. The show opens with some needlessly talky exposition, and the kids made their disinterest known by retreating into their respective stims. But during the musical numbers or other scenes with more visual elements, our kids were totally engaged: the boy next to Ryan air-drummed with pretzel rods; some children sang along; a boy behind us repeated lines that pleased him; Ryan's toy alien danced.

I had prepared Ryan for the show by renting the 1964 film. He had me fast-forward through the scenes with dialogue and repeat the musical numbers. It seemed the audience at this performance would have liked to do the same with the live actors. There's no pretense with kids, and there's even less pretense with autism: if a kid on the spectrum thinks a scene is boring, he will stim at full volume (at one point in the second act, Ryan actually launched into his "Boring! Super boring! Mega boring!" script). I don't know how the actors were able to maintain their concentration with all the chaotic noises coming from the audience, but somehow they powered through.

Ryan's favorite song from the movie was Step In Time, the chimney sweep number. At the end of Act I Bert appears dressed as a sweep but doesn't dance. As the lights came up for intermission, Ryan looked confused. "Where's Step In Time?" he asked. I checked the program and assured him it was coming in Act II. I wish I could have taken a picture of his face as he watched the dancers perform Step In Time: he was in love.

When that number was over, though, he was pretty much done, and chattered to himself for the rest of the second act. I tried to keep his volume down, but I knew everyone around me understood what was going on. And that alone was worth the price of admission.

Imagine this graphic blown up on a full stage-width scrim as the dancers spelled out
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious with their bodies. Yeah, Ryan was into it.


  1. Yeah!! We were there too!! it was so amazing. I had an opportunity to chat with one of the sound engineers of the show on the walk back to the train station. He said they had to completely re-create the show for our kids. There were scenes removed, etc. He said it was all worth it to see the looks of the faces of the kids. The cast and crew were as touched as we the parents were at this incredible event! It is such a relief to be with people, "who get it" :)

  2. Wasn't it amazing?!? I'm really curious what kinds of scenes were cut - did the sound guy say?

  3. There was a scene where all the large toys came alive that was eliminated.

  4. I was one of the volunteers at the show. The toys coming alive was the only scene cut. But they did make some other adjustments. For example the scene where Ms. Andrews (scary nanny) goes into the bird cage, originally had smoke and sparks. Also the sound and lighting systems were adjusted. I am so glad you enjoyed the day. All of the volunteers were thrilled to be there as well.


Keep it civil, people.