Day #227 – Spectrum Theatre

Let me tell you about an amazing experience we had last night.  I invited my former Professor turned friend and mentor, Gretta, to write a blog for today.

Why?  Well – she’s full of amazingness.  The first time I met Gretta she was the Department Head of the Theatre at the University of Northern Iowa.  I walked into her office and she had her feet on her desk, painting her toenails.

I knew right away she was full of awesomeness…and no matter how much time passes between our meetings it seems that the universe keeps pulling us back together.  This time?  Spectrum Theatre.

Imagine the Possibilities: Creating Dramatic Worlds for Youth on the Autism Spectrum

It is January 2005.

A 14-year-old boy attends my after school drama club at a local middle school. I am immediately struck by his nearly non-use of language; his discomfort to make eye contact; his confusion as he observes typical adolescent behaviors and humor. Two class periods later I meet his mother, and learn that Jonathan is on the “autism spectrum.” Unsure how best to support him in his theatre and drama work, I begin reading anything I can find about autism.

I learn that 1 in 100 children are diagnosed annually.
I learn that resources for parents, educators and the medical community are few.
I learn there is not a single resource to guide me in the use of theatre or drama with this population.

Determined to find a way to help Jonathan find his theatrical voice, I experiment with a variety of approaches and to my delight, discover that role play is where his talent lies. His keen observation abilities translate into delightful characterizations and he is adept at imitating voices. And in doing so, he finds his own. Jonathan goes on to perform in numerous plays both at school and in my summer Sturgis YouthTheatre Company.

 It is January 2011.

I am working with Spectrum Specific youth in a variety of in and after school venues in order to discover best practices for providing drama and theatre experiences for serving autistic youth between the ages of 6-12, a population that now numbers 1 in 88. I have been working for nearly eight weeks, 5 days a week, with a group of 8 boys, all with autism, most with limited verbal skills. In an effort to teach them to play pretend through modeling and imitation, we are playing pirates for what feels like the 118th time. We have built a “boat” from tables and cardboard boxes and tubes. Bandanas on our heads serve as our only costumes. There are lots of hearty arggh’s being shared but not much else. One of the boys wanders “off” the ship.

And then the miracle happens.

One of the other boys shouts “Man Overboard. Man Overboard.” And suddenly, seven pirates are working together to “sail” the boat to save their fellow pirate at sea. As they find their voices, their dramatic action, their delight in playing pretend and socializing with another I can only cry enormous tears of such joy that I think my heart will explode. That dramatic breakthrough paves the way for so many more.

When people ask me “Why do you want to do theatre work with kids who have autism?” these are the stories that come to mind as I reply “Because they let me.”

 And now it is April 2015.

One in 66 young people are identified as being on the autism spectrum. My own work with this population has expanded to include the development of theatre pieces that are conceived, created and performed specifically for and with them in mind during every part of the process. What does that mean?

 As an artist, it means creating a piece of theatre that captures the essential “essences” necessary to tell the story. It means selecting the single word, best gesture, perfect sound, the key interaction that will carry an audience of young people into and through the world of the play. It means leaving language on the cutting room floor and instead, creating a series of highly visual images that captivate with movement and communicate without words.

As a director, it means crafting images, interactions with the audience, and visual statements that are clear and inviting and participatory. It means taking all of the seats out of the performance space and replacing them with rocking chairs, and bean bag chairs, and sensory discs and carpeting. It means never making the theatre dark and helping my audience prepare for change with a consistent visual or audible cue. It means making the actors and stage accessible by inviting my audiences to play along, to play a part, to participate in the play.

But don’t take my word for it; come see and explore and engage for yourself. My latest creation, developed in collaboration with 17 UNI theatre students, playwright Cynthia Goatley and designers Mark Parrott and Amy Rohrberg, will play this weekend on the University of Northern Iowa campus in Cedar Falls.

WONDER land is a 60 minute piece of theatre inspired by Alice in Wonderland and developed with love for all youth, but especially for those on the autism spectrum. The journey begins at 7:00 p.m. on Friday April 24, and continues Saturday, April 25 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. and Sunday April 26 at 2:00 p.m. Get tickets by calling 319-273-4849.

What was our experience last night?  A WONDER land sneak peek…and it was beautiful.

We walked into the theatre and Tucker’s first words, “It smells like a theatre in here.”

I laughed…there he is, my sensory child.

Then he saw the seating arrangements and smiled.
photo 1-4

Then he found his place – complete with a beanbag on top for ‘pressure.’

photo 2-3

The play began.

The actors asked him to participate…once.
“No thank you.  I’m okay.”
The actor nodded and left.

“No thank you.  I’m okay.”
The actor nodded and left.

“No thank you.  I’m okay.”
The actor nodded and left.
He looked at me.  I mouthed, “It’s okay – you should try it.”

He looks at me, I nod.
With hesitation, “No thank you.  I’m okay.”
The actor nodded and left.



My heart nearly jumped out of my chest.  There he is…my boy…participating in something that is so near and dear to my heart. (Of course, Estelle jumped at her first chance…lol…her mother’s daughter, for sure!)

His later response?  “I loved that they kept asking me.  I wasn’t ready yet.  They didn’t force me, they waited until I was ready.”


He LOVED the show, we all LOVED the show.

If you are in the Cedar Falls area, go to this show.

If you are not in the Cedar Falls area, contact me – let me put you in touch with Gretta.  She will do amazing things for your child on the spectrum.

4 thoughts on “Day #227 – Spectrum Theatre

  1. Pingback: Day #268 – Sports & Arts | 366 Days of Autism

  2. Pingback: Day #269 – Teammate | 366 Days of Autism

  3. Pingback: Day #327 – Indexing | 366 Days of Autism

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