Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the shore,
If you see a lion there,
Don't forget to roar.
This unconventional take on a very familiar song is what parents and their children (grandparents too) heard as they strolled into the lobby of the Ruth Page Center on Dearborn Street before the 11 a.m. performance of “The Elephant & the Whale,” a delightful collaboration between the Chicago Children's Theatre and Redmoon theater.
“Roar,” yelled one of those children. “Roar.” And his father smiled.
This was May 4, slightly warm and very sunny and seemingly ordinary in the ways that so many springtime Saturday mornings are on the Near North Side: people jogging, brunching, walking toward the lake, playing catch on the beach or in the parks.
But at this place on this day something extraordinary was taking place.
Of the 40 scheduled performances of this play, running through May 26, this one was unique, an experiment the theater companies were calling “Chicago's first autism-friendly live theater performance.”
That was why the artistic directors of both companies, Jacqueline Russell of Chicago Children's Theatre and Frank Maugeri of Redmoon, were in attendance.
That is why the Ruth Page lobby was filled with college kids dressed in white shirts with red scarves or headbands. They were the people singing, doing a fine job too, given that they were accompanied by only one little stringed instrument.
Many of them were Northwestern University students, members of the Purple Crayon Players and Autism Speaks U groups, which worked with Russell in preparation for “Theatre Stands With Autism” production of “Diving In,” the university's first-ever devised production for children with autism spectrum disorder. (See facebook.com/TheatreStandsWithAutism for more information.)
There were a dozen college kids, and they sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
They sang the “ABC Song.”
A father walked in wearing a Cubs jersey, and the “band” began “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
A few of the children, and fewer of the parents (grandparents too), sang:
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
The usually unflappable Russell seemed anxious, saying, “We simply don't know what to expect,” even though she has long worked with children on the autism spectrum.
In 1997 she was education director at Lookingglass Theatre (she would later become its executive director). Through the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education program, she became an artist in residence at Agassiz, a public elementary school in Lakeview where she worked weekly in two self-contained autism classrooms.
When she founded Chicago Children's Theatre in 2005, she was determined “to honor the commitment I had made to these amazingly fascinating and inspiring children, their teachers and their families.”
Three years later the theater launched The Red Kite Project, which has become an ongoing series of “theatrical experiences” and camps for autistic children.
“I have written and or directed five multisensory interactive pieces created and performed for these kids,” Russell says. “It's very rewarding, but these shows are tiny. Only 10 children at a time can experience them.”
Last year, she and Deb Clapp of the League of Chicago Theatres went to New York to see the autism-friendly performance of Disney's “Mary Poppins” on Broadway.
“She and I immediately began looking for a way to do this for children and families here,” Russell says. “This is a very different sort of thing we do with our Red Kite performances. This is taking these families into a mainstage show with a traditional theater setting and experience.”
Thanks to a grant from The Field Foundation, it was a go.
“Our education team, the stage management and run crew, the sound designer and cast all came together to modify this one performance for our special guests,” says Russell. “It was a huge group effort with volunteers and staff, an all-hands-on-deck attitude.”
The modifications included making tickets available only to families with autistic children “so that no one attending would feel judged, or that their child making noises or flapping might bother someone else in the theater. Talking and allowing their child to talk during the show was encouraged,” Russell says.
Other alterations included having the actors whisper rather than shout for emphasis; getting Kevin O'Donnell, the composer and sound designer, to rerecord some of the music that might be too jolting, frightening or loud; removing two major sound effects; not having actors walk into the audience for certain scenes; keeping the house lights on throughout the show for easy exit if someone in the audience needed to take a break; and not using water guns to spray the crowd.
As well, there was a “quiet room” created downstairs, with carpeting, bubble machines and soothing ocean soundscapes.
And so, “The Elephant & the Whale” began, telling the story of a friendship formed by an escape planned by the title characters when they find themselves in the employ of an evil circus owner. The show is filled with music and the colorful puppets, strange gizmos and dramatic staging for which Redmoon is justifiably renowned. For an hour and a few minutes, the audience was more attentive, less rambunctious and quieter than any “normal” crowd.
And so, when the show was over, Russell was hugged by parents and their kids (grandparents too), and Roberto Sorrondeguy, who attended the production with his 11-year-old son, Enzo, said: “It was so nice of them to do this, a special production like this. These children should not be locked away, cut off from what other kids are able to do and to see. It was a spectacular Saturday, for both of us.”
Lashan Rockett-Harrell had this conversation with her 8-year-old son, Curtis.
“Did you like the play?” she asked.
“Yes, Mommy, I liked the play” he said.
“What did you like about it?” she asked
“The elephant and the whale,” he said.
“Now, I liked Quigley, the circus owner,” she said a few days later. “But this was a great experience for us. I try to put him in as many normal situations as possible. There are so many children on the spectrum, that people don't understand the challenges. It is hard work, but it is also a great blessing. Through Curtis I see life in a whole different perspective.”
Days after the show, Russell said: “It was a dream realized, at last. We were all so touched and surprised by the kids. ‘Wow' to their engagement and ease. It's a gift to spend time with them. I truly think kids on the spectrum are some of the most interesting and genuine people I have ever known.”