Children's Theatre and Redmoon present first autism-friendly show

“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.”

rkogan@tribune.com
CHICAGO
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