BY ANGELA BARBUTI
The Theatre Development Fund is best known by New Yorkers and tourists alike for its TKTS Discount Booths in Manhattan. What people may not know is that besides their commitment to making theater affordable, the organization is going above and beyond to make it accessible to all.
As director of TDF Accessibility Programs, Lisa Carling has spent 30 years aiding those with mobility issues and providing sign-language-interpreted and open-caption performances for those with hearing and vision loss.
It was because of her work with disabled students that teachers reached out, expressing a need for programming for their autistic students. For two years, she consulted with parents, teachers and therapists with this goal in mind. In 2011, with the unwavering support of Disney Theatrical Group, the Autism Theatre Initiative launched with a sensory-friendly production of “The Lion King.”
Since then, ATI has held 16 performances, including a non-musical, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” which also proved to be a success. On April 24, the group will complete its fifth season of autism-friendly performances by attending a matinee of “The King and I” at Lincoln Center Theater. “’The King and I’ will have an honest appeal to families, parents and grandparents which addresses the importance of the whole family being able to go and do something together in a supportive environment,” Carling said.
Parents regularly send overwhelmingly positive feedback about their experience at the shows. Carling explained one touching letter she received from a mother who said, “I’m sitting in a theater with 2,000 people whom I don’t know, but I feel that we are all one family.”
How long have you been with the organization? I’ve been with TDF for 30 years, hard to believe. I came from theater, divorced and had a young child to raise. I saw a classmate of mine from drama school at St. Bartholomew Church’s coffee hour. And I said, “Help, Barbara, I need a job.” And she said, “There’s an opening at TDF. They need a part-time receptionist.” So I took it. And then there was an opening in the accessibility department and I moved into that. My boss there left and so I took over and loved the work. It was a way of being involved in theater and working to the good. And I have seen so many things change. There’s always something more to be done. When I first began working there, we helped with general accessibility, people with mobility issues, and then the sign language-interpreted performances, that was in the eighties. And in the nineties, I was able to help with open-caption performances for people with hearing loss. And then, in 2011, autism-friendly performances. I helped design TDF’s Autism Theatre Initiative.
How did Autism Theatre Initiative come about?The teachers primarily. We had very successful programs, open-caption, sign-language interpreting, bringing kids with hearing loss to Wednesday matinee performances. The same for kids who are blind or have low vision. And the special ed teachers were saying, “What can we do for my class, all these children on the autism spectrum?” And that was a challenge. It took us a good two years to figure out how best to make Broadway accessible to those children. And after talking to parents, teachers, therapists and the one Broadway producer that stepped up to the plate and really seemed interested in helping solve this, Disney Theatrical. We realized that a designated performance, not on sale to the general public, for families was the best way to go. Because this was very much an atypical audience and that was the way we could provide a supportive, judgment-free environment for them.
How did Disney Theatrical help start this?They were willing to take a chance. And that’s what we did with “The Lion King” back on October 2, 2011. And we didn’t even know if we should sell the whole house, but we decided to sell every ticket. There was concern about press or not and what it would be like. And it was a fantastic success. This was very much for families. A third of the audience was people with autism. Disney Theatrical has been behind this effort from the get go and very generous in their accommodations. An example is that we have talkbacks after “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.” They are more than happy to do this and will assign one of the Disney teaching artists to help with the Q&A.
How are the shows modified and changed to accommodate your guests?There are modifications with sound, capping any intense sound levels at 90 decibels. Modifications in lighting. Are there any strobe lights or lights that pan out into the audience? Eliminating those if possible. And then also, if there’s any audience interaction with the actors. If you have actors on stage who come down into the audience and want to choose audience members and bring them up on stage, we ask that that is cut. That would put people in the community in a very uncomfortable position. We emphasize keeping the script the same, the modifications slight, and making it the same great performance that typical audiences are seeing. We’re not interested in a watered-down version. We want our attendees to experience the same great show that their neighbors have been able to go to.
The first non musical you offered was “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Oh yes, what a powerful play. We were somewhat reluctant to do that because it was the first play we did. And we weren’t sure how it would go over with our audience, but it resonated so deeply. It also enabled us to bring in an older audience, college students, young adults and parents with middle-aged children on the autism spectrum. So it was so worth doing and such a unique piece. Really the connection the audience felt with Christopher on stage was overwhelming. When we do our cast and house staff training we try to prepare the actors for what it’s going to be like, and we always say, “You will hear sounds that you’re not used to, could be clapping or laughing at unexpected places. Answering back questions, you know, if an actor asks another actor on stage a question, you might very well hear a response coming from one of our audience members.” It was that kind of engagement with “Curious Incident,” where our audience was really riveted by that show. And it was deeply moving for the cast as well.
What has been some touching feedback you’ve gotten?Over the past five years, we hear from parents pretty consistently. They write in that it means so much to them that they’re free to be themselves. We hear this again and again from parents. We hear how special these events are to families. One mom wrote in about “Aladdin,” “We’ll never be able to celebrate graduations or weddings with our son, but we will always be able to celebrate this day being the day that we were all able to come to ‘Aladdin’ together as a family.”
For more information on Autism Theatre Initiative or to sign up to hear about upcoming autism-friendly performances and on-sale dates, go to: www.tdf.org/autism