Minutes before the start of the Chicago Children's Theatre production of "Red Kite Round Up" on May 6, Daniel Eichengreen (pictured right) turned to fellow cast member Jacob Cohen and whispered one of the gags he would be performing in his featured role as the Joke Meister.
Cohen threw back his head in laughter. "That's good," he said.
The audience of students from Chicago's O.A. Thorp Scholastic Academy were soon laughing, too, as Eichengreen told such rib-ticklers as "Where do cows go for entertainment? The mooovies."
Written and directed by Chicago Children's Theatre founder Jacqueline Russell, "Red Kite Round Up" is a multisensory, interactive theater "adventure" designed for autistic children ages 5 to 14. Because crowds can be overwhelming for some autistic children, the show's audiences are limited in size.
The show will be staged through May 22 at Winnetka Community Center, where it moved after popular runs at Millennium Park in Chicago in February and Evanston NorthShore Hospital in March.
Eichengreen, 22, a Highland Park native, is the only performer in the eight-member ensemble who is autistic. He loves bowling and mini-golf, has received a brown belt in karate and has completed a two-year culinary course at the College of Lake County. But what he really wants to do is act.
Though experts say there is no such thing as "typical" autism, Eichengreen doesn't fit stereotypical perceptions of how people with autism behave. Far from being withdrawn, he always has loved performing.
"I like getting people to laugh," he said in an interview with his parents at their home. "I sing in the play. I'm a really good singer."
"He was never quiet and shy," said his father, Bill.
His mother, Jerry, agreed. "Having lived with autism 24-7 and seen how it expresses itself in its very interesting and intriguing forms, love of performing is not characteristic."
When Daniel enrolled in acting classes while attending Highland Park High School, they "just gave him more of what he was naturally," his mother said.
So it was fortuitous when a family friend, a supporter of Chicago Children's Theatre, thought it would be a good opportunity for Eichengreen to get involved.
He joined the theater in 2008 as an intern. He first worked as a member of the stage crew but eventually was integrated into the production.
"The first thing he did," Russell recalled of their meeting, "was tell me jokes from MadTV. He loves comedy. I thought it would be really fun to try and find a way to incorporate him into the show, but I wanted something that would be contained and not stressful, and that would give him a feeling of success."
So the role of Joke Meister was created for Eichengreen. He appeared in the theater's first Red Kite production, "Red Kite Blue Moon," which was set aboard a ship. He told pirate jokes, like "What's a pirate's favorite food? Barrr-B-Q."
In the 45-minute "Red Kite Round Up," he does more than tell jokes. He helps to create waves during an imaginary rafting trip and leads a conga line of singing and dancing cast and audience members.
Autistic children can make for unpredictable audiences, and the ensemble is sometimes called upon to improvise. Recently, a young female audience member balked at sitting in an inflatable raft and jumped out. Eichengreen ad-libbed, "Girl overboard."
The Red Kite Project is an outgrowth of the 14 years Russell has spent teaching drama to children with autism.
"When I started doing this work, I had just had a baby," she said. "I kept wondering what it would be like to have a child with whom I couldn't communicate. I really felt compassion for these parents, and I wanted to provide an opportunity for them and their children to bond."
Her mission crystallized after participating in a workshop in 2006 with the London-based Oily Cart Theatre Co., which focuses on serving children with complex disabilities. Russell invited that show's creator, Tim Webb, to Chicago, where they co-developed "Red Kite Blue Moon."
Eichengreen's participation has brought a new level of achievement to the Red Kite Project.
"Most people who work with special-needs children start off thinking they're doing something great for the kids, but then they realize the children are doing something really great for them," Russell said. "We feel blessed and fortunate to work with Daniel every day. He just has a wonderful kindness about him."
The cast has embraced Eichengreen and included him in outings, such as seeing his beloved White Sox play.
"He continues to grow and amaze me," stage manager Dawn Akelis said in an email. "When we changed venues, we had to change some blocking of the show. He was assigned to maneuver a large river raft, but in the new space it seemed dangerous, so I assigned another cast member to move it. We tried and failed to work the maneuver. After a few more attempts, Daniel said, 'I got it.' He took the raft onstage in a better path! I was horrified that I doubted him."
A new Red Kite production is in the works for 2012, Russell said. Eichengreen plans to work this summer at Camp Red Kite, a summer arts camp in Chicago, tailored to children on the autism spectrum.
As for future roles, Russell said: "I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot more of Daniel. I think we're a good match."
Saturday, May 14, 2011
The Chicago Tribune:
Posted by BA Haller at 2:49 PM