Sunday, June 5, 2011

Paper Mill Playhouse creates autistic-friendly children's show

From The NY Times:

When Lisa E. Cooney, director of education for the Paper Mill Playhouse, called a meeting last November to discuss the particulars of “Stone Soup and Other Stories,” a children’s show to be presented June 11, there was crying at the conference table.

The attendees moved to tears were two Maplewood mothers who had contacted Paper Mill, in Millburn, last spring about adapting a show for autistic children, said Ms. Cooney, 45, of Woodbridge.

“Just the idea that we were asking, ‘What can we do to help prepare your kids for this performance? How can we be helpful?’ meant so much to them that they got very emotional,” she said. “These are people who would love to bring their children out, but they hold back.”

Together with Linda Meyer, executive director of Autism New Jersey, which is based in Robbinsville, Ms. Cooney held the meeting to piece together a program to encourage children on the autism spectrum, or with developmental disabilities, to go see live theater in a nonjudgmental environment.

Challenges multiply for parents who receive a diagnosis of autism for their child. “Not only do you have to deal with the emotional stress, you become like a business manager,” said Ms. Meyer, 57, of Fair Lawn. “You have to make so many decisions about the various systems and agencies that will or will not support your child. For those parents, having Paper Mill listen to them and respond was just such a gift, because this is going to be an opportunity for them to come out and enjoy something with their entire families.”

Such opportunities, Ms. Meyer said, were few and far between. She knew of no similar performances that had been held anywhere, she added.

To meet the needs and quell the anxieties of up to 1,200 ticketholders, the Pushcart Players of Verona, which has collaborated with Paper Mill to put on the show, adjusted the script of its “Stone Soup,” which presents tales from around the world, to make it more literal. “Kids with autism don’t necessarily get sarcasm and innuendo, and they’re not great with body language,” Ms. Cooney said.

The day before the show, Paper Mill will hold an open house called “Meet Your Seat” to help those uncomfortable in new environments get familiar with the theater. And during the matinee, the lights will be left halfway up, the volume in the theater will be lowered, and children will be free to leave their seats at any time under parental supervision. The show will be broken up into two 20-minute halves, with a 20-minute intermission.

“We’re not going to shush people or put any restrictions on them that aren’t safety-related,” Ms. Cooney said.

“Sensory-friendly” shows with the Pushcart Players have also been scheduled for October and for next April, despite the fact that ticket sales so far have not been robust, Ms. Meyer said.

“But Paper Mill has made a commitment, and they’re going forward with these shows,” Ms. Meyer said. “I have to give them so much credit.”

“Stone Soup and Other Stories,” June 11 at 10 a.m. at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn; tickets are $12 to $15 and may be purchased at the box office, at (973) 376-4343 or online at