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THE LION KING's Rod Thomas on the Autism-Friendly Performance

THE LION KING's Rod Thomas on the Autism-Friendly Performance

Last fall, Theatre Development Fund (TDF) piloted the new program, Autism Theatre Initiative, as part of TDF's Accessibility Programs (TAP), to make theatre accessible to children and adults on the autism spectrum, and their families. They presented the first-ever autism-friendly performance of a Broadway show at Disney's landmark The Lion King on October 2, 2011 and followed that up with an autism-friendly performance of Disney and Cameron Mackintosh's Mary Poppins on April 29, 2012. 

On September 30, the cast of The Lion King took part in another autism-friendly performance, and Rod Thomas, an actor in the show, wrote about the experience from his perspective. The full piece is as follows: 

"The Lion King" is a remarkable show for so many different reasons, but I want to share a small footnote of its history with you.

 I remember seeing "The Lion King" for the first time on Broadway in 1999 in the New Amsterdam Theater and being completely captivated.  I remember seeing it in Des Moines, IA on the day I joined the National Tour in 2006.  I've seen it countless times in cities across the country and beyond - from Honolulu, Hawaii where it was received with an incredible amount of love and joy to Mexico City in an arena so large they simulcast it on two large screens above the stage.  It is amazing how much audiences still go wild for it every night almost 15 years later.

This past Sunday afternoon was much the same for the Broadway production.  As I walked to the theater to sign-in, I was surrounded by folks headed to the theater to see the show.  Mothers were pointing to their children as they turned the corner and first caught sight of the Minskoff Theater marquis with the iconic image of the sunburst mask greeting them.  "There it is!"  There was a buzz of excitement as families drew close to the theater.

There was a slightly different element at work today.  There were volunteers orchestrating today's matinee inside and outside the theater.  They held bags with large, soft squishy balls for some of the guests as they entered (fidget items).  They set up areas on either side of the lobby - one marked as a "quiet zone" and another marked as an "activity zone."  The volunteers stretched throughout the theater answering questions and directing families to and from their seats and assisting with any issues our guest might have had today.

Today was the second Autism Friendly Performance of "The Lion King."  The Theater Development Fund, in association with Disney, bought out the entire house for this special event and sold those tickets as a part of a marketed Autism Friendly Performance.  This matinee was reserved especially for them.  The show sold out in under 24 hours.

Several changes were made to the show and to the theater to facilitate this event.  There were volunteers at the front of the house with green glow lights that they would hold up to warn sensitive audience members that a loud noise (or perhaps a round of applause) was about to happen so that they might not be surprised and could cover their ears.  No strobe effects were used in the show.  Most of the loudest audio effects were taken out of the show completely.

The volunteers placed themselves throughout the theater.  As the show began, the house lights dimmed only about halfway, where they would remain throughout the show.

This was all completely acceptable.  No one was going to shoot a dirty look behind them at some disturbance.  No one was going to lean over and shush someone down the row.  There would be no ushers summoned to walk down and act as a policing force.  Today we celebrated the noises, the restlessness, the different behaviors.  These reactions were accepted as high praise - a form of applause.  Today was a day for these wonderful people to enjoy our show without worrying about disturbing anyone else.

What made the biggest impression on me was a comment told to us from the last Autism Special Performance.  It was from family members who said they were happy just to be able to share a day at the theater as a family for once.  I must be honest and admit it's not something I had considered before.  Of course, these kids deserve a chance to see theater, to feel comfortable and welcomed in the world - that seemed clear to me.  I had not thought about the Brothers and Sisters who didn't get to go see theater or movies with their siblings.  I didn't think about what it could mean for an entire family to be together in one place enjoying theater as a family.  Isn't theater a communal event?  What a gift for a family to enjoy it together without feeling embarrassed or frustrated or apologetic or whatever other stresses such moments create.  Sunday wasn't just for those with autism, it was also for their families.

Everyone was made to feel as comfortable and as welcome in that theater as they possibly could.  So many people were responsible - from the amazing work of the Theatre Development Fund, Disney Theatricals, the volunteers, company management, stage management, to the great union crew re-working the sound, lights and scenery, to the orchestra, the house staff and the performers.

I am blessed to have been brought in to join "The Lion King" on Broadway for 4 weeks as a vacation replacement.  In fact, I made my Broadway debut just this past week as Pumbaa, but the blessing of being a part of Sunday's matinee will always be a part of my first Broadway experience.  I thought that by sharing our story, others might find a way to provide these opportunities to these families and other like them in the future.

Rod Thomas Previously performed in The Lion King on the National Tour and the Las Vegas productions.  Chicago credits include Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Marriott's Lincolnshire Theater, Writer's Theater, Court Theater, and Drury Lane Oakbrook Theater (Jeff Award for Josh in big – The Musical).  Northwestern University graduate.  

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