Week 41: The first Autism Friendly Show in Boston ever!

Project: Performance for Autism Speaks

Time Taken: 4 hours

Magic and Disney go together like peas and carrots. I have the unbelievable privilege to create magical moments every night as I step out on stage at my job as a dancer in the cast of the national touring cast of the Lion King.

But some nights are more magical than others.

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The lobby of the Boston Opera House

This week, we had the honor to perform for an audience completely comprised of adults and children who are all along the autism spectrum and their families. It’s the second time I’ve participated in this special show, and the third time our touring cast has hosted this special event. Last year in Pittsburgh, I was absolutely floored not only at the audience’s response to the show, but my own emotional reaction.

This year, I was determined to keep it together.

I didn’t even make it past the initial meeting.

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A Lion King fan. Ha.

We met earlier in the week as a cast to see the technical changes required of such a special show. Lights are brought up, there is no total black out, sounds are slightly muted, and certain special effects, such as our strobe lights and CO2 geysers, are cut all together. All of these adjustments are made to make our autistic guests more comfortable, as most of these effects and stage techniques can be startling or unsettling, but for the cast, it changes the show dramatically.

We are so used to doing the same exact show with all the same effects every night, six nights a week, 52 weeks a year, and in my case, for going on six years now. Any minuscule change in the show, whether someone flubs a line slightly, a musical cue is a little early, or a light doesn’t go on when it’s supposed to, is easily noticed by us backstage. So to change so many aspects of the show, the stage management team had to prepare us.

Ken Davis, our intrepid leader, gave a beautiful, moving speech about the effect our show had on a particular child in Pittsburgh, so was too afraid to come into the show until he convinced him to come see Timon and Pumbaa sing “Hakuna Matata.” The boy finally came into the theater and quickly forgot his fears, bouncing along with the song with abandon.

Cue my waterworks.

We got through the rehearsal and were ready for show day, and I pulled myself together, thinking that I would be stronger the day of the show. No tears would leak from these false-eyelash laden eyes, I told myself. (Tears quickly ruin a good pair of fake lashes, if you didn’t know.)

Before the show, I went out into the lobby, to see how we were preparing in the front for our audience that afternoon, and it was simply amazing. Quiet rooms, toys to occupy busy hands, and smiling volunteers were everywhere ready to help. The audience filled in slowly, almost apprehensively, taking their seats and apologizing for their child running down an aisle before realizing that they didn’t have to- they were among the understanding.

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Calming areas were found throughout the lobby.

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Fun toys for anyone who needed them.

I got ready for the show, enjoying the electric energy that this special show gives the cast. Only a few of us had experienced it last year, and we were looking forward to joy that flooded us a year ago coming again. Those that hadn’t experienced it yet were excitedly nervous, not knowing what the show would hold. Two years ago a guest tried to run up on stage- would that happen again this year, they wondered? (For the record, no, it didn’t. Although there was a story of a guest finding their way into the upstairs dressing rooms from the lobby somehow. A cast member saw them run down the hall with a volunteer trailing them. Exciting stuff!)

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Preparing for the show.

We got an official welcome from the mayor of Boston, as this was the first Autism Friendly show in Boston’s history. We didn’t get to meet him, but it was very cool begin introduced by him and knowing that we had his full support.

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Thanks Mayor Walsh!

I though the first act without a hitch, proud of how professional I could be when I needed to be, and still enjoying looking out on the bouncing, yelling, happy faces of our audience with joy in my heart.

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The inter lobby of the Boston Opera House

And then the second act started.

If you’ve seen our show, you know what happens. If you haven’t, I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but let’s just say that I get to go out and perform in the audience for one song, “One by One.” It’s one of my favorite parts of the show, as I get to make direct eye contact with our audience members, and even sometimes get to give high fives to willing kids. I don’t know why I thought i would make it though this scene without any kind of reaction, because the minute I stepped out into the buzzing audience, I felt the tears begin to prick the back of my eyes.

I ran into my assigned aisle and began to sing and caught eyes with a row of special needs kids with the happiest, beaming faces I had ever seen. They waved, giggled, smiled and laughed though the song, and I could help but give my biggest smile back. When the song ended, I gave them each a high five, receiving a few sticky hands in return. I didn’t even care.

I ran backstage to get ready for my next scene and the local makeup artist saw the tears I was holding back. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” she remarked as she painted stripes on my face. “It’s just so amazing that you guys are doing this.”

I thought about what she said, and realized she was wrong. We aren’t the amazing ones. They are. The ones living their lives with autism, their friends and families who care for them- they are far more amazing than anything I can imagine.

Something else that our stage manager Ken Davis had said at the meeting popped into my head, and I realized the truth in these words as my tears streaked my face paint: “This is a performance where the audience are the real stars.”

And he couldn’t have been more right.

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Intermission at the Boston Opera House

All photos by Selena Moshell – All rights reserved –

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