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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Weeks 29-30: The Hunter becomes the Hunted

Project: Lion King Talkbacks

 

Actual Time: 2 hours

To be honest, I’m usually scrambling weekly to find an hour of volunteer work every week in every city. It’s harder than you would think, given the fact that we travel full time. Most places want a month-to-month commitment, or lengthy trainings, or background checks, and for good reason. I wouldn’t trust transient strangers with my city’s children/elderly/homeless neighbors either.

But these two weeks, two opportunities literally fell into my lap.

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Outreaching in Baltimore

At the Lion King, we get lots of opportunities to give back to the community, if we so choose, though question and answer sessions after the show. Usually these are arranged by our PR department, but sometimes cast members arrange them on their own. This week’s particular session (Week 29, for those keeping count) was arranged by Russel Joel Brown, and featured 125 of his roommate’s church’s congregation members.

You read that right.

One hundred and twenty five.

Usually, large groups are accommodated by having them wait in their seats in the theater after the show lets out. Unfortunately, this arrangement is usually set up by the PR department, and since this session was set up by a cast member, having the hundred and twenty five guests stay in the house wasn’t an option.

So we trucked them all backstage, up an elevator (in groups of ten), into our rehearsal room, and into metal folding chairs. All onehundredandtwentyfive of them.

But the effort was totally worth it, as it always is. The group had wonderful questions and everyone was ever so thankful for the question and answer session, so as always, it was worth every elevatorherding, group-wrangling, metal-folding-chair-hauling moment.

The next week, (Week 30, as the moon follows the sun) was brought to me by our Shenzi, Rashada Dawan. 

She randomly ran into a former college classmate, Bresean Jenkins, at one of the numerous Smithsonian museums and, as it happened, he was currently running an arts camp at a local charter school. She offered to come talk to his students, and he jumped at the chance,  immediately booking her and a few cast members to stop by the camp.

Rashada, myself, and fellow ensemble dancer Leroy Church stopped by ConneXions Community Leadership Academy to lead a question and answer session for their first ever summer arts program and were promptly surprised by a full out performance! The kids had been working on scenes from “Once on this Island,” and performed with such enthusiasm, talent, and excitement, it literally brought us to tears.

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These kids were GIVING it!!!

It is always so humbling to see kids who just love to sing, dance, and move so excited to perform for us. They see it as such an honor for them, but to be honest, the honor is truly for us. Watching them and hearing their open and sincere questions after the performance reminded us of where we came from, when we were young students at summer arts camps, after-school dance programs, and theater intensives.

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Big Finish!

It reminded us of our younger selves– curious, hungry, driven, and passionate about art. When you dance this show six days a week, eight times every seven days, it can turn into a job that you punch into and out of very quickly. But seeing these kids and their passion reenergized all of us, and reminded us of how truly fortunate we are to do what we do every day.

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SANG Rashada!

So we told them how inspired we were, Rashada sang a few amazing songs, we answered a few questions, and were on our way. But the memory of these kids, their talent, their passion, is something I will never forget. I couldn’t believe how amazing their scenes were, even in the first year of existence of this arts camp. It was exhilarating to know that this was just the beginning for this incredible school and camp.

I can’t wait to see what they do in the upcoming years, and what special talents they foster and help to grow in the future.

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Silly faces!

After all, isn’t that what all of this volunteering, helping out , inspiring others and being inspired ourselves in turn… isn’t that what it’s all about? Changing our little corner of the world for the better?

Absolutely.

Weeks 26-28: Off we go, into the wild, blue yonder…

Project: Care Packages for AnySoldier.com

 

Actual Time: 120 minutes

 

Once again, I’ve managed to Tom Sawyer people into doing my volunteering for me.

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The first week (Week 26) of my Soldier Care Package project, I thought that I would just buy all of the supplies myself and outsource the thank you cards to the kids of the cast, a la Letters of Love, back in February.

 

But after one quick CVS trip, I realized that it may be a bit more cost prohibitive than I originally imagined.

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ouch.

 

At first, I thought I would go to the dollar store and pick up the supplies, but the specter of guilt, with whom I often hang out with, reared it’s uncomfortable head.

 

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“These people are out there, risking their LIVES for the protection of your freedom and in service to your country, and you are going to buy them stuff at a dollar store to save money?!?”

 

So I went to Plan B.

 

Guilting my friends into helping.

Cards

Ensemble Member/Simba Cover Extraordinaire Blaine Krauss, hard at work between scenes

 

(Actually, I work with such lovely, generous people, it took little to no guilting whatsoever!)

 

In Week 27, (which was, serendipitously the week of July 4th, so playing up the patriotism card was natural for me!) I set up a card table to make thank you cards in the hallway outside of our dressing rooms. As usual, the cubs were there every show, diligently cranking out tank-shaped thank you cards and multi colored flags of appreciation.

 

I also put up a flyer outlining the specific platoon’s needs, which I found though AnySolder.org. I had two wonderful cast members drop off gobs of supplies, and when I finally got it into a box for shipping, along with my original CVS purchases, it was almost too heavy to lift up to the post office desk!

 

Life Lesson: Chocolate bars are heavy!

 

Week 28 was my vacation week, so I spent the day before departing for Panama City Beach rushing around cleaning the house, packing my suitcases, and shipping huge boxes of our care package items off to our platoon.

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That’s a whole-lotta love!

It felt great to send that box of teamwork off into the blue. (I’m not sure exactly where they are stationed, but I’m assuming it is Afghanistan. The website is very confidential about the movements of platoons. Loose lips sink ships, and whatnot.)

 

So thank you to everyone I polled on Facebook for care package recommendations (I never would have thought to get them drink mixes! Brilliant!) and to everyone at work who helped color a card or buy some supplies.

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My friends are a wealth of knowledge!

Now, what can I trick my cast into helping me do next….

Week Five: Behind on Blogs, Recruiting More Writers

Project: Love Letters for the Elderly and Outreach for the Lion King

Actual Time Taken: 2:15

It’s only week five of 2014, and I’m already a bit behind on this blog.

At the beginning of the year, I would have suspected that the hardest part of the experiment of volunteering an hour every week would be finding the projects to volunteer for, but not so… I’m finding that the hardest part is finding the time to write about it!

This week, for example, I have two, count them TWO, volunteering opportunities, and can barely find time to hit the keys about them. Ironic.

The first project I’m continuing is the Love Letters for the Elderly project from dosomething.org, but with a larger goal. We made 35 cards last week, a paltry sum after realizing that the Meals on Wheels in Honolulu services about 500 people.

(We’re gonna need a bigger boat….)

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So I recruited the entire cast.

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We travel about 115 people in the cast and crew of the Lion King. I’m thinking that if we all just made just five cards, we could be done lickity split. But I can’t count on every electrician or singer to have an iota of artistic motivation, so I’ll beg some of my more motivated co-workers to make a few extra cards for the cause.

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Sue in the Puppets Department made her own heart-shaped stamps!! Crafty!

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Our Nala Nia Holloway gets into the charity Valentines Day spirit!

The second volunteering event was a question and answer session with a local school. Our Shenzi, (hyena in the show, Rashada Dawan) organized this outreach, and I always love doing this kind of thing. Getting out of the theater, meeting local people, getting to actually talk to them instead of dancing at them is really fun for me.

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A thank you card from an earlier outreach effort. So cute!

A few of my fellow cast members and I showed up at Governor Wallace Rider Farrington High School at 2:30 on Thursday to talk to the local drama club, The T-Shirt Theater. This group seeks out the most promising talents from three local high schools and trains them in drama, dance, singing, and even backstage crafts. After receiving fragrent lei’s and welcoming hugs, we found ourselves in a large circle with 30 of these young thespians. They invited us to participate in their daily opening exercise of saying their name and something positive that happened to them that day. (Mine went something like “Hi, my name is Selena, and seeing as I was a bit lost and about 10 minutes late, the good thing that happened to me was finding this place!”)

The kids were incredibly attentive and excited to ask us questions about what it was like to live and perform on a real-life Broadway tour. They had great questions, like “When did you know you wanted to be in theater?” and “What was it like to audition?” Thankfully no one asked those awkward questions, that I have actually been asked in Q&A’s around the country, such as “How much money do you make?” and “Can you put a good word in with casting for me?”

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These kids rock!

After two hours of chatting with the group, we taught them Circle of Life, complete with lyrics (The REAL lyrics, not the “pink pajamas, penguins on the bottom” that we all sang as kids…) and choreography. We split the class into groups; one big group of prancing zebras, one group of flapping birds, one group of baby elephants, and one group of leaping gazelles. After we taught them movement and lyrics, we forced them to combine the two at the same time, just like we do every night on stage. As we all dissolved into giggles, I was thankful that such a wonderful volunteering opportunity fell into my lap, and felt good about how I spent my hour giving back this week