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 –

Week Eight: Volunteering My Way Around Hawaii

Project: Workshop at Lanai Performing Arts Academy

Actual Time Taken: 5 hours

A few months before the Lion King made landfall in Hawaii, I received a Tweet from a mysterious man asking about a possible backstage tour or Q&A with his students. I forwarded this along the usual PR lines that Disney likes us to use, and didn’t think much about it…

That is until Andrew Gorell, our Zazu, mentioned that he received a similar message though this website. This guy is really web savvy, and determined to talk to us I thought to myself. I finally contacted the mysterious man myself and learned that the man in question, who’s named Matthew, is the leader of a performing arts program (The Lanai Academy of Performing Arts) at a school on the small island of Lanai. He and 25 of his students were flying over to the Oahu to see one of our shows and asked if we could set up a backstage tour for the group. We don’t usually set up tours for school groups ourselves, but Andrew and Thembe  (another singer in the ensemble) offered to help, so I figured we could pull it off for them.

The day of the show, the group descended on our stage door, a gaggle of excited middle schoolers whispering and pointing at all of our costumes, props, and set pieces in awe. At the end of the tour, as we said our goodbyes, Matthew revealed that the kids had something they wanted to perform for us as a thank you for the tour. He suddenly produced out a ukulele from a case and strummed along as the kids belted out their own rendition of “Can’t Wait to be King,” complete with choreography and blocking! Much to Andrew’s delight, there was even an adorable Zazu character played by a precocious little boy who quickly stole our hearts.

We gave them a well deserved standing ovation, and thought that would be the end of our interaction with the group. Little did we know that in a few weeks time, we would be boarding a plane to fly to Lanaii to teach the kids on their ‘home turf‘ of Lanaii! Matthew set up the trip with the help of local sponsors, covering every cost including the flights for myself, Andrew, and Thembe, meals, and a bed and breakfast for an overnight stay!

We left Oahu on a 6:00 am flight (an unspeakable hour for theater folk, such as us…) in a twin prop plane and landed in Lanaii a mere 20 minutes later. We deplaned and after a quick breakfast in the town square, which was delicious. The only real town on the island is Lanai City, which mostly consists of one small square ringed by about 10 stores total. It’s absolutely adorable! After breakfast, we immediately began our first activity of the day, a comprehensive island tour given to us by the Lanai Cultural and Historical Center.

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That’s us up at 5:02 AM folks….

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Aloha Oahu, Aloha Lanai! 

The island is tiny compared to Oahu, and most of the places we visited were only accessible by four wheel drive trucks or, in our case, vans. He took us to gorgeous vistas and historical sites, all of them seemingly more beautiful than the last. When we were done, we headed up to one of the two Four Seasons hotels on the island for lunch.

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The view of Maui from Lanai

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The mars-like terrain was as beautiful as it was formidable

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Thembe taking it all in!

The lodge was a palatial resort, complete with botanical gardens, golf courses, and croquet fields. We enjoyed a sumptuous lunch, which was sponsored by the Four Seasons as another surprise to us, and then headed over the school to begin our workshop.

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A posh lunch!

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Andrew squeezes in a quick game…

We met the kids, many of whom we recognized from their trip over to see us in the show, and after a quick ice breaker exercise, jumped right into the workshop. We started with Thembie teaching them “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in her native language of Zulu. They mastered it after a little bit of work, but we decided to make it even more challenging by introducing choreography, which was my section of the workshop. After learning the dance, I surprised them by asking them to sing the Zulu words while they performed the choreography, which is much like what we do every day on stage!

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Teaching time!

Finally Andrew taught his section, which was all about making puppets come to life. He had crafted a little turtle from cardboard and a paper bowl, and the kids took turns using the puppet. While one child got to operate the puppet, Thembe and I worked with the other kids to become living set pieces, which we also get to do every day on stage in the Lion King. One scene we are plants, and in the next we are animals wandering the pride lands, so we worked with the kids to create the turtle’s environment as Andrew worked with the junior puppeteers.

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Our teaching turtle, Honu!

At the end of the workshop, we got to help them clean up a production they were working on, which was an original play about bullying. They performed it once for us, and then I jumped in to help clean up the blocking and spacing, while Andrew stepped in to help them with motivation and projection… you know, actor stuff. At the end of the day, the kids were excited, inspired, and asked some wonderful, insightful questions in our Q&A section.

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We enjoyed the Q&A as much as the kids did! (Maybe more!)

Matthew let us take a quick nap in the B&B and then treated us to one last luxurious meal at the other Four Seasons hotel as we watched the sunset over the ocean. It was an absolutely wonderful trip, and I’m so thankful that our volunteering efforts are literally taking us places! I’ll never forget those kids at Lanai Acadamy of Performing Arts, and I hope to make it back someday to the beautiful island of Lanai!