Musical not just adapted for children with autism, it was designed just for them

Interactive, tailor-made theater: Coming to a classroom or stage near you?

Co-creators of the show Ryan Duda, at left, and Evan Phillips (photo provided by Dionne O'Dell).

Even months after the fact, middle school teacher Kevin Edwards’ students are still talking about it: They got to see a play. And not just any production. It was a musical that came to their school, and they got to participate and engage with the actors and even help dictate the plot line.

It was perfect. And that wasn’t a coincidence. The creators of the show, “Farm! A Musical Experience,” designed it specifically for children with autism, and for other kids who are neurodiverse, meaning they have special needs.

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Edwards’ students got to experience the interactive musical when it went on a small tour in Michigan this past spring. Edwards is in his sixth year working as a special education teacher at Eaton Rapids Middle School, near Lansing.

The show's creators loved being able to turn their idea into reality, from inception to conception.

“It was incredible, being able to create theater for an audience that doesn’t have as much access to the arts and theater as they should,” said Ryan Duda, 22, a recent graduate of Michigan State University and a "Farm" co-creator.

Sensory-friendly theater isn’t exactly a new concept. “The Lion King,” for example, is known as one of the first plays to offer a sensory-friendly show -- meaning, a performance more accessible to audience members who might need some modifications from a more typical Broadway experience. The show will lower the lights, make sure the sound isn’t too loud, provide quiet spaces if a guest needs to leave and come back, or even offer different ticketing policies.

“So, you could get a refund if the day just isn’t working out,” said Dionne O’Dell, who's on the faculty for MSU’s Department of Theatre, among several other titles she holds at the university. "But (it’s important to keep in mind), these shows [such as 'The Lion King'] are being tailored. We thought it would be cool to create a show specifically for this group.”

Here’s the difference: Whereas “The Lion King” was adapted, “Farm! A Musical Experience” was created specifically for audience members with special needs. O'Dell, by the way, is largely the brains behind "Farm."

Check out the video below to get a better idea of what the show looks like, and how the actors interact with the children.

Michigan State is one of the first places offering something like this, outside of New York City and London. O'Dell has a background in children's theater, but she didn't have much experience working with students with special needs. But she didn't let that slow her down. In a partnership with a Livonia based group called Fourth Wall Theatre Company, the small team from MSU moved full steam ahead once the idea was set into motion.

Read more: MSU paving the way for adaptive theater

“We wanted the show to be very interactive,” said Duda, who’s now living in Memphis, Tennessee, as a professional actor. “We catered to the kids based on what they responded to. They even had a say in the plot. It was really well-received.”

And for Edwards, he said some of his students have behavioral issues that cause them to get antsy in some situations (such as, perhaps, sitting through a musical). But the children were incredibly receptive when it came to the play. Edwards mentioned one student in particular who he often works with on redirecting.

“Before the show came, we went over how you would act in a situation like this,” Edwards said, adding that the student was on his best behavior that day. “He was fantastic -- so attentive. Everyone was great. (Almost everyone was) really involved. We still talk about it to this day.”

For the students, the play seemed really special, Edwards said. Not only did they get out of a typical classroom setting for a bit, but they got to do something exciting, and it was made just for them.

Edwards gave credit to the actors especially. They were professional, they brought in a set and impressive props, and essentially transformed the school’s choir room. The group maintained an appropriate balance too, Edwards said, of making nine or 10 parts available, so that students could volunteer, but the actors were also able to gently involve others who were maybe a bit more shy.

Edwards said he won’t soon forget the experience.

While everyone else is focusing in on the kids during one of these shows, O'Dell said she likes to notice the teachers.

“My favorite part is watching the teachers’ reactions as they watch their students,” O’Dell said. “Some of these kids might be nonverbal, but they got up and danced with the scarecrow. It was very moving to watch. Sometimes the students, you think they might not be engaged in the story, and then they have a breakthrough.”

Similar to O'Dell, Duda was one of the actors who didn’t have much, or any, background working with students with special needs. But he jumped in, fell in love with the work and recognized the impact that it was having -- in a population that doesn’t always have access to these types of experiences in the traditional educational system.

“It was beautiful and it was amazing (to see),” Duda said. “No one else is doing this and it’s really important.”

The actors who are drawn to this work are the most kind and giving people, added O’Dell, who’s currently writing a new piece at MSU called “Soda Pop Show.” Again, the play will be created for these neurodiverse students.

When O'Dell recasts, she said, she will give preference to students who have worked with children of different abilities in the past.

“You have to be pretty good at improv and not being distracted," she said. "Some students (in the audience at some of these shows) might wander, or the actors have to know how to deal with that, or redirect."

For “Farm! A Musical Experience,” the group was involved in some training with doctoral students in the field of educational psychology, so that they’d know what to expect in situations such as these.

The cast members also borrowed an idea from a London theater company to incorporate a name song, which would add the audience members’ names into the show.

“So (we’d) learn the students’ names, and my actors have gotten so good at it,” O’Dell said. “And we’d incorporate and remember the names. The (kids’) reactions are amazing -- to see the smiles on their faces.”

That theater company in London, Oily Cart Theatre, actually served as a driving force behind MSU’s “Farm.” O’Dell flew out to London to meet Tim Webb from Oily Cart, who she calls a “pioneer” when it comes to this type of work. The trip was incredibly inspiring. O'Dell even wrote the lyrics to the show's first song on her plane ride home.

When O’Dell visited Oily Cart, she noticed that the plays were very simple -- with interaction spattered throughout.

She knew she wanted a simple concept, too. “Farm” involves puppets, such as a big storm head. The musical is about a sock in a laundry pile who’s trying to find his soulmate, and there’s a big storm on the farm.

(Yes, they find the soulmate at the end).

An inside look at "Farm! A Musical Experience" (photo provided by Dionne O'Dell).

The group aims for small audiences: a model of about six to eight children at a time. They can adapt, if needed. But small is best, O'Dell said. And the show so far has been free for students, thanks to grant funding secured by MSU.

With a project like this that might seem daunting on the surface -- coordinating and performing theater for students with special needs -- O’Dell said Webb provided some comfort.

“He said something like, ‘We aren’t the experts in autism. We’re the experts in theater,’” she recalled. “That’s a reminder that there are teachers who are trained in special education, who are in the room. There are lots of people in the room helping to guide this process.”

The weight of keeping everything in order doesn’t fall on one person’s shoulders.

“(We) didn’t even know what (we) were getting into,” Duda said. “It turned into us devising the show from the ground up. But it’s been absolutely amazing. And it’s not the end.”

This story was published in 2018.

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