A Nutcracker for Kids on the Spectrum

Christine Schwaner and Nurlan Abougaliev in PBT’s 2012 Nutcracker

For many, The Nutcracker is a hallmark of the holidays. This season Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will help more families in Western Pennsylvania take part in the tradition with an autism-friendly adaptation.

Among the first of its kind in the country by a professional ballet company, the performance will create a safe haven for families of autistic children by providing quiet areas and activity stations in the lobby, as well as reducing loud sounds and special effects.

“It’s not going to look much different onstage than what you would normally see,” says Alyssa Herzog Melby, the company’s director of education and community engagement. A few of the adjustments will include turning off rodents’ glowing eyes in the first act Rat King battle scene and eliminating flashes from the magic tricks Drosselmeyer performs. “They can be really intense and scary if you’re not prepared for them,” she adds. “And Tchaikovsky really loves to end his pieces with a big drum beat or boom, so we’re also going to make sure we lower that.”

After attending conferences and doing the research, Melby pitched the idea of an autism-friendly production to artistic director Terrence S. Orr as part of PBT’s Accessibility Initiative. The company consulted with a focus group of representatives from Autism Speaks of Greater Pennsylvania and The Advisory Board on Autism and Related Disorders’ Autism Connection of Pennsylvania, made up of parents, which presented recommenda- tions. PBT also looked at the Theatre Development Fund’s Autism Theatre Initiative and its 2011 autism-friendly Broadway performance of The Lion King as a blueprint.

Before the matinee, ticketholders received a guide to familiarize themselves with the ballet and venue. They were also invited to visit the theater beforehand during a “Meet Your Seat” event.

In the audience, lights will be kept at 25 percent to accommodate the relaxed atmosphere. People will be free to move around, and specialists will be on hand to cater to those in need. Volunteers positioned throughout the crowd will hold up glow sticks to alert people that a potentially startling sound or light change is coming.

In the lobby, coloring books, stuffed animals and other hands-on activities will be available, with quiet places families can retreat to. “The goal is that they return to the theater to finish watching the performance,” Melby says.

There won’t be many changes for dancers, says Orr, although being able to see the audience could require some adapting.

The Nutcracker takes place December 27 at 2:00 at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh.

For more: pbt.org

Sara Bauknecht writes dance, fashion and other arts and lifestyle features for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Photo by Rich Sofranko, courtesy of PBT

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