Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre to Premiere First-Ever Autism-Friendly Performance of “The Nutcracker”

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Pittsburgh Ballet AutismBy Christopher Cussat

This December, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (PBT) will premiere its first-ever, autism-friendly production of “The Nutcracker.” The performance will be the first of its kind in the country to make the magic of this holiday classic accessible to children on the autism spectrum and their families. The autism-friendly ballet will take place at 2:00 p.m. Friday, December 27, 2013 at the Benedum Center in Downtown Pittsburgh.

“’The Nutcracker’ is a holiday staple in ballet companies across the country and an annual tradition for many families here in Pittsburgh, so we are particularly excited to pilot this program with a timeless story that reaches so many people year after year,” said PBT Artistic Director, Terrence S. Orr. “With this special performance, we want families to know that we are performing with them in mind and welcome them to experience this production in a comfortable and inclusive atmosphere.”

To be autism-friendly, the entire theater will be reserved for families with individuals on the autism spectrum to create a fully supportive audience environment. Autism-friendly accommodations will include designated quiet areas and activity stations in the lobby, adjustments to potentially startling light, sound, and special effects, as well as opportunities for families and children to familiarize themselves with the production in advance.

Throughout the performance, the house lights will remain dimly lit and audience members will be free to come and go from their seats as needed. In advance of the performance, the PBT will distribute online, an illustrated guide (or social story) to walk audience members through the theater experience from the layout of the Benedum Center to the characters, scenery, and music of “The Nutcracker” production.

“This is a performance where families can come as they are and be who they are—whether they are looking for a new artistic experience, bonding time with their family, or simply an escape into a magical world—we can offer all of that through this performance,” said PBT Education Director, Alyssa Herzog Melby, who heads Accessibility Initiatives at the PBT. “We hope that we can become a model for other ballet companies across the country to open their doors to people on the autism spectrum, sharing the beauty of what we do with all people in our community.”

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) affect 1 in 88 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The effects of autism are unique to every individual, though ASD characterizations usually include difficulties with social interaction and communication. Many children with autism have sensory sensitivities in response to sounds or sights, which is one of the focused areas of adaptation for autism-friendly productions.

Although autism-friendly productions have begun to establish a foothold in the theater world, autism-friendly performances are relatively new to ballet. This year, for example, New Jersey Ballet presented an autism-friendly version of “Pinocchio”—but, to date, no other U.S. ballet company has presented an autism-friendly version of “The Nutcracker” (according to PBT research).

“Very few times in our careers as dancers will we get the chance to do something this important—the autism-friendly performance will join Light/The Holocaust and Humanity Project as one of those defining moments for me,” said PBT Dancer, Stephen Hadala, who has performed in all 11 seasons of Terrence S. Orr’s “The Nutcracker.” He continues, “This performance gives us an opportunity to use our art form to do something for the community, and it’s exciting to be able to share ballet with children who might not ordinarily experience a production.”

In order to adapt the ballet, the PBT worked with a focus group represented by local autism advocacy groups, including Autism Speaks of Greater Pittsburgh and ABOARD’s Autism Connection of Pennsylvania—parents of children with autism and individuals on the autism spectrum. After watching the production and learning about characters, music, and scenery, the groups submitted recommendations to adapt the production to viewers on the autism spectrum or with other sensory sensitivities.

The PBT also looked to other organizations as models, including the Theatre Development Fund’s (TDF) Autism Theatre Initiative, which presented the first autism-friendly performance of a Broadway show in October 2011 with Disney’s musical, “The Lion King.” The PBT thanks TDF’s Autism Theatre Initiative for serving as an advisor during the planning process. Locally, PBT acknowledges The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust for its leadership in establishing best practices and providing Benedum Center staff-training for autism-friendly performances. Lead funding support for the PBT’s autism-friendly production of “The Nutcracker” comes from the Edith L. Trees Foundation.

According to Melby, ballet is an art form that has embedded in its history the philosophy of being able to transcend the earth and transcend the human body. “It’s part of the reason why ballet dancers always ‘lift up’ their body—very rarely do we slouch in ballet! It’s part of the reason why we wear pointe shoes and stand on our toes—to get higher off of the ground. It’s part of the reason why the male partner so often lifts his female partner high into the air—making her suspend gravity and time as she floats in space.” She concludes that there is something about watching ballet that does the same thing because it lifts the spirits and shows human potential reaching ever greater heights. “And no matter who you are—special health needs or not—that is an empowering and inspiring message!”

The autism-friendly performance fits into the PBT’s overarching Accessibility Initiative, which made several significant strides during the 2012-2013 Season. 2012-2013 accessibility accomplishments included the introduction of the PBT’s Audio Description for Dance program, large-print and Braille programs, and other accommodations for people with visual impairments and special needs. For more information about Accessibility at PBT, please visit www.pbt.org/plan-your-visit/accessibility.

Tickets for the autism-friendly performance will be available at a discounted rate to families with members on the autism spectrum. Information to purchase the tickets will be distributed through PBT’s partners within the autism community. For more information about tickets, please call 412-454-9107.