Katie Sweeney loves musicals so much that she has seen over 150 shows on Broadway. Naturally, she wanted to share that love with her son, Dusty, 20. But for years, that was almost impossible because Dusty is on the autism spectrum. His mother describes him as low functioning with minimal verbal skills and an IQ of 48. He also has trouble sitting still and paying attention, especially with stimuli like bright lights and loud music.
But now Sweeney is getting some help from Broadway. She shared her son’s story Tuesday at the Broadway Accessibility Summit, which highlighted the newest initiatives to help disabled theatergoers. Held at New World Stages in the Theater District, the event was organized by the Broadway League, a trade association that represents over 700 producers, theater owners and operators.
Dusty’s story and those of so many like him inspired Broadway producers to respond with autism-friendly performances. In conjunction with the Theatre Development Fund, (TDF), the Broadway League developed the first autism-friendly production of “The Lion King” in 2011 after two years of planning with parents, advocates and autism specialists.
“We like to say we’re not just family friendly, but all family friendly,” said Chris Recker, company manager of “The Lion King” on Broadway.
Changes include eliminating strobe lighting effects, modifying music amplification, adding volunteers to help families in lobbies and leaving house lights turned on for the audience throughout the show. The cast, crew and theater staff are trained on how to adjust appropriately to suit the needs of their audience and what to expect the day of the show. Broadway will sell 40,000 tickets to autism-friendly performances this season alone, according to Lisa Carlin, director of TDF’s accessibility programming.
Those changes have helped make theater more welcoming to families like Sweeney and her son. Sweeney has always used show tunes to soothe Dusty. When he was 4 and much easier to carry, she taught him the entire score of “The Sound of Music” while dancing around their living room although he did not really speak until he was 6.
Now, he has a vast vocabulary but is unable speak in full sentences. “He has lots of words,” she said. “He can tell you every name of Thomas the Tank Engine, but he cannot tell me if has a headache, a stomach ache, or heartache,” said Sweeney, who lives in New Jersey. “He can run a mile, but he can’t tie the shoes that he runs in and he can’t answer a question that starts with the word why.”
Since Dusty cannot express himself verbally his feelings come out in other ways. “His behavior is unpredictable, it’s volatile and sometimes it’s aggressive,” said Sweeney.
Sweeney took Dusty to his first Broadway show, “Beauty and the Beast,” when he was 6.
She considers the visit an overall a success although Dusty began taking off his clothes during the first act finale song, “Be Our Guest,” because he was disturbed by the loud music and staging that included a cast of 35 dancing plates and cutlery.
On his second trip, Sweeney chose a revival show that Dusty was familiar with and prepared by securing box seats that would minimize the impact of any disruptive behavior.
“Dusty loved the show,” she said. “He knew every word and was singing along, but during the second act, an usher came and told us we had to leave because of complaints from backstage…As I dragged him out he was screaming ‘Stay! Stay! Stay!’–one of the the most profoundly isolating moments of this journey that we’re on.”
Dusty’s talking had upset the cast and crew who didn’t know there was child with autism in the audience and weren’t prepared for disruption, Sweeney said.
At the summit, representatives from Broadway for-profit and not-for-profit theaters, like the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center and Studio 54 at the Roundabout Theater Company, showcased their efforts to make Broadway more accessible — not just for people like Dusty but also for others who are disabled.
New technology helps audience members who are hearing- or vision-impaired. One example is Gala Pro, a newly developed app that delivers synchronized captions and audio description of the performance on the stage using an audience member’s phone or tablet.
“Technology has finally caught up with our needs,” said Adam Siegel, managing director of the Vivian Beaumont. “Now we have to educate our audiences about what is available to them and that starts with our websites.”
The Broadway League has been working with TDF to enhance access. Their newest joint venture is www.theatreaccess.nyc, a website that consolidates accessibility information for Broadway theaters and outlines the ticket buying process.
But David Kurs, artistic director of Deaf West, a theater company that works with deaf and hearing actors, warned that innovations like Gala should not replace scheduled performances using live sign language interpretation for those who prefer it to reading a captioning device.
“I’m not reading a caption if there is sign language interpreter, because it’s emotionally richer,” said Lewis Merkin, a hearing-impaired actor, ASL interpreter and consultant who helped test Gala Pro. “You get the message and the emotion through sign language. You can’t get that through a caption.”
The theater community is are working to make Broadway and theaters across the country a safe space, free of judgment, for all families, said Lisa Carling, the director of TDF’s Accessibility Program.
That safe space has finally allowed Sweeney and Dusty to enjoy Broadway musicals on their terms.
Dusty has seen 15 autism-friendly performances on Broadway since he attended the first autism-friendly performance of “The Lion King” in 2011. “With each he becomes more engaged,” his mother said. “He has learned to be a quiet, respectful, member of the audience.”
Sweeney recently took her son to see a regular performance of one of his favorite shows, “Wicked,” at the Gershwin Theater. No changes were made at that performance. Dusty wasn’t allowed to sing along with the show this time, but that was OK because he didn’t need to.
Toward the end of the of second act, Elphaba and Glinda, the good witch, sing a ballad about friendship entitled “For Good,” said Sweeney. “As they sang ‘Because I knew you, I have been changed for good,’ Dusty took my hand and kissed it. That had never happened before.”
UPDATE: The last two paragraphs of this story have been changed to indicate that the performance of “Wicked” did not include autism friendly accommodations.