How New York’s festival for audiences on the autism spectrum is inspiring theatremakers around the world
Performances tailored to children on the autism spectrum have liberated families for some time, but in April the Lincoln Center in US spearheaded the first festival to cater for this audience. The man behind its launch tells Lisa Martland how Big Umbrella grew out of one game-changing show and of the influence of the UK’s Oily Cart
In April this year, the highly regarded Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York presented its Big Umbrella Festival, a month-long programme of events dedicated to the creation and presentation of work for young audiences on the autism spectrum.
The festival, thought to be the first of its kind hosted by such a major arts organisation, was hardly an overnight sensation. It grew out of the commission of an original piece of theatre for young people with autism back in 2013, a decision made by Russell Granet, then head of Lincoln Center Education (who has recently been appointed acting president).
“It starts with our mission statement, which is great art for all,” says Granet, who was brought in six years ago to re-imagine education and community engagement at Lincoln Center. “And I think one of my early questions was: ‘Well, how are we defining all?’ And if we’re going to be serious about that, then we have to look at all different kinds of potential audiences.”
Granet’s route to Lincoln Center gives an insight into why he asked these questions. Born and raised in New York, he travelled across the pond to train on LAMDA’s graduate programme before returning to the States to use drama and theatre as a facilitator for working with kids with disabilities in the classroom. He also taught a course on theatre and disability at New York University for 20 years.
“I’m particularly interested in communities and families that don’t have access to high-quality art,” he says. “And one of the things that became very clear when I went into school reform work was that families with kids on the autism spectrum had very limited options for live theatrical productions.”
He adds that while he sees how successful low sensory or relaxed performances are on Broadway, they do still presume that a young person with autism will be able to sit for two and a half hours. “So I was particularly interested in this idea of ‘small batch theatre’ [bespoke productions designed for a specific audience, often involving actors working one to one with audience members].”
The Lincoln Center had always been committed to working with kids and families with disabilities, but had not then commissioned an original piece for such a targeted audience.
“I wasn’t interested in taking a performance that had already been produced and re-imagining it for this audience, but I didn’t know anything about producing a new work either, so I began to contact the best in the business,” says Granet.
This led to the Lincoln Center commissioning local company Trusty Sidekick to take charge of the project, but with Tim Webb and Claire de Loon from UK company Oily Cart as consultants.
Webb, artistic director of Oily Cart, recalls: “When Russell got to thinking about the audience he was trying to cultivate, he wanted to spread the net a lot wider. He didn’t want Lincoln Center to be seen as an ivory tower where only a certain kind of person was welcome. He knew there was a need for this kind of work and that people would be very interested in it, in New York and across the States in general.”
During a two-year period, members of Trusty Sidekick spent a great deal of time with children, parents and experts in the field, examining what the key elements of the production would be.
Granet continues: “All I said to Jonathan Shmidt Chapman, Trusty Sidekick’s artistic director at the time, was that what I wanted more than anything was for the piece to be good theatre. I didn’t want it to seem like we were creating theatre for people with autism.”
Five companies creating work for audiences on the autism spectrum
1. Oily Cart
Since 1981, it has taken its blend of theatre to children and young people in schools and venues across the UK. Oily Cart creates innovative, multi-sensory and interactive productions for young people on the autism spectrum, with profound and multiple learning disabilities and those that are deafblind. oilycart.org.uk
2. Trusty Sidekick
Since 2011, the New York-based company has created multidisciplinary work. Its ensemble of collaborators includes artists trained in physical theatre, puppetry, music, dance, animation and video projection. trustysidekick.org
3. Sensorium Theatre
Formed in 2010 and based in Western Australia, the company makes live shows designed for young audiences with disabilities. It aims to improve the lives of young people with special needs by sparking their imaginations. sensoriumtheatre.com.au
Also UK-based, Bamboozle Theatre Company was founded in 1994 and delivers multi-sensory experiences for children and young people with moderate to profound learning difficulties, as well as those with emotional and behavioural difficulties. One of its aims is to help children who are on the autism spectrum engage meaningfully with the world around them. bamboozletheatre.co.uk
5. Seesaw Theatre
Founded under the name Theatre Stands With Autism in 2012 by seniors at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, Seesaw Theatre produces multi-sensory theatrical experiences for small audiences at which each guest is accompanied by their own “adventure guide” throughout the production, creating an individual experience. seesawtheatre.org
In the spring of 2015, a series of sample performances of Up and Away, as the production is now titled, were put in front of an audience for the first time. What happened next took everyone involved by surprise.
“The reception was unbelievable. Parents would come out of the production weeping. It was a beautiful theatrical production that just happened to be for kids on the spectrum. When we brought the piece back in the fall and extended the run, tickets sold out within 24 hours and we had maybe 100 families on the waiting list when we closed.”
Previously, while Granet had Lincoln Center’s support of the work on a “philosophical” level, it was a harder sell as a business model, for the show essentially required a one-to-one ratio whereby eight kids were working with eight actors and two musicians. But when Up and Away opened, it became much easier to unlock the funding to sustain the kind of work the education department was pursuing.
An invitation was also made to regional theatres throughout the US to come and study what had been achieved, a decision that ultimately led to the Umbrella Festival.
“We thought, ‘We don’t own this and we don’t want to own this. If anything, we want everybody to be creating this kind of work.’ So through the course of Up and Away we had 27 regional theatres fly to New York to see the production,” says Granet.
“So, if a funder said to me, ‘This is great but how are you going to go to scale?’, I could then say that we had theatre companies throughout the US that were thinking about this audience for the very first time – and, since the Umbrella Festival, throughout the world.”
It was then that the idea for the Big Umbrella Festival came about so as to create an environment in which artists, practitioners and administrators who were interested in the work could have a place to come and talk about it.
“We wanted it to be a catalyst for this work around the world. Already, there is talk of a Big Umbrella Festival in Israel because there were three people here from Tel Aviv at our event,” Granet explains.
He also felt strongly about bringing three companies together who were known for commissioning original pieces of theatre aimed at young audiences on the autism spectrum so they could discuss and see each others’ work. In addition to Trusty Sidekick (Up and Away) and Oily Cart (Light Show), Sensorium Theatre from Australia (Oddysea) was also invited to take part.
When I ask Granet what influence Oily Cart has had on what has been achieved at Lincoln Center, he cannot praise the company enough: “I completely credit Oily Cart for leading the way in this work. Lincoln Center is forever indebted to Tim and the company. We could not have done this without them. They really are leaders in the field and have been so generous with what they know.”
As for the future, Granet’s aim would be to have the Big Umbrella Festival take place sequentially in New York, London and Australia, but those plans are very much in the early stages.
So does he think that the work of Lincoln Center in the field and the festival that followed will lead to similar projects throughout the United States?
“What we’re hoping is that people can learn from us,” says Granet. “I do think that there is great interest in doing this work locally, but I also think there’s some trepidation around not wanting to get it wrong, because these are kids. But that’s understandable, we had the same concerns. We asked ourselves: ‘What if it goes terribly wrong?’ But it was worth the risk.”
Profile: Big Umbrella Festival
Executive director: Russell Granet
Location: Lincoln Center, New York
Opened: April 10, 2018
Venues and spaces:
• Samuels Teaching Studio (27-35 seats)
• Clark Studio Theater (34 seats)
• David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center
• Bruno Walter Auditorium
• Stanley H Kaplan Penthouse
• Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center
• Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P Rose Hall
• Daniel and Joanna S Rose Studio
Countries represented: Seven, including Israel, South Africa and Australia
Audience figures: More than 2,900 on the Lincoln Center campus and approximately 5,000 via live-streaming
• Russell Granet, acting president of Lincoln Center
• Peg Schuler-Armstrong, director, programming and production firstname.lastname@example.org
• Rebecca Podsednik, assistant director, programming email@example.com
For more information about Lincoln Center’s Big Umbrella Festival click here