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Author Archive for MacMullen

Maestro Theatre Blog Posts Update

Blogs from the authors will continue after the holiday season. Monthly blogs will begin on the first Monday of January.

Happy holidays to you and we wish you a wonderful 2017!

Maestro Theatre Pubulications LLC

Seeing Everything: My Experience Working with Theatre Students on the Autism Spectrum

What would it be like to take a train ride and, as you are looking out the window, truly see everything? Most people think they do, but in reality we probably notice very little of our surroundings. We tend to be rather selective in what we see. To take in everything would be, well, impossible one might think. Or is it? And if you were privileged to really see everything, wouldn’t this sensory overload lead to issues in dealing with everyday life?

Individuals on the autism spectrum realize both the privilege and the penalty of “seeing everything”. For those of us who are teachers and directors of them, it is important that we are aware of the distinctions between their world and ours and the impact that truly seeing them can have on not only them, but on us and our other students as well.

When it comes to teaching students with special needs, I’ve always felt woefully under-educated. Of course, no educator can be fully prepared for every issue. Our students are far too unique for anyone to expect that from us. During my teaching career, I’ve been teacher and director to several students on the autism spectrum. At first, I will admit I felt quite a bit of anxiety. I had no training or experience on how to meet the needs of an individual with ASD, so, of course, I was apprehensive. To alleviate my anxiety, I began to research ASD in an effort to educate myself. Then, I met my students and my anxiety melted away. Yes, I’d need to continue learning about how to best work with my students, but I would also learn from them. In the examples below, I’ll call them Heath, Paul, and Audrey.

From Heath I was reminded again of the joy of seeing the story anew each day. While he enjoyed having a role in our productions, it was Heath’s attention to the rehearsal process that had the biggest impact on our theatre company. Heath would watch every moment of rehearsal. He knew everyone’s lines. He knew their blocking. He knew if someone reverted back to the “old way” of doing something that we had changed in a previous rehearsal. He laughed with such joy at every humorous moment of the play, no matter how many times we rehearsed it. It was like he saw each rehearsal with a fresh pair of eyes.

From Paul I learned the impact of a unified ensemble. When we traveled to an out of town contest, Paul’s pair of very long socks for his renaissance costume had, unfortunately, become lost in transit and was now just one sock. Most students would be frustrated that their complete costume hadn’t made the trip, but Paul had a difficult time getting past it. “Where could it be?” he kept asking. “How can it not be here?” “It has to be somewhere.” “Where is it?” He was clearly growing more and more upset. After looking everywhere for it, I sat down and talked to him. We discussed how it wasn’t a play about socks. In fact, every member of the company could go without their stockings/socks, and it would be OK. Today, it was about our ensemble doing a great job of telling our story and not letting other things get in the way of that. By that time, the company had started gathering near Paul to reassure him. One of my students sat down by him. “My boots are so tall that my socks never show. Here are my socks. Let’s go get dressed,” he said as he led Paul to the dressing room. Later that day, during our contest performance, a piece of scenery fell. This was not supposed to happen, and Paul was onstage and standing near the piece of scenery when it fell. How was he going to handle this unexpected turn of events? He did exactly what he had seen his friend do earlier. He fixed the problem. It wasn’t, at that moment, about a piece of scenery upon which he should focus. It was about telling our story and not letting other things get in the way. Paul picked up with piece of scenery and held it in character. When the scene was over, he took it off in character. It may sound like a little thing, but for Paul, it was huge. His mother later told me that she sat in the audience almost holding her breath as she watched him that day. Would he begin questioning aloud (during the performance) why the piece of scenery had fallen? Would he look out into the audience and ask his mother or me what he should do with the piece of scenery? That would have been his usual response. But Paul’s response on that day was to stay in character, fix the problem, and move on. He was part of a unified ensemble, and that’s what we do. My heart was full for Paul and his mother. It was a special moment, with many more to follow.

From sweet Audrey, I learned the importance of vulnerability—taking a risk and letting go. Audrey was working with a group of students on a scene in class one day. There were several groups working, and I had just left her group to work with another, when I saw her take a tumble. As I made my way to her, I saw that she was crying and requested that a student get the nurse. I talked to her about what happened, and the nurse quickly arrived to take her. Seeing her so upset was heartbreaking. I went by the nurse’s office after class and learned that she had spoken with Audrey’s mother already. I also learned that Audrey was fine, but I wanted to speak with her mother since it was an accident that happened on my watch. I’ll never forget her words to me, “She’ll be fine. We’re just so glad that she’s interacting with other students. You don’t know how much that means to us and what that does for her.” I was stunned. I assumed that Audrey had always been interactive. That was not the case. She felt safe in theatre class. She could take a risk, let go, and be vulnerable. The things I had taken for granted as a parent, this mother was thankful for. As an educator, it underscored what we already know—-small things can impact our students in such a big way.

Perhaps none of these students will continue to participate in theatre. Perhaps they will. What’s important is what they’ve gained from the experience, and what they have taught us along with way. Theatre made them feel included. It helped them gain self-confidence. It allowed them to use their imaginations in a safe environment. Daryl Hannah is an actress who is best known for her roles in Splash, Blade Runner, and Steel Magnolias. She still acts, but now identifies her latest role as that of an activist. She was diagnosed with autism at a young age. Terrified of interviews and attending red carpet events, she usually kept a low social profile. She remembers fondly how she fell in love with the movies at a young age and developed an interest in acting. She once disclosed in an interview, “Acting for me was about going to the Land of Oz and meeting the Tin Man. It still is”. As theatre teachers, we give students the opportunity to go to the “Land of Oz” everyday! How blessed are we and our students to have that opportunity?

Now, all of this leads me back to that train I mentioned earlier. In November 2015, my husband John and I went to New York for the week of Thanksgiving. Now that all of our kids are grown and our nest is empty, we decided to take advantage of our new found freedom, and I think we filled just about every moment with something wonderful to see or experience. One evening, we purchased tickets and headed to the Barrymore Theatre to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I had purchased the book when it was published, so the title caught my eye. It’s about 15 year old Christopher John Francis Boone, a math genius who appears to have ASD. His neighbor’s dog, Wellington, is killed, and Christopher is blamed. He then sets out on a journey to discover who the real culprit is. Director Marianne Elliott created a production that allowed us to enter Christopher’s magnificent and perplexed mind. After teaching students on the autism spectrum, I had a deeper appreciation and understanding of Christopher than I did years ago when I read the book that inspired the play. The production has gone on to win the Tony for best play, best actor, best director, best scenic design, and best light design. It is a truly a fascinating story, and if you have the opportunity, go see it. Earlier when I mentioned “seeing everything” from the train window, it was in reference to Christopher’s first train ride. “I see everything,” he says, while looking out the window. “Most other people are lazy. They never look at everything. They do what is called glancing, which is the same word for bumping off something and carrying on in almost the same direction.”

In the world of education where we have new trends, new tests, and new buzzwords every few years, most students receive merely a “glance” during their pre-K through grade 12 education. They’re bumped off “something” (i.e. the latest education trend or test) and then carried in almost the same direction. What is it about the power of the arts that transforms students of all backgrounds and learning styles? I believe it is the gift that an arts education gives to all students—-the opportunity to “see everything” through the lens of compassion, understanding, empathy, and love. It’s not about a test or the latest education trend. It’s transforming because it allows students the opportunity to combine the head and the heart, and lovingly create something where there was nothing before. That’s something that students with or without special needs can celebrate. Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote in The Little Prince, “One sees things clearly only with the heart. Anything else essential is invisible to the eyes”. So, goodbye to simply glancing. Instead, with heart rather than eyes, see everything.