The Lion King Will Produce an Autism-Friendly Performance
Disney’s “The Lion King” is playing the Boston Opera House through October 12, and the production set a new record this week, overtaking Phantom of the Opera as the highest grossing show of all time. The hit musical, which single-handily changed how puppetry could be used in a major theater production, has grossed more than $6.2 billion worldwide in its 17 years in production. In NYC alone, that number is $1.1 billion.
But, even though the show is a must-see for people of all ages, for children on the autism spectrum, elements in a production like this could affect their condition, which means they’d never get to experience the magical theatrics firsthand. That’s why Broadway in Boston, Autism Speaks, and Disney Theatrical Productions have teamed up to offer an “autism-friendly” performance October 11.
“My son is very severely affected by autism, he never stops moving, so the dream of taking the whole family to the Lion King is something that you just have to set aside,” says Judith Ursitti, director of state government affairs for Autism Speaks. “We took him to the autism-friendly Lion King production in New York and my husband and I had low expectations. We were just hoping to make it through intermission. I can’t even convey what a moment it was for us. You know the opening scene is just so spectacular, and there was something about that opening scene that just totally got his attention. He’s a non-verbal kid, he can’t read or write and has a very difficult time communicating, yet he was glued to his seat. He made it through the entire show. My husband and I had tears in our eyes.”
The show is still the same production that we all know and love, but with some slight tweaks in order to create a sensory-friendly and, most-importantly, judgment-free environment. Some of the unique elements include: a reduction of jarring sounds and overall intensity and volume level; the elimination of strobe lights focused on the audience; the addition of a “calming area” for audience members; and trained staff and volunteers to provide real-time support.
“They leave the house lights up so that people can come and go,” Ursitti says. “That’s a big accommodation that they provide. Many times, people with autism need a sensory break and they need a place to go. The production itself, what you see on the stage, the changes are subtle. It’s mainly sound and lighting changes. The scene with the hyenas in the elephant graveyard where there’s a lot of little geysers shooting up and there lots of light and noise, they only do one little light, and special effects like that are reduced.”
Ursitti says that the opportunity to get up and take a little break is an important accommodation. There’s areas set up where the children can go and sit on a beanbag chair, put on head phones, and just chill out. “Some people with autism snap their fingers, hum, make chirping noises, and clap their hands, and its ok, the crowd can make those noises,” she says. As for the performers, Ursitti says that most, if not all, have participated in an autism-friendly performance before, and even with the distractions, they never miss a beat.
“We feel strongly that the arts and live theater should be an option for everyone,” said Rich Jaffe, President of Broadway In Boston. “Our main goal with an autism-friendly performance is to create a safe environment where everyone feels comfortable, supported and, most importantly, is able to be themselves.”
Saturday, October 11; 2 p.m., 539 Washington Street, autismspeaks.org/lionking