By Nancy Maes
When some of the staff members of Blue Man Group read a newspaper article about a special performance of the Broadway production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, adapted for people with autism, they decided they wanted to do an autism-friendly version of their wild-and-crazy show that is performed by three mischievous cobalt-colored entertainers. The concept arose from occasional phone calls they had received.
“We were already encouraged by the positive feedback we had from people whose children with autism had enjoyed the show without modifications, so we were excited about expanding this to a formal program,” says Mary Grisolano, resident general manager of the Group.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 American children are affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder, an umbrella term that includes a number of subtypes with a wide range of symptoms. Those on the Spectrum may have problems with social interactions, difficulty communicating, exhibit repetitive behavior, have trouble sitting still or being quiet.
Grisolano points out, “I think there is something about the fact that the Blue Men don’t communicate verbally but express themselves with physicality and music that makes it easy for the children with autism to connect to it. Sometimes the families want to go somewhere where their children won’t be judged or [where] they won’t have to apologize for their behavior. If children are so excited that they want to stand up and dance, they can because that’s what our show is like every night.”
When staff members from Blue Man Group approached the members of the board of the Chicagoland Chapter of Autism Speaks about developing an autism-friendly version of the show, they agreed.
Laurie Chern, the board chair of the local Autism Speaks, whose 13-year-old son has Asperger’s, says, “Blue Man Group is such an interesting performance from a sensory standpoint, so it could be incredibly exciting and invigorating for children on the Spectrum who don’t always have the same sensory system as typical children. Some are underreactive, so they will enjoy the loud noises and the action.” In fact, that point was proven when families from the local Autism Speaks went to an autism-friendly performance of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Autism Speaks is providing sensitivity training to the Blue Man Group staff and performers. “We talk about the extremes on the Spectrum,” Chern says, “so they will know what to do if one of the audience members does anything that is unorthodox.”
Changes to the show in the 630-seat Briar Street Theatre are minimal. Grisolano points out, for example, that the loud noise of a motorcycle that happens unexpectedly will be turned down. Noise-canceling headphones will be available for those who are sensitive to loud sounds.
“My son always has little, clear silicone earplugs with him, and he knows that if sounds are starting to affect him, he can pop them in his ears,” Chern says. She suggested eliminating the part of the show where the Blue Men take a volunteer from the audience backstage. “Taking a child on the Spectrum away from the people he [or she] feels safe with would not be a pleasant experience,” she says.
On the other hand, Chern thinks audience members with autism will particularly enjoy watching one of the Blue Men toss lots of marshmallows at another one who catches them in his mouth. “That’s the kind of humor that a lot of them are going to enjoy seeing,” she says.
She points out that the streams of paper launched into the audience during the finale could be too claustrophobic, but the enormous helium balloons that appear at the end will be perfect. “I think it will be a great experience because the balloons bounce all over, and [those who want] to put their hands up and hit one when it comes down [can do so], but they don’t have to if they don’t want to.”
Those who, at any time, are overwhelmed by the show will find a calm, quiet safe haven in the lobby where they can relax in bean-bag chairs, play with soothing toys and, if they want to, watch the show on a monitor with the sound turned off. So audience members on the Spectrum will be able to choose the amount of sensory input that is best for them.
Autism-friendly Blue Man Group, 4 p.m., Oct. 26, Briar Street Theatre, 3133 N. Halsted St. All tickets are $49, with $5 of every ticket donated to Autism Speaks, www.ticketmaster.com/promo/4inhh5.
For information about Autism Speaks: 224-567-8573; communities.autismspeaks.org/illinois.
Published on October, 22, 2014