This was big.
What was the big deal? I don't know. But it was. It was a big deal. You play back all the rejection in your mind...kicked out of church because your daughter is too loud in the balcony and the organist doesn't want to detract from Easter Mass, kicked out of the front of the auditorium where your daughter is watching her cousins in a talent show because the woman in front complains she's too loud and it's hurting her sons ears, told to quiet her down in a theater before the performance starts and that maybe a theater isn't the right place for her if she can't quiet down...all the little hurts that build into chronic anxiety and stress and a feeling of "she can't do that"..."she's not welcome there"..."what if people complain"...any time any new experience is contemplated. If she "couldn't" do those things, how could she possibly attend a musical?
Musicals have protocols all their own, when to stand or clap figuring prominently among them, but chiefest of these always is remain quietly seated throughout. And there's just no way that can happen with Lily. Unless...unless someone put together a performance where the conventional protocols of musical theater were adapted...suspended...unless someone changed the way a musical's conventional performance was conducted.
And that is precisely what this was. I don't know exactly how the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust got where they did with the Lion King. I know that ABOARD worked with them, and I'd be speculating if I threw all the credit at ABOARD without knowing if other charities were involved...or if I threw all the credit at The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust for doing it not knowing how long or hard the charity(ies) had to work to make it happen. What I know is what I experienced. What I know is what I can directly report. If people want to know more of the details I'll ask around. Or maybe they'll comment here. You never know. This post is just to talk about what The Lion King meant to me and mine and a few thousand of my closest friends...my tribe. But I know people here and in other cities..."autism people"... were abuzz.
The bill of goods we were sold is that this was to be an "Autism-friendly showing of The Lion King musical". I know that there was at least one sensory room. I know that there were quiet rooms for people to retreat to if it got overwhelming. I know that fidgets were available. I know that the staff was bolstered by volunteers who were familiar with autism. I know that when we bought tickets we received a social story discussing what could be expected.
The other things I saw while I was there, but I was mostly ignorant of the details because once I bought the tickets I put it out of my mind until probably a week before the performance and focused on our little family.
We'd gotten tickets right away, so our seats were good. Extremely good. Front row, aisle, with the grandparents sitting an aisle back. We were as close to the stage as you can get without actually being part of the performance, not that Lily didn't try to join in.
We were ready in plenty of time for the drive downtown. All we had to do was get the kids McDonald's and then we'd be set. Predictably we fucked this up. With no money, Leslie arrived at McDonald's and attempted to purchase Happy Meals with her smile. And just as predictably McDonald's found this currency wanting (despite the smile being priceless). We had to make another unplanned trip.
Leslie got home and found me less ready than she needed me to be and snapped. I snapped back and we were off to the races. Pissed off and stressed out. It wouldn't be a family outing if it didn't start that way.
Extra trip accomplished, we left fifteen minutes later than we wanted but still arrived with 10 minutes to spare. I pulled over to the curb in the rain and the girls piled out. I circled the block to look for parking and found it a half block away from The Benedum (the venue).
I pulled into the parking spot, unlimbered my umbrella and crossed the street to the Benedum before ducking inside. Leslie texted me that they were already seated, and I had time to spare. I found Lu (ABOARD's director) in the lobby. She told me, unnecessarily, to calm down, and I meandered in to find our seats. I was the last to arrive, and although I probably sat down just after the 2:00 start time, they allowed people to slowly trickle in for several more minutes before the lights were dimmed (not extinguished) and the show started.
I'm told the music was quieter...for being directly in front of the speakers, I suppose it had to have been. The music started to play, and Lily looked a bit alarmed. She reached out to grab hold of our arms. She didn't want her hands to be held, just wanted to hold someone's hand. On her terms. She was agitated. We made references to the stage..."see the monkey!" ..."her name is Rafiki"...
"No, don't talk!"
I worried she'd start to spiral, but then the music started to sound familiar, and the animals started to walk the aisles...and she was captivated. Her eyes got big and she started looking all around her at the elephants and giraffes and cheetahs, at the cloth construct birds tethered to poles swirling around our heads, at the colors and the lights and the music. We kept a steady stream of observations going, attempting to calm her and engage her. Her movements were quick and stiff like she was scared and anxious, but looking at her face I could see she was just very stimulated by what was going on around her.
The animals gathered and voices joined to voices, agglomerating and building, and they sang the "Circle of Life" and the music and the song built in richness and volume to the crescendo and the Lion King, Mufasa held up his cub for the world's inspection and acceptance and the animals bowed and Lily sang along. We watched her watching them and my eyes started to brim and I looked to Leslie to see the tears already streaming down her face...watching Lily watch The Lion King. I gave Emma's hand a squeeze. She seemed oblivious to the emotion. I felt the cold constricting band of anger and stress loosen and then fall away from around my chest and I felt like I could breathe again. I sighed and breathed a deep relaxing breath and then I leaned back into my seat - willing my muscles to slacken, willing my hands to unclench- to enjoy the show.
Throughout the performance the mutters and shrieks and even what sounded like prolonged boos rang out from the crowd. It felt weird. It felt funny. It felt off. But we all knew. We all knew it was okay. And the performers knew it was okay. And nobody complained or hushed anyone. Not once. And believe me it was a full house. A young man near us, let loose a cacophony of shrieks. He was upset. I'm not sure what about. He stood and stamped and shrieked at his caregivers. They calmed him and soothed him. I'm sure they were conscious of others around them. But nobody cast scornful looks. Everybody in that venue had a stake in the autism life. There was no judgement. As the end of the performance neared he'd had enough. His group quietly stood and departed and he visibly relaxed in gratitude as they left. No one told them to wait to stand. No one cried, "Down in front!"
If the ushers had negative opinions about this disruption to business as usual they didn't show it. I never saw one look of scorn or judgement. I saw only smiles. I experienced only friendly service.
The performance ended and thousands of grateful patrons stood to appreciate it with cheers and whistles and the performers bowed and smiled in acceptance. A little girl wearing noise reducing headphones bolted for the stage. Her mother scooped her up and took her back to their seat. I smiled. Ten seconds later she was loose and charging the stage again. Again her mother corralled her expertly and returned her to her seat. A third time she bolted. This time the performers saw her and they began smiling and waving to her, blowing kisses her way as she smiled delightedly back at them, her mother simply holding her in place this time. I laughed and found again that my eyes were brimming.
Lily stayed in her seat the entire time. She loved the performance. At the end of each number she immediately turned to one or both of us and said, "I want the next song." And each time we replied, "It's coming, Lily."
We left the Benedum with a spring in our strides. We dodged rain drops and got in our car and drove home and Leslie would sit at the table, or couch, or stand at the counter, or lie in bed for the next...I don't know...four hours maybe? and repeat, "My heart is full," over and over and over until all she had to do was catch my eye and I'd roll mine and say, "Yeah, I know. Your heart is full...full of love."
I hope that was everyone's experience. When we left I tried to think of what could have been done "better". And the things I thought were all limitations to the venue itself. The least autistim-friendly parts of the performance were not part of the performance at all. They were the facilities, or the ingress and egress. That is where the waiting took place. That is where the large, loud, stimulating crowds jostled and maneuvered. And I told Leslie as we left, "I don't know how you could improve upon that unless you convinced the venue to sell half the seats and call 50% attendance a sell-out, then got some major corporate sponsor to underwrite the missing revenue from tickets and concessions so that it still made money." And that's it. That's the only issue I had. It was ironic to me that the intermission, traditionally a time to get up and move around, relax and visit the facilities, was probably the most stressful part of the performance for most people.
We were allowed to get up and move around. We were allowed to make all the noise we wanted. We could leave if we needed to without complaint. We could take her to a quiet room to calm down. We were allowed to bring in our own food. The music was softer. The lights were dimmed but not extinguished. Extra volunteers were on hand. Performers and employees were instructed on what to expect. Women were in the men's room with their kids, men were in the women's room with their kids. And everyone knew why, and it worked. It worked so well.
This was big.
In December they're putting on an "autism-friendly" performance of the Nutcracker. We used the Lion King to gauge whether we thought Lily would enjoy it...could handle it. We'll be buying tickets, assuming they're still available. She can do it.
One last post script. I know that other organizations were witnessing this. Seeing how it was done. Seeing whether it could be done in their venues. If you're reading this and thinking to yourself..."God, I wish they'd do something like that here," then consider the possibility that they just may. Contact your local equivalent of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and see. Contact your local equivalent of ABOARD and see. Don't assume they're not.
Pittsburgh Cultural Trust on Facebook
Aboard (Autism Connection of PA) on Facebook