Friday, January 3, 2014

The Nutcracker (Autism-Friendly Style)

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I wanted to make sure I mentioned our experience at The Nutcracker.  The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (PBT) approached my friends at ABOARD (Autism Connection of PA) about putting together an autism-friendly production of the Nutcracker a YEAR ago.  This is the first the country.  When last we spoke of the arts, I was writing about the Lion King. The Landlord (Pittsburgh Cultural Trust) and therefore staffing/venue/support are the same, but now PBT took the lead.

We purchased our tickets for the Nutcracker months in advance, and prepped Lily by DVR'ing an A&E production of the Nutcracker.  She enjoyed watching it.  It's pretty much right in her, dancing...should be a no-brainer.

We were, as a family, more prepared for this production.  We knew, for example, that we wanted to get there a little earlier than we had to the Lion King.  We knew where we'd park.  We knew to get a booster seat.  All these things served to make our "pre-event" stress less than it was for The Lion King.

What we did wrong was...  No, that's not fair.  What I did wrong, was I changed our seats.  The front row was taken.  I had snoozed and therefore I had loozed.  And so I thought, wouldn't it be cool to see this from the balcony?  Yeah.  Yeah, it would.  And the very first row of the balcony was still available.  Bang.  Done.  Tickets purchased.

It's difficult to know that the balcony was Lily's issue, but she was upset and scared to go sit down in her seat overlooking the stage.  I made several attempts, each time retreating to the bathroom or quiet room as Lily would say, "I have to go to the bathroom" in an effort to escape the seat (I think).  After three bathroom trips, Leslie texted an aide from Lily's school who was also in attendance.  She took Lily to see one of her classmates (also seated in the balcony section) and diverted her to the point where she calmed down before returning with her daughter to their seats prior to the show. 
the view from up here...
from the front of the balcony...attempting to calm her

With Lily calmer, we retreated from the very front row to a safer distance from the edge, where Lily, if not happily, at least not miserably watched the entire show.  At least she was after she requested and received M&M's from the concession stand, which I handed her, and she flung across the empty row of seats.

"this castle hath a pleasant seat..."


Again I really felt like staff and talent were well-prepared for their audience.  I have never been approached by more smiles and offers to help in any venue as I was during my repeated sorties to the bathroom and back with an upset Lily in tow.  The ushers were so laid back..."sit anywhere"..."don't worry about getting up and down"...etc.  The stress I was feeling at calming Lily did not snowball as a result of getting additional stress from people targeting me with judgmental stares or scornful glances or, god forbid, "SHHHHH".

My only concern was what I saw when I looked around.  Empty seats.  How can you convince a venue/organization/etc to back your efforts if they're not paying off?

Back to Lion King.  When I posted about our adventures, I said there was only one thing that I could think of that the venue could have done better/differently.  "Sell fewer tickets so there aren't as many people".  At the time I didn't really feel like it was a practical suggestion.  It was just the only one I could think of.  Fewer people...less noise...less overwhelming press of bodies in the entrance and the bathrooms and the aisles...less stress.

So it might seem as if my concern above regarding the vacant seats is me talking out of both sides of my mouth (face?  How does that expression go again?).  It's not.  I just don't know whether the lack of butts in seats had to do with lack of interest...or a concerted effort on the part of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre to make the event less crowded for its autistic audience members.

Because I'll say this...if that's what happened?  Holy shit!  Lily's trepidation had nothing to do with what the venue did to prepare for Lily's arrival.  They did what they could.  It's never going to be perfect, but they did absolutely everything they could to make it as close to perfect as possible.  Fidgets distributed, social stories, lights dimmed instead of extinguished, lower volume, educated staff, performance modified to make it less scary/startling and...perhaps...fewer tickets sold?  Magnificent.  Keep.  Up.  The.  Good.  Work.

If the empty seats were because people couldn't be troubled around the holidays to cart their families to the event, then I guess I get it, but it's a shame.  Efforts like this one deserve to be rewarded.  This is textbook sticker chart material, people.  If you display preferred behavior, you get a sticker.  They did their part...and we didn't give them a sticker for it. 
a thing I did that amused me

I would love to think that both performances were considered successes and that more were planned for the future, because really, attending these my family was the source of much envy around the nation in locations that do nothing of the sort for their city's autistic population.  I need this to work and catch on, and drive other places to do similar things that will similarly work and catch on.  This stuff is awareness and acceptance brought into actual practical application!  This is what everyone in this community WANTS.

It's what I want anyway.  I get in trouble when I speak to generally about what everyone wants.

ALERT ALERT!!!  This just in!

Okay, I'm not rewriting all of that, but I did talk to my sources within ABOARD.  Okay, just so you know, when I wrote that, I LEGIT giggled like a school girl.  Heh...sources.

Anyway!!  They told me that PBT was thrilled with the turnout.  And parents were thrilled with the "chill" atmosphere that having fewer bodies in the venue created.  I can confirm as a parent to being both chill and thrilled (once Lily got her goddamned M&M's).  So I'm excited that PBT was less concerned about selling out the venue and more concerned about making the experience enjoyable/memorable/endurable for this group of patrons.

Also, they recognized that the Nutcracker, though a holiday tradition for many, is not a Disney juggernaut, so they weren't competing for that sort of turnout, and they also were aware that ballet is considered by some to be "girly" and with more boys on the spectrum than might not get the same sort of play.  And finally they recognized that it was the holiday, and that they might be competing for people's time.


And apparently it's not just Pittsburgh that appreciates PBT's efforts to appeal to a more inclusive audience...PBT Education Director Receives Emerging Leader Award for Commitment to Arts Accessibility


  1. I love the Nutcracker and I love that your city did that. Were the ticket prices the same as they would be for a regular performance or was some of it offset by a local Autism society? I'm just thinking that might have also affected the attendance. Our local Autism society here will pay part of tickets for special zoo days or sensory friendly movies. It definitely helps with the attendance and for those who can pay full price and attend, they can donate it back to the society.

    1. I'm not going to lie...I've never been to the ballet. I don't know whether the tickets were cheaper or not.

    2. "PBT proudly offers discounted tickets to this performance, which range in price from $13.50-$43.75. "

      From their website promoting the event. :)

  2. I think your holiday comment is the key for attendance - I had to attend a bunch of shows around the holidays to review (and a couple just to attend - yep, I still see shows for fun, because I'm a crazy!) and turnout's traditionally low that time of year. People have so much going on. Also, it's ballet - we had a ballet come through here a few months ago, won a lot of awards on Broadway (it was a touring show) and it didn't do half as well as most of the shows that come to that theater. Ballet scares people. (Scares me a little, too. I'm not at all a dance person.)

  3. I am so happy and excited that Lily got to see The Nutcracker on stage. *\o/*

    1. I think she liked it once she made her peace with the elevation.

  4. This makes me want to move to Pittsburgh. Well, almost. But, what a great thing you've got going there!

    I wonder if the slightly different pitch to the balcony felt weird to Lily? I'm not a fan of balcony seating either.

  5. Just read your blog on the ABOARD winter newsletter and found your blog site for the first time. I'll be back here! But I really wanted to thank you for posting your less-than-perfect-but-perfectly-real-life experience of the ballet. It makes me sad that our family couldn't attend. And we couldn't attend because we had already booked a room at an indoor waterpark (which beats ballet hands down at our house), but also because a part of me said, "Nope - that will never work with our daughter." I think next time, we'll give it a try. Thanks!

    1. oh! Yay! Thanks for reading, Lauren.

      Lily did great with Lion King, so I think I was thinking the ballet would be a slam dunk. Lily loves music AND dancing and we'd been watching A&E's version on DVR for a month. I really think being close to the edge freaked her out.

      Even if it turned out that your daughter COULDN'T handle it, there were lots of great places to take her to cool down, get some sensory input, get away from the crowd...

      Next time!