PITTSBURGH, PA – Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is preparing to premiere its autism-friendly production of The Nutcracker, the first production by a professional U.S. ballet company to make the magic of the holiday classic accessible to children on the autism spectrum and their families. The autism-friendly performance will take place at 2 p.m. Friday, December 27, 2013 at the Benedum Center.
“The Nutcracker is a holiday staple in ballet companies across the country and an annual tradition for many families here in Pittsburgh, so we are particularly excited to pilot this program with a timeless story that reaches so many people year after year,” said PBT Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr. “With this special performance, we want families to know that we are performing with them in mind and welcome them to experience this production in a comfortable and inclusive atmosphere.”
For the autism-friendly performance, the entire theater will be reserved for families with individuals on the autism spectrum – and others with intellectual or developmental disabilities – to create a fully supportive audience environment. Autism-friendly accommodations will include designated quiet areas and activity stations in the lobby, relaxed house rules, adjustments to potentially startling light, sound and special effects and opportunities for families and children to familiarize themselves with the production in advance. Throughout the performance, the house lights will remain dimly lit and audience members will be free to come and go from their seats as needed. In advance of the performance, PBT will distribute online an illustrated guide, or social story, to walk audience members through the theater experience from the layout of the Benedum Center to the characters, scenery and music of The Nutcracker production.
“This is a performance where families can come as they are and be who they are. Whether they are looking for a new artistic experience, bonding time with their family, or simply an escape into a magical world, we can offer all of that through this performance, “said PBT Education Director Alyssa Herzog Melby, who heads Accessibility Initiatives at PBT. “We hope that we can become a model for other ballet companies across the country to open their doors to people on the autism spectrum, sharing the beauty of what we do with all people in our community.”
Autism Spectrum Disorders affect 1 in 88 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The effects of autism are unique to every individual, though ASD characterizations usually include difficulties with social interaction and communication. Many children with autism have sensory sensitivities in response to sounds or sights, which is one of the focused areas of adaptation for autism-friendly productions.
Although autism-friendly productions have begun to establish a foothold in the theater world, autism-friendly performances are relatively new to ballet. This year, for example, New Jersey Ballet presented an autism-friendly version of Pinocchio; but, to date, no other U.S. ballet company has presented an autism-friendly version of The Nutcracker.
“Very few times in our careers as dancers will we get the chance to do something this important. The autism-friendly performance will be one of those defining moments for me,” said PBT Dancer Stephen Hadala, who has performed in all 11 seasons of Terrence S. Orr’s The Nutcracker. “This performance gives us an opportunity to use our art form to do something for the community, and it’s exciting to be able to share ballet with children who might not ordinarily experience a production.”
In order to adapt the ballet, PBT worked with a focus group represented by local autism advocacy groups – including Autism Speaks of Greater Pittsburgh and ABOARD’s Autism Connection of Pennsylvania – parents of children with autism and individuals on the autism spectrum. After watching the production and learning about the characters, music and scenery, the group submitted recommendations to adapt the production to viewers on the autism spectrum or with other sensory sensitivities.
PBT also looked to other organizations as models, including the Theatre Development Fund’s Autism Theatre Initiative, which presented the first autism-friendly performance of a Broadway show in October 2011 with Disney’s musical The Lion King. PBT thanks TDF’s Autism Theatre Initiative for serving as an advisor during the planning process. Locally, PBT acknowledges The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust for its leadership in establishing best practices and providing Benedum Center staff training for autism-friendly performances. Funding support for PBT’s autism-friendly production of The Nutcracker comes from the Edith L. Trees Foundation, Giant Eagle, Pitt Ohio, The Children’s Institute, and FISA Foundation.
Tickets for the autism-friendly performance are available at a discounted rate to families with members on the autism spectrum. For more information about tickets, please call 412-454-9107 or visit www.pbt.org.
ABOUT THE NUTCRACKER
Featuring more than 200 costumes, 100 colorful characters and Pittsburgh-inspired set design, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s grand-scale production of “The Nutcracker” illuminates the holiday season Dec. 6-29, at the Benedum Center. Tickets start at $25.75, and can be purchased online at www.pbt.org, by calling 412-456-6666 or visiting the Box Office at Theater Square.
ABOUT PBT ACCESSIBILITY INITIATIVES
The autism-friendly performance fits into PBT’s overarching Accessibility Initiative, which made several significant strides during the 2012-2013 Season. 2012-2013 accessibility accomplishments included the introduction of PBT’s Audio Description for Dance program, large-print and braille programs and other accommodations for people with visual impairments and special needs. For more information about Accessibility at PBT, please visit www.pbt.org/plan-your-visit/accessibility.