Children's Theatre and Redmoon present first autism-friendly show

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'The Elephant and the Whale'

Actors Kasey Foster, Becky Poole, and John Stokvis perform at The Chicago Children's Theater/Redmoon Theatre's first-ever "autism-friendly" performance during their run of ¿The Elephant and the Whale.¿ (James C. Svehla/for the Chicago Tribune / May 9, 2013)

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the shore,
If you see a lion there,
Don't forget to roar.

This unconventional take on a very familiar song is what parents and their children (grandparents too) heard as they strolled into the lobby of the Ruth Page Center on Dearborn Street before the 11 a.m. performance of “The Elephant & the Whale,” a delightful collaboration between the Chicago Children's Theatre and Redmoon theater.

“Roar,” yelled one of those children. “Roar.” And his father smiled.

This was May 4, slightly warm and very sunny and seemingly ordinary in the ways that so many springtime Saturday mornings are on the Near North Side: people jogging, brunching, walking toward the lake, playing catch on the beach or in the parks.

But at this place on this day something extraordinary was taking place.

Of the 40 scheduled performances of this play, running through May 26, this one was unique, an experiment the theater companies were calling “Chicago's first autism-friendly live theater performance.”

That was why the artistic directors of both companies, Jacqueline Russell of Chicago Children's Theatre and Frank Maugeri of Redmoon, were in attendance.

That is why the Ruth Page lobby was filled with college kids dressed in white shirts with red scarves or headbands. They were the people singing, doing a fine job too, given that they were accompanied by only one little stringed instrument.

Many of them were Northwestern University students, members of the Purple Crayon Players and Autism Speaks U groups, which worked with Russell in preparation for “Theatre Stands With Autism” production of “Diving In,” the university's first-ever devised production for children with autism spectrum disorder. (See for more information.)

There were a dozen college kids, and they sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

They sang the “ABC Song.”

A father walked in wearing a Cubs jersey, and the “band” began “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

A few of the children, and fewer of the parents (grandparents too), sang:

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

The usually unflappable Russell seemed anxious, saying, “We simply don't know what to expect,” even though she has long worked with children on the autism spectrum.

In 1997 she was education director at Lookingglass Theatre (she would later become its executive director). Through the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education program, she became an artist in residence at Agassiz, a public elementary school in Lakeview where she worked weekly in two self-contained autism classrooms.

When she founded Chicago Children's Theatre in 2005, she was determined “to honor the commitment I had made to these amazingly fascinating and inspiring children, their teachers and their families.”

Three years later the theater launched The Red Kite Project, which has become an ongoing series of “theatrical experiences” and camps for autistic children.

“I have written and or directed five multisensory interactive pieces created and performed for these kids,” Russell says. “It's very rewarding, but these shows are tiny. Only 10 children at a time can experience them.”

Last year, she and Deb Clapp of the League of Chicago Theatres went to New York to see the autism-friendly performance of Disney's “Mary Poppins” on Broadway.

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