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How Our Autism-Inclusive Theatre Company Is Adapting to the Pandemic

The final day of the Next Stage Transitions Workshop at the Center for Applied Drama and Autism (CADA) is known as “The Sharing.” Sharing our work with friends and family can be a little less scary than performing for an invited audience; we make it a no-pressure event and run class as usual. A drama class focused on individual growth through collaboration, each student’s unique abilities are incorporated into the final devised performance. At the end of class, everyone applauds and certificates of accomplishment are handed out to all.

This year, the Winter Session class had been working on an adaptation of “The Lord of the Dance: An African Retelling” by Veronique Tadjo. One student, Samir, utilized his Irish dance steps to emphasize the rhythm and drama of the poetry; another, Cyrus, had the chance to use his beautiful deep voice and precise diction as the Storyteller. Masks and homemade instruments were used, pictures were taken, and an announcement was made that Spring Session would begin on March 21.

Later that same day, Theatre on the Spectrum (CADA’s performance wing) held a two-hour rehearsal for our upcoming production of “Along the Graveyard Path: A History of Disability,” which was to take place on April 18 at the University of Akron. This project started with a 2009 Akron Beacon-Journal article by Mark Price revealing hundreds of bodies underneath Schneider Park in West Akron. Located near the Summit County Infirmary, the park was once a countywide dumping ground for those who could not afford burial: the poor, the disabled, unclaimed infants and immigrants.

The discovery inspired UA Anthropology Professors Tim Matney to map the unmarked graves with his class and Carolyn Behrman to begin working with both our youth and adult companies. With Carolyn’s help, the companies have researched local archives and collected oral histories from Akron’s disabled community, their family members and caretakers to give voice to their experiences of invisibility, segregation, hope and inclusion. With its original script by Theatre on the Spectrum actors and music by disability rights activist, Jeffrey Moyer, “Along the Graveyard Path” won the Knight Foundation’s 2019 Akron Arts Challenge and gained additional funding from the Ohio Arts Council’s ArtsNEXT grant program.

All the nurturing and coaching, devising and embellishing, was about to culminate in a successful presentation designed not only to raise awareness of the long painful history of disability discrimination, but also to prove that talented people with disabilities are more than capable of telling their own stories.

Little did we know on that fateful Saturday that our Spring Session would begin a week late in something called a Zoom Room, or that our rehearsal that afternoon would be our last in our beloved Blue Box studio. We had no idea that drama classes and theatrical performances would become dangerous activities that could spread deadly disease, or that we would be forced to pack up and depart our physical premises forever.

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CADA’s founders, Wendy Duke and Laura Valendza, met at a public middle school for the arts in Akron, Ohio in 2012. Wendy, the drama director, and Laura, the intervention specialist who happened to be an actor bonded over a love of Shakespeare and shared students with autism who were inexplicably drawn to the theatre program. They collaborated on creating an acting class for kids with autism at a local community theatre. Over the years, they developed a curriculum and process for working that inspires the growth and empowerment of diverse people on the autism spectrum through theatre-based programming.

As a non-disabled theatre director, Wendy could only look to those we serve for inspiration. Our students and actors refuse to allow their disabilities to prevent them from achieving their dreams. We had no intention of letting them down in the midst of such fear and uncertainty. As soon as our operation closed, Wendy began searching for information on teaching drama virtually. She found a Facebook group where theatre teachers and directors were gathering to share resources and it was there we discovered how to transition productions to virtual stages.

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Now, seven months into the pandemic, our virtualization has allowed us to reach an international audience and we have continued to move forward with our creative mission for participants across the U.S. and in India. We increased enrollment from two classes with nine students total in the Winter Session, to nine classes of 45 students this Fall. Our Teacher Training Workshops, which offer methods for teaching acting students of all ages and abilities, expanded from four participants in December 2019 to overflowing at nineteen in August 2020. We will be offering additional teacher workshops in December of this year, presenting techniques that can be used online and in a live setting.

In terms of programming, we are in the process of rewriting “Along the Graveyard Path” to transform it into an audio play, which will be released in 2021. We are experimenting with Vimeo and YouTube, releasing teaser trailers of our work on all social media platforms. Over the summer, we performed our first live Zoom play, a well-received original script by an Akron autistic playwright named Samir Hammoud. We have live-streamed our Open Mic series on Facebook since April, now reaching far more audience members than ever before. We’ve tried our hand with online improv jams and poetry readings and look to continue expanding our programming to meet the demand.

Our next project is “Total Newsense: A Murder Mystery Podcast,” directed by Jordan Euell. In this topical take on a classic form, you’ll recognize many familiar faces! Ruben Ryan plays the titular role of Joe Newsense, a Joe Rogan-esque podcast host who is mysteriously murdered, forcing an intern to separate and question everyone in the studio. “It’s a fun show of satire and intrigue, plus, of course, murder,” says Ruben. Tickets are $1, with a donation of any size. We are also offering affordable sponsorships with unique benefits to individuals and companies, including free tickets and, at the highest level, a commercial written and recorded by the cast that’s yours to keep forever. Put on your detective hats and join us, live on Zoom, December 5 at 7:30 p.m.

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So, here are some lessons COVID-19 has inextricably instilled in us:
1. We can adapt to anything.
2. While we miss gathering in person, virtualization can break down barriers that prevent new people from attending our classes and performances, such as social anxiety and geographical distance.
3. Technology reveals and responds to unique needs in our actors. Any support we receive allows us to acquire equipment such as microphones and headphones for the hearing impaired, tripods for actors who have difficulty setting up their iPad in a suitable recording position, and green screens to create theatrical backgrounds.
4. Art is essential. It is the pastime of the privileged but the lifeblood of the disadvantaged.

In the middle of these frankly terrifying times, we can feel safe together in a virtual space where we don’t have to wear face masks and we can laugh and sing without worrying about infecting each other. Social distancing is just the video frame right next to ours.

Learn more at the Center for Applied Drama and Autism.