Adaptive Arts, New York – is a non-profit theater company that is working to bridge the gap between disability and the arts.
‘The plays we choose, from emerging to classics, address disability and disorder in new ways, for a new kind of audience.’
Autism Daily Newscast had the great pleasure of contacting Artistic Director and Co Founder, Marielle Duke to find out more about the company that was founded in 2009.
We firstly asked what inspired the setting up of the non-profit company. Marielle told us:
“Adaptive sprung from a conversation between Christian Toth and I while we were working on a production of Comedy of Errors together. We both had immediate family members on the spectrum and were lamenting the lack of cultural experiences open to them, especially in our own theater community.”
Marielle was teaching at a school for children with autism at this time and believed that simple modifications were all that were needed to make theater infinitely more accessible to all, but especially those with sensory processing disorders and autism.
So they rounded up their favourite artists and started work on their first theater season.
We were curious to find out what adaptations had been made in the theater for those individuals on the spectrum. We asked if there was soft lighting and if people were able to walk around etc.?
Marielle explained about this, saying;
“I think, personally, that one of the main walls we put up for our theater audiences is that they need to empathize with the characters onstage, that they need to be totally immersed in the story. So for individuals that struggle with empathy or reading emotional or social cues, we are not so subconsciously saying, “you’re doing it wrong.”
She then further adds that to help counter this, a lot of their inspiration, for how to adapt plays and the environment came from tenets of Brechtian theater.
“We used puppets and masks to help make characters, their intentions, and their feelings become completely clear.”
Narrators were ado used to directly address the audience throughout the play; plays were deliberately chosen to break that fourth wall.
“These plays instead gently suggested that if you missed a small emotional moment, it was okay, because there was someone there to help guide the story along.”
The design is also kept minimalistic to keep the audience focused on the story and the actors.
With regards to members of the audience being able to get up and walk about, Marielle told that during the show, if an audience member needs to get up, walk around, or to make noise, all of our actors are trained to keep the show going.
We asked if the company script their own plays that raise awareness about autism and if they involve individuals who have autism in the writing process?
Marielle told us
“Our new works program, “Autism Initiative” is our way to build awareness of Autism through theater. While our submission process varies (some years we have put out open calls to playwrights across the country and others we have commissioned playwrights we know and love), the goal is always to shed some new light on Autism.”
Marielle explains that they usually choose one aspect about Autism to further explore and to then create a dialogue from this.
“My favorite session, I think, is when we asked commissioned playwrights to look at language in a new way, be it verbal or non-verbal. The scripts that came out of that were really fascinating and it opened up a big dialogue among our teaching artists about how we can encourage non-verbal communication in our classrooms.”
She then further adds:
“Probably our most popular session is when we staged a workshop of a new musical my former student had written about a superhero he created with Autism, based off of his cousin on the spectrum.”
We then went on to ask about the educational side of things and of how schools become involved in the theater.
“We truly cater each of our classes or workshops to the needs of the school or organization we are working with. Our first residency was at a school for Autism in the Bronx which had an art and music class, but no theater class. During school performances, many of the nonverbal kids were given nothing more to do than hold pieces of the set or props. So, during my prep periods, I went to the two 6:1:1 classes and introduced theater into their curriculum with the aim of building social and emotional skills”
Marielle explained to us that the goal was not to put on a performance as such, but rather, to introduce small aspects of theater each week.
“We built our own personality based masks, experimented with puppets and shadow theater, and, ultimately, worked on skills that were a challenge in other subjects”
The following residency was at The Rebecca School in Manhattan and the company worked with two classes and used the theme of fairy tales as an introduction. During this time they helped prepare the students see a full length period play
The company have also worked with cultural organizations in New York by providing training sessions for their artists and teachers on how to adapt theater classes and performances for children with Autism.
Finally we asked Marielle to tell us about their exciting new venue in Philly and if more venues are being planned.
“Over the past few years, more and more theaters and organizations in NY have begun to create their own programs to promote accessible performances.
“Personally, as an artist and advocate, I have always been very drawn to the awareness building side of what we do.”
Marielle, then went on to explain that when she got a directing gig in Philly, she decided to uproot a part of Adaptive Arts too.
“I partnered with Heather Alters, a philly-based actress and outpatient therapist, and we have big plans in the works to start developing training days and professional developments for organizations wishing to either build drama into their therapy work or create more accessible versions of their already drama programs.”
At present there are more venues planned.
Marielle ends by saying;
“I find great joy is venturing out and meeting new artists in the field and sharing our experiences and training with each other, so I am just staying open to what the future brings!”
We would like to thank Marielle Duke for taking the time to share information with us and we wish adaptive Arts well in their future venue and with all the work that they do for the Autism community.
To learn more about Adaptive Arts please visit their website www.adaptiveartstheater.org