Immersive Theater Experience Was Designed With Autism-Spectrum Audiences In Mind

May 16, 2018

For years, arts organizations have offered “sensory-friendly” versions of their concerts, plays and recitals, primarily to benefit audiences on the autism spectrum. These productions are generally the same event, but with sound and lighting modified to avoid aggravating audiences unusually sensitive to such stimuli.

The Forest of Everywhere runs May 17-June 3, at 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown. Tickets are $12 and are available at www.bricolagepgh.org or by calling 412-471-0999.

Back in 2015, Pittsburgh International Children’s Theater asked Bricolage Production Company to do something similar and adapt one of its existing shows for audiences on the spectrum. Instead, Bricolage chose to start from scratch and create a whole new production with an autistic audience in mind.

The result, The Forest of Everywhere, debuted in 2016, in a brief scheduled run that drew 400 visitors. Now Bricolage is remounting the show for a full, three-week run in conjunction with the EQT Children’s Festival – one the troupe hopes will draw neurotypical audiences as well as those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Aimed at kids, the show runs May 17 through June 3.

Its premise is that a big storm has scrambled the denizens of planet Earth and moved animals from all over – an ostrich, an alpaca, a crocodile, a donkey – to this single forest, as staged in Bricolage’s Downtown storefront theater.

But there’s no conventional narrative. Rather, families wander a forest-themed playground decked out with life-sized, corrugated-cardboard trees, meeting hand-puppet animals and friendly park rangers. There are sing-alongs, sensory-based activities, crafts and more.

Seems straightforward enough, but building the show was a challenge, said Bricolage’s Tami Dixon.

Bricolage is experienced in immersive theater, having drawn national attention for works like 2012’s STRATA (which took over a whole Downtown building) and last year’s DODO (a collaboration with the Carnegie Museums). Bricolage knew it wanted to do an immersive here, too, something that put the audience in the thick of the action rather than having visitors sit quietly in the dark.

The troupe consulted with the groups Arts for Autism and Evolve Coaching, who schooled the artists about what would work best.

Heather Conroy, an Evolve coach and licensed clinical social worker, was impressed by the company’s effort.

“You may hear about sensory-friendly activities that are put on by other companies, and that’s excellent, that’s great,” she said. “But what I thought was unique about Bricolage is that they went into this really thinking about this population first.”

Among the first decisions was to use puppets alongside human characters.

“We learned that sometimes engaging with other human beings can be difficult … and sometimes puppets are a way that can ease people into making connections,” said Dixon, the show’s writer and director.

And the humans – whether actors or puppeteers, were specially trained. “We gathered a group of very compassionate, kind and empathetic artists who were not necessarily looking for applause,” she said. In immersives, “There is no applause. The satisfaction has to come with the encounter. So we needed artists that weren’t worried about that, that were really interested in meeting a person where they were.”

Another collaborator was Grayson Rumsey, 17, a Wilkinsburg resident with autism. Rumsey’s input proved critical at an early stage, said Dixon: He told her that her original script had too many words.

“Part of what I brought to the table was trying to really push for finding ways to include nonverbal people and to make sure that the show didn't rely so heavily on language and speech processing,” said Rumsey, now 19, who also performed in the show (and reprises his role this year).

Run-throughs of the show in 2016 further refined things. One of the autistic kids who showed up was 9-year-old Reid Ringold. At one point in the run-through, said his mother, Ilyssa Ringold, a performer playfully threw some dried leaves at Reid, who screamed.

“They ended up having the audience member come in and sort of explore the leaves with the cast member,” Ringold said.

Despite such adjustments, said Dixon, as the Forest’s 2016 opening date approached, the show still wasn’t quite working. It felt forced. On the morning of the last run-through, or beta-test, she woke up with the answer: Immersive or no, the show was still leading the audience through the Forest too carefully.

“We had to remove the structure,” she said. “Giving this audience agency was number one, allowing them to go wherever they wanted to do whatever they wanted.”

They developed what Ringold calls the “choose-your-own-adventure” feel that her son, Reid, ended up enjoying so much.

Audience response to the four-day 2016 run was positive enough that Bricolage raised funds to remount the show this year. There are a few changes, including a redesigned space and one new character (the croc). But it’s basically still a show where visitors are allowed to explore even as they are asked to help newcomers to the forest fit in.

As a ranger character puts it, “A lot of our new forest arrivals are feeling kind of homesick, and having trouble fitting in. And we think you explorers would be so good at helping us.”

The sensory exploration might include a trip to the burrow-like home of Hops the bunny, a completely silent character who plays with colored-glass pebbles and offers visitors little vials of essential oils to smell and textured wall-coverings to feel. There’s also a high-spirited donkey who gets kids dancing, an ostrich who encourages singing and more.

The experience is designed to last about 30 minutes, though kids can stay an hour or even more if they wish. Rumsey plays Oisin, the prince of the forest, who escorts kids out when they’re through.

Other performers include David Bielewicz, Parag S. Gohel, Missy Moreno, Kelsey Robinson, Tal Kroser and Renee Rabenold.

[Ed.: This post has been edited to include a full cast list.]