MSU Department of Theatre has partnered with the 4th Wall Theatre Company, a group that works with special needs students throughout Michigan to provide workshops for students with autism for the past five years. Through a ten-week residency model, culminating in a final performance for parents and friends, MSU theatre students have worked with local students on the spectrum, helping them gain confidence, and make strides both cognitively and socially. This partnership has been the building block for creating a theatrical production specifically for an audience of ASD students. While there have been many sensory friendly initiatives that alter existing work in order to make it accessible for students with ASD throughout the US in recent years, there has been little work created specifically for audiences with special needs.
In March 2016, MSU Department of Theatre faculty member, Dionne O’Dell, and two MSU students traveled to NYC to meet with Jonathan Schmidt Chapman, Artistic Director of Trusty Sidekick Theatre Company, who was commissioned by Lincoln Center Education in 2014 to produce a show specifically for an audience of students with ASD. This was the first commission for this type of work in the US. In May 2016, O’Dell also met with Tim Webb, Artistic Director of Oily Cart Theatre in London, England, who has been creating and producing this type of work for over 30 years. Oily Cart, Lincoln Center Education, and Trusty Sidekick Theater Company have been leading this impressive work world-wide.
PROJECT: In early 2017, MSU faculty member Dionne O’Dell began devising FARM! A Musical Experience with a team of MSU Department of Theatre, and Department of Education students. The format for FARM! A Musical Experience was based on the pioneering multi-sensory, participatory model developed by both Oily Cart Theatre of London, and Lincoln Center Education/Trusty Sidekick Theatre Company, that utilizes techniques such as breaking the fourth wall, individual performer/audience member interaction, live music, pre-performance workshops, and guided passage through the storyline with use of social stories and timeline markers.
FARM! A Musical Experience also integrated puppets into the production. Puppet builders Joel Guzman and Magda Colon designed and built puppets specifically for this production, and trained MSU students in the artistry of puppetry. Sensory training was also conducted with a partnership with the MSU Department of Psychology, and workshops were conducted with ASD students in the greater Lansing community. The production was performed for students with ASD and their families on April 21, 2017. In the spring of 2018 FARM! toured to local special education classrooms. FARM! will again tour in the spring of 2019 and O’Dell has already begun writing the next production based on this model, called SODA POP SHOP. She is also working with Sean Ahlquist at the University of Michigan to develop a new show that will combine Ahlquist’s socio-sensory architecture model into the design and partner with museumsnationwide.