Benedum's 'Lion King' redesigned with autism in mind


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Taking a small child to the theater can be a challenge. But with a child on the autism spectrum, who may be more sensitive to loud music and lighting changes, such an outing can be especially difficult.

"The theater's generally out of the question," said Luciana Randall, executive director for Autism Connection of PA.

But next week, a slightly altered performance at the Benedum Center, Downtown, might make a live theater experience possible for children and adults with autism. Disney's "The Lion King," which is here through September, will present an autism-friendly matinee performance of the musical next Saturday.

Pittsburgh is the third city, after New York and Houston, to experience a version of the Disney production that was first introduced about three years ago, said Ken Davis, the production stage manager at the Benedum.

The story, costumes and live music will be the same as in any production of "The Lion King."

At the autism-friendly production, though, there will be no strobe lights. The house lights will not be dimmed all the way. There will be no sudden loud sounds, and noises such as a lion's roar will be softened.

Rooms next to the theater will be set up for children or adults who may need a quiet space or a space to fidget, and television screens will broadcast the show for those who don't want to stay in their seats. Members of the audience also will be able to use their iPads, which can help in relaxing and focusing.

Because the invited audience is only families with autism, parents and caregivers will not have to worry about making sure their children stay quiet and seated.

"It's an experience where, literally, people can relax and enjoy the show," Mr. Davis said.

Relax was not something Kelly Grudowski was able to do a few years ago when she took her young son to see a children's show at the Benedum. Jace, now 10 and on the autism spectrum, just couldn't sit through it quietly, and the Millvale mom was worried about disturbing other members of the audience.

"He did not like it," she said. "I don't know if it was the noise or lights or what."

They had to leave before the show was over. But now, knowing that this version of "The Lion King" was designed with her son in mind, she is looking forward to returning to the Benedum with Jace.

The performance fits into the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's goal of "being as inclusive as we can," said Rona Nesbit, the organization's executive vice president. In December, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will offer an autism-friendly performance of "The Nutcracker."

For "The Lion King," Ms. Randall has recruited about 100 volunteers to help with all aspects of the performance, such as getting family from their cars into the theater. She's also given training to ushers and staff members about working with families with autism.

Actors also are given guidance about maintaining their focus in front of an audience that may offer more distractions than the typical group.

Ms. Randall estimated that by the conclusion of the ballet performance in December more than 400 people who may never have encountered autism before will be more familiar with it. The programs, she said, could have a positive "ripple effect" on how people with autism are treated.

"I think the more we include people in cultural-type experiences, it really sends a message to people who may never have thought of this before. Why aren't they included at work? Why aren't they included in our neighborhoods?" she said.

To prepare for next week, Ms. Grudowski and Jace are reading a booklet designed for the production that describes in detail what will happen at the show, covering every step from arriving at the theater to the music that will play to the applause he should expect at the end.

Unlike the last time she took her son to a Benedum performance, Ms. Grudowski said she is relieved this visit will be "so stress-free."

"I hope he enjoys it, of course," she said. "But the fact that everyone around us is going to know exactly what he's doing and going through makes me feel completely at ease."

Tickets for the 2 p.m. performance next Saturday, which have been discounted by about 50 percent, range from $19 to $49 and are available by calling 412-456-2670.

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Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.


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