'The Lion King' plans autism-friendly performance at Benedum

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A few years ago, Kelly Grudowski took her young son to see a children's show at the Benedum Center, Downtown, but they had to leave before it was over.

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."

Yet next week, she is looking forward to returning to the Benedum with Jace.

That's because the pair will be in the audience for an autism-friendly matinee performance of Disney's "The Lion King."

Pittsburgh is the third city, after New York and Houston, to experience a slightly altered performance that the Disney production introduced about three years ago, said Ken Davis, the production stage manager, at the Benedum today.

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

At the autism-friendly production, however, 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 outside of 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 will also be able to use their iPads, which can help in relaxing and focusing. 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.

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," Luciana Randall, executive director of Autism Connection of PA, 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 guidance and training to ushers and staff members about working with families with autism. Actors are also given guidance about maintaining their focus in front of an audience that may offer more distractions than the typical theater-goers.

Ms. Randall estimated that by the the conclusion of the ballet performance in December, more than 400 people who may never have encountered autism 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.

On Sept. 21, Ms. Grudowski and her son, Jace, will be included in the Benedum audience, and for now, they are preparing by reading a booklet designed for the production that describes what will happen at the show.

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 performance, which have been discounted by about 50 percent, range from $19 to $49 and are still available by calling 412-456-2670.

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

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