Utilizing Best Practices: On Stage and in the Classroom

Brenna Kempf with a student
Autism is called a spectrum disorder because there is a large variety of characteristics and symptoms that could be present, ranging from mild to severe. All of the intricacies and variables make each individual person and their story unique. The main character in our story, Caitlin, has autism. This play follows her story as she navigates life after the loss of her brother, Devon.

Mockingbird is presented in partnership with the Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin. The young performers portraying characters with autism (Caitlin and William) have participated in rehearsals with Julie Quigley, program manager for the Autism Society. Julie provided a wealth of information on autism to assist the young performer’s research. Throughout the rehearsal process, she ensured that the artistic interpretation of the characters on the spectrum is both authentic and respectful. With her help, Director Marcy Kearns and Next Steps Director Brenna Kempf coached the young performers as they found purpose and meaning to drive every choice they made for their performance.

The art of making intentional choices with reasoning behind each one is a “best practice” for an actor. This type of work provides authenticity and honesty on stage. The portrayals of Caitlin and William are not rooted in their autism, but in who they are as a person, their intentions and objectives, and the obstacles that they face.

This mirrors some of our best practices that we use our Next Steps program. Now in its fifth year, these Theater Academy classes for students on the autism spectrum provide the community, confidence, training, and tools to help each individual to take their next step as an artist and as a person. Students take classes in Musical Theater and Acting, and following our philosophy of teaching life skills through stage skills, students are simultaneously practicing social skills, emotion recognition and expression, empathy, conversation and listening skills, and non-verbal behaviors and gestures.

Since our pilot year, we have worked closely with Mary Stone of Stepping Stones, LLC, who helps ensure that we are using the most recent, research-based best practices. We create a safe and welcoming environment with meet and greets, social stories, and visual schedules. We provide resources for our students, including fidget toys and quiet rooms. Our most important practice, however, is seeing the student first. We see who they are as a person – their interests, their comforts, the things that they need support with – before we look at their autism.

Also part of our Next Steps program are our Sensory Friendly performances, designed for audience members on the autism spectrum or other sensory sensitivities and their families. These select performances have modifications and accommodations to make a trip to the theater a friendly and inviting experience, including lowered sound and lighting, and resources such as social stories, noise-cancelling earmuffs, and more.

Our Sensory Friendly performance of MOCKINGBIRD is on Saturday, April 8 at 1pm. Registration is open for our Next Steps Academy classes during Spring Break, April 10 – 14, as well as our summer sessions beginning August 7.

Learn more about our Theater Academy classes and Sensory Friendly performances.

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