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The Red Kite Project: Theater that Succeeds on the Autism Spectrum

Darcy Rose Coussens discusses Chicago Children’s Theatre’s education initiative featuring multi-sensory, interactive experiences.

Hey readers! It’s my last week of the quarter, and I’m looking forward to spring break… mostly so I can hopefully catch some more shows in Chicago! I saw Albany Park Theater Project’s Home/Land that I wrote about in my Chicago Spring Preview – it completely blew me away. Please go see this remarkable performance devised by the young adults in it! They define awesome.

Anyway, my last post included an interview with Rives Collins about TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) in Chicago. Since then, I’ve been learning more about theater for a more specific type of young audiences: children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Chicago Children’s Theatre has an education initiative called The Red Kite Project. Their productions are recommended for children ages 5-14, but after a little research I think everyone would enjoy them! They call them adventures, and rightly so: they are multi-sensory, interactive experiences that make theater more accessible for children on the autism spectrum.

Children with ASD have very specific and varying needs. I’m really impressed with this company’s level of preparation and adaptability for each audience member. Parents and teachers receive a “Social Story,” or media package that allows them to decide if the show will be right for their child. Then, children receive their own “Social Story” to give them a clear schedule and expectations for what they will see. The shows are designed to fit with each child’s unique needs but they are also adaptable to each audience member. Kids can also participate by running, touching, talking or singing during the show.

The playing space is limited to ten children and ten adults, and ten additional adults can observe from a designated area. Red Kite even wants to find out each child’s likes and dislikes before the show, to make it the best experience it can be for each individual audience member. Talk about theater as a gift! Their extremely thorough preparation demonstrates how well they understand the scope of needs different children have.

The Red Kite Project recently produced Red Kite By the Sea in a facility at Millennium Park in February, but the show is still available by request and through performances at Evanston Hospital in March. Tickets are $10 for everyone, but there are also scholarship opportunities to make attendance possible, which is so important in a city of varying income levels. They will also offer Camp Red Kite in the summer, an arts day camp for children on the autism spectrum. (Click here for more information.)

As their website puts it, “families with children challenged by complex disabilities are often marginalized in the cultural community, left without access to the arts.” I think this company is really special, and there are plenty of testimonies to prove it. Parents have submitted feedback to their website such as “This is the first time in ten years we’ve been able to take our child to a social event,” and “my son says this was the best experience of his life; he never shows that kind of emotion.” The effects of this kind of programming are felt not only by the children but by the entire family.

The thing I love best about Chicago theater is its diversity and community. There are so many different types of theaters here that reach a vast number of audiences. At Albany Park Theater Project, I couldn’t help noticing what a diverse audience they attracted, and as diversity is a huge part of their creations and stories I thought that reflected a type of success not all theaters achieve. At a networking event last week, I asked various administrators and actors from different theaters, “why Chicago?” Their responses unvaryingly emphasized the sense of community among theaters in Chicago. Yet I believe that extends even further; programs like The Red Kite Project in Chicago use theater as an amazing tool to bring communities together and also to create a sense of community for those who do not always get to partake in it.