The Lion King an Autism-Friendly Relaxed Performance.
Guest feature by Dorothy Freedman:
Before Sunday I had never taken my youngest son to see a West End Show. This may not be much of an omission for many families, but I used to work in the theatre business, first in children’s theatre and later as a theatre manager of a West End venue. I know well how children can respond emotionally to the rich experience of theatre and wanted that for my son too.
But he has autism, so I have never dared before.
When he was 3, I was asked to remove him from a Kindermusik class as he was making too much noise and upsetting the other children. We never went back. Would we be asked to leave if he started making noise in the theatre? Not something I was willing to risk even though aged 11 he has more words than what I call “happy noises”.
Then I heard about the autism-friendly performance of the Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre. This could be the perfect place to start as it is one of my son’s favourite films, so once our tickets were confirmed I started to prepare my son by showing him the wonderful visual guide available on their website.
Walking from our tube stop to the theatre I heard a woman singing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” to her two children walking in the same direction as we were. Yes, they were going to The Lion King too and I started to realise that this was going to be a very special trip for lots of families. Once at the theatre, my son and I went to one of the “chill-out” zones (bean bags, fiddle toys etc) to have a bit of quiet before going into what would be for him a very large and noisy auditorium. I was concerned, would he refuse to go into such a daunting space? But he took it in his stride – the auditorium picture in the visual guide had prepared him for this moment and we took our seats with ease. Before the show started George Asprey, who plays Scar, came on stage to tell us that the many volunteers around us from Disney and the National Autism Society would help us if we needed to leave during the performance (and that we could re-enter when ready!) and that everyone involved in the show was there to make it enjoyable for all the children.
The house lights went down (another potential difficult moment, but we have been working on this on our trips to the local cinema) , the music started and my son was entranced from the very first note sung by Rafiki. In the first scene, the whole ensemble gradually gather on stage for the Circle of Life as the baby lion Simba is presented to us all. The entire cast dressed in their imaginative costumes as the different animals move with grace and precision as their respective parts require – including a life-size elephant that passed by us as it walked down the aisle to the stage.
I looked at my son: his face was a picture of happiness, fully immersed in the visual spectacle around him in a way that only theatre can provide. As expected he was making his full range of happy noises, but so were many of the other audience members. And when he shouted out “hyenas!” just before they were due to come on, no-one turned round, no-one glared at him (not that that would bother him, only me) and no-one questioned my decision to bring him. He was in his element and I could relax and just enjoy his happiness.
I just want to thank all those that made this day possible, the talented cast at the Lion King who gave stunning performances (despite seeing that a good proportion of the audience had their fingers in their ears and were making happy noises), the decision makers at Disney, ATG (the owners of the Lyceum) and the National Autistic Society for being advocates for our special kids.
As George said before the show, theatre needs to find a way for our children to enjoy these shows – and look for a solution rather than considering them just too big a problem.
Now I know it can be done, I want more opportunities like this for my son and others like him.
For your diaries:
MATILDA THE MUSICAL
Sunday 15 June 2014 3pm
Cambridge Theatre, Earlham Street, WC2H 9HU
Tickets at a special price of £20 for this performance can be booked through the RSC Ticket Hotline 0844 800 1110 or in person at the Cambridge Theatre.