Thursday, April 19, 2012

Spectrum: An Evening of Theatre and Autism

From ATC Executive Director Dale Savidge

Participants engage a variety of creative outlets.
Much of our applied theatre work is strictly process based; it is never intended to be performed in front of a passive audience. The value of this work is in the acting and reacting, individually or in a group. It is learner centered and often open-ended. Certain groups would not be able to focus on the process if they were distracted by the stress of an impending public performance.

But there are situations when working toward a performance can enhance the value of the applied theatre program. Such was the case with the young adult autism group I do theatre with here in the Upstate of SC. We had done games, role playing, interviewing and other theatre-based activities in our monthly meetings. We will continue to do these kinds of AT activities. But I sensed the challenge of preparing to perform would enhance our work together, and after 3 public performances last week my hunch was confirmed.

Our cast began devising Spectrum: An Evening of Theatre and Autism in early March, in weekly Saturday rehearsals. We began meeting for 2 hours and then stretched it to 3 as the performances approached. We worked together with 7 neuro-typical actors from an applied theatre class I was teaching in the spring semester. Pairing typical actors with actors on the spectrum was an essential component of our success.

I had the idea to use the song “On the Road Again” to unify what would obviously be a diverse program. Our scenic artists and designer took the song and encouraged the young adults on the spectrum to draw their impressions of being on the road with friends. Their drawings were projected on 16’ flats; they painted them the next week, and they became a scenic backdrop for the performances.

Play participants in rehearsal.
A few of the cast members had never spoken or stood in front of an audience; some were hesitant to speak at all. Some of them rarely left their homes and spent most of their time on their computers. Their courage to participate in our games and rehearsals was inspiring to all of the neuro-typical people working on the show. What surprised me most was the decision by 2 of the least verbal autistics to sing in the program. Others offered to paint, move scenery, and be in a small play; these 2 offered to sing solos. Their singing started weak and hesitant but over the course of the 3 performances they became stronger and stronger. Our decision to do multiple performances was rewarded by the continual progress these performers made.

Like many applied theatre artists I continue to direct and produce audience-focused theatre. I also enjoy doing AT work with groups and I enjoy not worrying about that “opening night” deadline looming in the future. It’s easy to get a bit lazy, however, when that “opening night” deadline is not hanging over my head. So the addition of a performance dimension to the autism group here energized and focused me as well as the participants.  It isn’t always appropriate to place a public performance on the minds of your group members, but when it is be courageous and expect courage from your group members and, if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll be rewarded for it!

Spectrum is a play co-produced by the Applied Theatre Center and the North Greenville University Department of Theatre and directed by Dale Savidge.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Finish Line Fiasco

Today's blog was written by Wayne Harrel. Wayne will be leading the Corporate Theatre track at this summer's conference. His post is a true story of how Adidas used business theatre to imprint their brand on a nationwide sales partner.

John Calipari, head men’s basketball coach at the University of Memphis, stepped off stage and said, “I think that went all right.”

I agreed it had, as I removed his wireless mic, while 600 Finish Line store managers continued to applaud. They were in Indianapolis for the company’s spring sales meeting, and this was the Adidas-sponsored lunch. Dinner last night was a hip hop concert, courtesy of Nike. Reebok was setting up a casino night in the ballroom next door. Adidas (my client) only had them for lunch, but wanted to make a lasting impression. Calipari was a good start, but there was more to come.

As the 600 store managers – late twenties all, big men, probably played ball in high school and even college – finished off their barbecued chicken and corn bread lunch, I put the wireless mic on the next presenter and reviewed the procedure one more time: ask the question, wait for a light, then let them answer. And remember – you’re the boss! It’s up to you to keep things rolling.

Then I took the announcer’s mic, waited for a cue from the producer, and boomed over the rowdy, lunchtime crowd:

All right, Finish Line! You’ve seen her on the cover of FHM, you’ve watched her on The Best Damn Sports Show, Period, and now, thanks to Adidas, here’s your chance to play ball with the one and only…Leeann Tweeden!

With that, the former Playboy model hopped on stage and the 600 managers rose as one. We’d divided them into four college teams – Nebraska, Notre Dame, Louisville and UCLA – and now each group tried to out-whistle, holler and stomp the others for Leeann’s attention. It felt like Betty Grable on an aircraft carrier.

Leeann waved, blew kisses and waited for the noise to die down. Meanwhile, I escorted four contestants on stage – each in his team’s football jersey – and smiled as each took the opportunity to greet Leeann personally.

We were playing NCAA sports trivia in a Jeopardy format and Leeann was our Alex Trebek. Having written all the questions, my job was to serve as judge and, at the same time, try to keep the game on track.

Eventually, Leeann got rolling and the game ran smoothly, with Louisville taking a quick lead. With every correct answer, their boys in the house cheered louder and louder, while the others whistled and yelled against them.

Soon, my producer was having a hard time hearing who answered correctly. Then, when 50 points were mistakenly given to UCLA, the house exploded as 150 men cheered, 150 booed and 300 laughed. Leeann soldiered on, asking questions, congratulating correct answers, and giving me the occasional, “Can you believe this?” look.

But then the Notre Dame guy started jumping up and down on stage. In his frustration at never ringing in first, he’d broken his stand; the small buzzer now dangled from a few thin wires. I showed him how to hold the device in his hand…which lasted until the next question when, in his excitement, he ripped the whole thing free.

Still, the game went on, with Louisville pulling farther and farther ahead. UCLA finally buzzed in first, but missed the question, which Louisville snagged correctly.

Now the guys at the Louisville front tables stood on their chairs and sang, “Na-na-na-na, hey-hey, goodbye!” at the UCLA tables across the room. The place was in an uproar. Leeann was shouting to be heard. Lunch was ending and Louisville mercifully cleaned the board.

As the Adidas staffed passed out special jerseys to the 150 Louisville winners, Leeann stepped off stage with a dazed look and said, “Well, that was…something.”

It sure was. 600 store managers had just spent a full hour yelling, whistling and laughing with Adidas – an experience both they, and I, would remember for a very long time.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Mask Theatre Workshop

From Executive Director Dale Savidge

For 3 hours on December 17, 2011 I was privileged to participate in a theatre workshop with a group of teens and young adults on the autism spectrum in Anderson, IN. Doug Berky (a mask theatre performer) and Andrew Nelson (leader of the Autism Theatre Network) led us through a series of theatre games and mask work. The 8 young men and their teachers entered in with enthusiasm and afterward expressed how much they enjoyed and benefited from the mask theatre exercises.
The young men tried on expressive masks (masks created with an identifiable emotional expression), animal masks and character masks. It was fascinating to observe them enter into these “characters” as they played out scenarios and interviews. Their bodies became animated; their voices ranged widely in volume and inflection. The masks provided the guys a safe space to hide in as well as a way to express themselves.
What’s interesting about this workshop is how the three of us came to share that space with that group of guys on the spectrum. I met Andrew at an autism conference in 2010, when I was just beginning to learn about how theatre works with autism. I’ve known Doug for many years as a solo performer. Andrew came to the 2011 Applied Theatre Conference as a teacher and Doug registered as a student in the autism/theatre track Andrew was teaching, a track I also participated in.
After the 2011 conference Doug and Andrew started talking about how Doug’s masks might contribute to theatre therapy and autism, and Andrew started using them in his work in WV. What a happy collaboration of a professional theatre artist and an autism expert! This kind of synergy is exactly what we hope for in the Applied Theatre Center and in our conferences.  Since the 2011 conference participants have taken what they learned and placed that training in service to other people in their communities.
I’m convinced there are many other ways theatre can be applied to the needs of individuals and communities, and we’ve only just started exploring collaborations such as Doug and Andrew’s. It’s one of my dreams for the ATC – a place where people network, connect and create together new ways of applying theatre.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Lear Debessonet’s Odyssey and some thoughts on aesthetics in applied theatre

From ATC Executive Director Dale Savidge

I was privileged to experience a new community-based adaptation of the Odyssey, the epic poem by the Greek poet Homer which dates from the 8th century BC. You won’t find the author mentioned in the playbill because this is a reimagining of that classic work, one of the earliest extant works of Western literature.  It has been brought alive in modern day southern California by the auteur-director Lear Debessonet and her collaborator Todd Almond and was performed from September 30-October 2, 2011 at the Old Globe in San Diego.
Lear is the director of Stillpoint Productions, whose mission statement reads:
Stillpoint Productions is a New York-based collective that creates multidisciplinary performances fueled by the collision of historical fact and contemporary imagination. Stillpoint's plays draw from eclectic source materials to open up resonant questions specific to this human moment. Combining the rhythmic and visual virtuosity of film, the raw expressiveness of dance, the rough storytelling of clowning, the relevance and humor of NPR, and the extra-ordinariness of church, Stillpoint aims to maximize, challenge, and reinvigorate theatre.
I’d known of Lear’s work in NY and especially her site-specific adaptation of Don Quixote with the Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia, but only from a distance. I knew that she was working at the intersection of art and community, and that her work was embedded in the communities where she created it. For two years she had been interviewing people in San Diego about their lives, how they came to live in this place, and what it meant to be a member of the community. The result was The Odyssey: A Music Theatre Event.
Much has been written about the relationship between applied theatre and aesthetics. It is generally conceded that when the purpose of theatre shifts from art or entertainment to process-based experiences intended to meet human needs that the level of quality will decrease – and that it’s okay because the purpose isn’t to win an award or receive a great review. (I’ve been wondering if the criteria for awards and reviews aren’t skewed to begin with, but that’s another article.) I’m more of a “yes, and” person rather than a “no, but” person and my feeling has been that we should not concede aesthetics when our focus is on the value of the process, even when the process is applied to people who lack the training, experience or ability to create what we commonly call “good theatre.” Maybe we need a new definition of theatre aesthetics?
The Odyssey was a step forward in my thinking, because here was an artistically challenging work (akin to Lee Breuer’s Gospel at Colonus) which engaged the community on so many levels I lost count. Here were Broadway-credited performers singing alongside kids from an inner-city YMCA; a gospel choir backing up an urban hip-hop dance company; a high school percussion ensemble following a group of Globe Theatre donors. The blend was effortless, not jarring, because everyone had been united in the telling of an archetypal story with relevance to their shared life in the city of San Diego.
What struck me was that the performance by the Equity professionals was not diminished by their youthful, inexperienced collaborators; rather, the commitment the professionals brought to their parts infected the novices and in a way elevated the whole ensemble. There were no divas in this show, there were no star turns. It appeared to me that a choice had been made to create an ensemble piece, and the community performers were not merely backup singers (or a Greek chorus) but instead were central to the whole experience.  And it appeared to me that the professionals had bought into the deal without any reservations.
It was an instructive experience for me as I’ve struggled to find ways of bringing theatre to amateur or disenfranchised groups of people in Greenville, SC without unthinkingly dismissing quality and aesthetics. Such a dismissal would be an insult to the people I work with, be they students or the homeless or people on the autism spectrum. In fact, accepting high standards of theatre as our collective goal shows them the respect and value they deserve as creative people – and no matter their disability or station in life they remain creative people.
The Odyssey modeled for me how a director can attend to theatre as art and theatre as community celebration and empowerment at the same time. Congratulations to Lear and all those who collaborated with her. Put Stillpoint Productions on your radar and when the opportunity arises be sure to take in one of their productions.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Applied Theatre Center at the Autism Forum

From ATC Executive Director Dale Savidge

It was a pleasure to be a part of the SC Autism Forum on Saturday August 6, 2011 in Greenville SC, representing the Applied Theatre Center. The forum is held every two years and is a networking and resource sharing event for parents and caregivers to people on the autism spectrum. Families, friends, educators and professionals in medicine, social services and the arts participated.

ATC Executive Director Dale Savidge with visitors.
In addition to keynote speakers and workshops, the forum featured an exhibit and resource fair. I learned a lot from the speakers but even more from informal conversations with people attending the forum. Caring for someone with autism is a huge commitment and often adds a great deal of stress to the normal pressures of family, work, school and other ordinary life challenges. Through agencies like the SC Autism Society, among many other support groups, people on the spectrum and their families are provided information and encouragement.
Our booth had a steady stream of interested people. What I learned is that people immediately recognize the value of theatre in the care, education and development of people on the spectrum. I have long recognized the potential of theatre to affect personal and social improvement in audiences and participants, but I assumed I had learned that through graduate study, teaching and experience. This recognition, however, goes to the close relationship between theatre and life which Augusto Boal wrote about in Games for Actors and Non Actors: “We are all theatre, even if we don’t make theatre.”
It doesn’t take a college degree or years of theatre experience to see how applied theatre is a rehearsal for reality (a phrase borrowed from Boal). The Applied Theatre Center is developing ways to connect theatre artists with their community in order to place our wonderful art at the service of the people around us – people who are either not able or not inclined to participate in traditional theatre but who, when given the opportunity, willingly engage in applied theatre and benefit from that experience.
And everyone it seems, whether or not they are trained or experienced in theatre, knows this to be true.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Interview with Track Leader Andrew Nelson

From Marketing Director, Katy Beth Cassell -

Andrew Nelson will once again be leading our Theatre and the Autism Spectrum track at the Applied Theatre Conference June 28-30, 2012, in Greenville, SC! Andrew, founder of the Autism Theatre Network (, is a Positive Behavior Support Trainer with the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University where he provides Family Focused Positive Behavior Support and training to parents, teachers, and professionals on a variety of autism-related topics. He is the author of Foundation Role Plays for Autism (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2010) and his work has been noted in American Theatre, The Autism File and Tathaastu: So Be It magazines. Below are a few questions that I asked him, followed by his answers. Get ready to have your interest peaked in Andrew's work!

KBC: What is your background in theatre? How did you get involved in applied theatre?

AN: I studied acting at the University of Minnesota - Duluth. I loved performing and writing, and really enjoyed learning about unique directors like Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Artaud, Meyerhold and others. I was always a very physical actor and loved studying actors like Ryszard Cieslak of the Polish Laboratory Theatre, actors who seemed to use acting as a tool for spiritual expression and psychological development. During acting school I read about people like J. L. Moreno who were blending theatre and psychology in a very special way. This appealed to me and I knew I wanted to do something similar with my life.

When I started working with individuals with autism, I was given the opportunity to experiment with acting techniques as a means to work on self awareness, confidence, and socialization. This changed everything
for me. I instantly realized the power of applied theatre. Parasuram Ramamoorthi from Madurai, India taught me a great deal about the precepts and concepts of applied theatre and I have spent the last 5 years or so trying to develop new concepts and a network for people to share ideas (

KBC: What applied theatre projects are you currently working on?

AN: I just returned from Pennsylvania where Cindy Schneider (Acting Antics), Chris Nealy (Autism Society of North Carolina), and I spent 7 days training a group from Hong Kong in autism-theatre techniques. From that experience, the three of us have started a new book project together. Also, I am working with actor, mask-maker, and friend of ATC Doug Berky on a project using a set of emotion masks he created. So far the masks have been used for teacher training and will be used with friends on the spectrum starting this fall. Doug and I met at last years "Applied Theatre and Marginalized Communities" conference sponsored by ATC.

KBC: What will you offer in your track at the conference?

AN: I am working with ATC on ideas for next summer's conference. We hope to share some of the new ideas Cindy, Chris, and I are working on. We are also talking about the idea of actually taking participants out on a field experience to put autism-theatre ideas into action in the community. I talk with people often about the 2011 conference, which was tremendously positive. We still actively participate in a Google Group started by participants during the 2011 conference (see The 2012 conference will definitely build on the amazing energy generated last year. I hope to see you there! 

Be sure to check out to read about all of the tracks that are planned for the 2012 conference! 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Applied Theatre Beyond Borders

From Executive Director Dale Savidge -

I had the pleasure of working with 15 people in San Juan, Puerto Rico the week of July 10th in a variety of applied theatre techniques. The purpose of the 3 day workshop was twofold: to teach them a few interactive theatre styles so that they might consider further training and to lead them in the exercises for their own personal benefit.

We did not begin as a homogenous group; 3 of us were from North America and the Puerto Ricans were teachers, counselors, pastors, students, actors, and dancers – some worked multiple jobs. What we did share was a love of theatre and a desire to use theatre in service to people. We were highly motivated and it took very little warm up on the first day to begin relating at a very deep level.

We tried sociodrama, role playing, bibliodrama and forum theatre. We used our own stories and stories from literature. We improvised for fun, and we improvised as a means of exploring psychological and cultural issues. We discovered topics we all cared about and we spent time enacting our explorations through imaging, scene building, forums and role playing. It was an exhilarating few days.

I was impressed by how easily theatre translates across cultures, even languages. Our interpreters were busy on day one (Spanish to English and vice versa), but as we grew accustomed to each other less of the workshop needed to be translated, because I became less verbal and also because we were communicating in ways that did not rely on words. We shared ideas, feelings and Puerto Rican cuisine. We discovered we had more in common than we had initially thought.

These days strengthened my belief in the power of theatre to unify, challenge, and change people. And it wasn’t that we set out to change each other – we each, in our own way, were being changed through our interactions with each other and through the experience of reliving our personal stories. The Applied Theatre Center is committed to extending these experiences to communities which will benefit in similar ways.