Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Setting Up Stage Play

We provide acting classes for young children who have autism in our program called Stage Play and I write about this often on this blog and on the Autism Games website but I have not talked about all the details or logistics of setting up Stage Play.  I get email questions about things like how many students we have in each class and how we do staffing. Here are a few more bits of this kind of information for those of you who are interested.

We teach children who are five to seven years old and we have typically had ten children in our acting classes.  We select students who have at least sentence level language skills.  We assign an acting buddy to each child for the first ten week class. During the second ten week acting class, children know the routine and we don't always have one-on-one buddy support. Our buddies are volunteers--High School or College age students who have some interest and experience in acting and theater.  We use these buddies as models, in part, so that students can see how to perform a new skill.  Do you want your buddy to do it? the teacher always asks if she sees some reluctance on the part of a child to participate.  The buddies help students with performance anxiety, because, it turns out, if a child knows that he or she does not have to perform, (a buddy will do it) then that child usually wants to do it. We provide some training to these volunteers but we stress that their job is to be a friend not a therapist or an enforcer.   We see all the games and activities in Stage Play as opportunities not as requirements and our buddy system helps us operate in this way because whether or not a child is participating, he or she is engaged with a buddy talking together, watching other actors together and often planning for the next opportunity to be on stage performing.  The buddies are so genuinely encouraging and enthusiastic that our young actors almost always want to perform for their buddy.

Parents are on-site and they have a role to play in the program.  They spend a lot of time in the audience while their children are on stage. Children spend part of the class time being in the audience and more of the class time being on stage. We encourage parents to clap and laugh and respond as an audience should so that the young actors have the opportunity to perform in front of a responsive audience.  This is a powerful experience for many children and motivates them to try new kinds of communication and social interaction.  If a child wants to go sit next to a parent, we allow this but since parents enter the theater later than the children do and parents sit in the back of the theater, most kids choose to sit up front with buddies when they are not on stage.  Again, there are no hard and fast rules but this seems to work for most children.

We have an acting teacher and a Speech Language Pathologist co-teaching the class.  I am always there as well. I help the buddies understand how to be supportive and how to engage with the child who has autism. I often think this is a great secondary benefit of Stage Play acting classes--at least ten young people with good hearts have the opportunity to learn about autism and have a personal experience with a child who has autism.  I believe this is a increasing autism awareness in our community.

As the young acting students learn how to be in acting class, I often facilitate a short parent education discussion in the lobby area of the theater and the parents enter the theater as an audience a little later in the class session perhaps spending only twenty minutes of the one hour class playing audience for their children.   In the parent discussions, we talk together about how to use the concepts being taught in acting class throughout the week and parents have the opportunity to meet one another.  Parents also have ideas of concepts that they would like us to teach in acting class--like how to wait appropriately or how to do an activity even though it is not your favorite activity.  Waiting and doing non-preferred activities are very challenging issues and quite appropriate themes for drama since both waiting and having to do a non-preferred activity feels like a serious tragedy to many youngsters with autism.  We don't know if the self-regulation skills that a child actor practices on stage will generalize to self-regulation at home but we encourage parents to help their children understand the relationship between what we do in skits and what can really happen in life.

Our students are quite young and they do not come to Stage Play with many of the skills that would be needed in a typical acting class for five and six year old children but they leave with many of the skills that other children would acquire in a similar community class. They know what an actor, a director, a scene, a line, a prop, and a costume is.  They have practiced expressing emotions with voice, body language, and scripted language. They have tried out roles and exchanged roles with other actors in the same scene.  They have evaluated whether a scene was loud enough and thought about how to change a scene and play it a different way.  It is actually hard to list all the things that our young actors are learning about themselves and about others within the context of acting and theater.  We have very rich staffing for this program and because of this we have a great deal of flexibility. We can pick up the pace or slow down the pace, add new games or stick with familiar games--all depending on what and how our students are learning.  So, even as I describe our system, you should understand that we would and will change our system as needed to meet the needs of the next set of acting students who come to play on the stage with us.

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