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SENSE Theatre, Makes Sense to Me (Part 2)

May 26, 2010 1 comment

This guest post is by Autism Speaks Blog contributor Kristen Byrne. Kristen is the proud mom of two sons with autism. She is also one of the founding co-chairs of the Sacramento Walk Now for Autism Speaks event. This is the second half of the ‘SENSE Theatre, Makes Sense to Me’ post. You can read the first part here: http://blog.autismspeaks.org/2010/05/25/sense-theatre/.

Opening night, June 12

I can’t recall if there were any mistakes that night, but the reviews suggested that it was perfection in action. I felt very much in a daze. Was it really happening? A mild panic struck me every five minutes; after all of their hard work, would they walk away from this experience and have fond memories? Or would they only remember the long hours spent on the road to get to and from rehearsal and the extra demands placed on them? Whatever would happen that night was already set in motion has the house lights went out and the bright stage lights glowed. Here we go, for better or worse. Looking back now I realize how ridiculously tense I was about the whole thing. I should confess that I learned a lot from the experience, perhaps even more than the boys did.

The Gala Show Third performance, June 13

With two sold out performances under their belts, the cast would take to the stage for the second time in one day. After the matinee performance we drove to my parents’ house; which wasn’t far from the theatre. We were greeted with a warm welcome and much needed sustenance. I wasn’t sure that doing two shows in one day was asking too much. In addition it would be the first show both my husband and I would be sitting in the audience instead of helping the boys backstage. We had front row seats, stage left. After the first song Ethan spotted me in the audience; he ran off stage into the audience and with his huge partially toothless grin he said, “Mom, I did it!” I felt as if the wind was knocked out of me. I held back tears of joy just then because I didn’t want to be blinded during the rest of the show, but I bawled my eyes out later that night. Ethan did do it, he was on stage, singing and acting and dancing and having fun! He was proud of himself, he felt good about himself and I felt good about the world again, about the future. After a quick hug, he ran back on stage and continued on with the show. We refrained from uttering the phrase “break a leg” which would have horrified Devan & Ethan both taking it for its literal meaning, but I was sure in the true spirit of the theatre, they broke both legs!

Post SENSE Theatre Jungle Book Kids

A short while after the last show we found ourselves turning in the last of the cortisol samples, completing post evaluations and going in for the post-show blood draws for the research portion of SENSE Theatre. Was that going to be it? It wasn’t clear where SENSE Theatre would go from here. Funding for SENSE Theatre wasn’t there; this was run on a hope, a prayer and the generosity of Dr. Corbett, her husband Ed Bazel, and some sponsors. Fortunately through the help of Amy Lewis & Ed Crane at KFBK 1530 News Talk morning show, they interviewed Dr. Corbett who was looking for a new theatre to call home for SENSE. Dr. Corbett received a call the same day as the interview from Brent Null at Magic Circle Theatre in Roseville and the rest is history.

Anything worth doing is usually hard work

The success of SENSE Theatre comes from a number of parts all working together. One part is the kindness of the SENSE buddies and their unwavering regard for Devan & Ethan and all of the SENSE participants. The SENSE buddies are remarkable young women & men and have given so much back to the autism community.

Another part is the amazing brain & heart behind SENSE Theatre, Dr. Corbett. We respect & appreciate Dr. Corbett’s vision for SENSE Theatre, but it is not only her vision, it is her passion about this project and her love of the kids. With every struggle, she was there with a strategy and a path to success. Dr. Corbett’s helped to unlock the dreams we’d once packed away with the boys’ diagnosis four years ago. She’s inspired us to expect great things; something most parents take for granted, but we cherish the opportunity each day.

The tagline for SENSE Theatre is: A stage of hope for children with autism – for us, it is as if the words were lifted off the page, put into action and made a reality. As parents learning through this experience we’ve been able to allow our Hope to grow and see that with patience, kindness, respectful encouragement and understanding, children like Devan & Ethan fit just perfectly into this world. Thank you SENSE Theatre; we’ll always remember this experience with great affection and warm memories.

A grateful mom,

Kristen Byrne

About SENSE Theatre

SENSE Theatre – in collaboration with Magic Circle in Roseville, California – are now off to see the Wizard in their new musical production of Wizard of Oz. SENSE Theatre is a unique theatrical intervention research program designed to improve the social and emotional functioning of children with autism and related neurodevelopment disorders. SENSE Theatre has partnered with Magic Circle Theatre, to put 15 children with autism spectrum disorders on the stage with 30 youth actors from the Master Class productions, who serve as peer models and fellow cast members. Founder, Blythe Corbett, Ph.D. exclaims “We are grateful for the support of Magic Circle who is providing the stage, production costs and hospitality to bring the mission of SENSE Theatre center stage, which we hope to be the first of many collaborative productions.” In her “day job” – Corbett, is an associate professor at the University of California, Davis M.I.N.D. (Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders) Institute. Along with the SENSE Lab – her team aims to show how art and science can merge to create an ideal environment to learn how to communicate, socialize and express themselves. For more information please visit SENSE Theatre.

SENSE Theatre, Makes Sense to Me

May 25, 2010 6 comments

This guest post is by Autism Speaks Blog contributor Kristen Byrne. Kristen is the proud mom of two sons with autism. She is also one of the founding co-chairs of the Sacramento Walk Now for Autism Speaks event.

Just over a year ago I’d heard that Dr. Blythe Corbett, a spunky, brilliant, and caring doctor at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute was developing a program to put children with autism on stage in a musical to perform in front of a live audience. She not only put children with autism on stage in a musical in front of 6 packed theatre houses, she gave our children a unique and precious experience I’m quite certain they’ll remember fondly forever.

I have twin boys who have autism. When they were first diagnosed at age 3 ½, they were non-verbal, engaged in self stimulating and self injurious behaviors, they had significant fine motor skill delays as well as social & cognitive delays. If anyone had said, your kids would be performing in a musical on stage in front of a live audience; I would have thought they were being cruel.

With much apprehension; we completed all of the paperwork for our sons to participate in SENSE Theatre’s first production, Jungle Book Kids in March 2009. We took home the Cortisol sampling kits for the research piece of the project Dr. Corbett was simultaneously conducting, and the boys both endured blood draws all before the first day of rehearsals and I kept wondering – will this be worth it?

At the start of the project we could not comprehend that anyone could have the patience and understanding to handle the constant struggle Ethan & Devan would impart. We doubted that we’d make it very far in the project and while we were cautiously optimistic, we never prepared ourselves for the outcome of success.

Day One

We entered the theatre and immediately the boys dart off into opposite directions. One bee lined to the stage and the other to the back of the house zooming up the stairs two by two. It was a good thing my husband & I decided to go together. They were up and around, down the halls, into the green room, climbing on sets, hanging on the curtains in the wings and opening emergency door exits.

Needless to say, we were exhausted. When we got home that night we got the boys to collect their spit in these tiny vials provided by the SENSE lab, and recorded the events of the day in the log for future researchers to analyze. Feeling somewhat defeated, I briefly contemplated calling Dr. Corbett that night to tell her we quit. However, this thought quickly vanished; we are not quitters and surely the next rehearsal would be better. While the boys did not appear to have had a good time, I caught them both singing one of the Jungle Book songs in bed, “Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities, forget about your worries and your strife!” And that was it for me – I would not feel tired, I would not complain, I would not worry – I would dutifully drive them 45 miles to rehearsals for two hours and happily drive another 45 miles home two or three times per week to see them perform live on stage in front of six packed theatre houses.

Day Four

We entered the theatre as before and unlike the times before both boys sought out their SENSE buddies with no prompting required. Progress already! The SENSE buddies were neuro-typical cast members who volunteered to help a child with autism in the cast. Ethan would ask for Eric, Chris & Turner by name and each time he saw them at rehearsals, a huge grin lined his face. Devan would ask for Camilla, Autumn, & Turner and they were all there each day with open minds, open hearts and open arms.

The SENSE buddies performed roles while being video recorded. The videos were uploaded to a website for us to stream at home so the boys could rehearse their parts throughout the week. These videos were ingenious! We’d just click play and the boys would come running into the den and start singing and acting without us having to convince them to rehearse.

Tech Week, Three Months Later

iPhones, V-tech games, M&Ms, gummy bears, Star Wars figures, token charts, squishy stress balls, books, play dough, and puzzles covered the green room. The parents & the SENSE buddies retreated to the green room with the kids after each song to break and regroup. The costumes took some getting used to, working out the kinks of the bumble-bee head dress, the bulky feeling of the stripped fabric draped over head, the wolf head that wouldn’t stay on top of Devan’s head, and the Kaa snake puppet resting on his back. It seemed that the show was coming together just in time for opening night.

Stay tuned to see how the Byrne family and SENSE Theatre’s Jungle Book production made out!

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