Great theater often takes shape in the rehearsal room. For Campfire, the immersive children's show playing through April at Lincoln Center, some of the most important development actually took place in elementary school classrooms.

Trusty Sidekick, the theater company behind last year's imaginative Up and Away, has returned with a new work commissioned by Lincoln Center Education. Campfire offers a mix of neurotypical and "relaxed" performances, geared toward engaging children on the autism spectrum—just in time for National Autism Awareness Month.

When creating a brand-new piece, the only way to ensure that it will resonate with a specific audience is to workshop it with them directly. For Trusty Sidekick, that meant visiting elementary schools like P94M: The Spectrum School, located on the Lower East Side.

"School partnerships are invaluable in the sense of trying to adapt the show, and getting to experience how it's going to be different each time," says Arielle Lever, Trusty Sidekick's Autism Engagement Specialist and the actress who plays Local Ranger Linda in Campfire. "The luxury of being able to come into a school and work with your target audience, to test all the props and smells, has been incredibly illuminating."

That's right: smells. Campfire is a fully immersive, multisensory show that connects with children through all of their senses. (After all, nothing quite says camping like a light mist of citronella!) In addition to "bug spray," the audience interacts with fun props like camping equipment and animal puppets while listening to the sounds of nature, re-creating the feel of the forest under a giant tent inside Lincoln Center's Clark Studio Theater.

With so much rich stimuli, however, it became important to safely and comfortably explore how each one might affect various children on the autism spectrum. That's why the rehearsal process couldn't be complete without workshopping Campfire's interactive moments at a school like P94M.

Moments of Discovery

I recently joined Trusty Sidekick for a morning of workshops at the school and spoke to them about why these experiences in the classroom are vital to making the family programming successful for all audiences.

"Every individual student or audience member has unique wants, attachments, and sensitivities," says Jamie Agnello, Ensemble Development Manager and Campfire's Ranger East. "Our goal is to provide a world where there are a lot of options, and then to custom tailor it based on our evolution of understanding each audience member, as well as the sensory tools and the points of engagement that are going to work."

Playwright Spencer Lott, who also directed the show, adds: "It's something we say over and over: There’s no right or wrong way to experience Campfire. Our goal with these workshops is to build our strategies for engagement, sensory and otherwise, so that an audience member can engage in whatever way they are drawn to the world of the show."

Off-the-cuff invention and inspiration during these workshops helped the team develop several crucial elements that have now been added permanently to the show. Without hesitation, every company member we interviewed could call forward memories of a time in the classroom that changed how they thought about the show—or their audience.

 

Bringing Everyone Around the Campfire: Trusty Sidekick Theater Company
Photo: Buatti-Ramos Photography, courtesy of Trusty Sidekick Theater Company
2017 Production of CAMPFIRE

"The first week we brought in the backpack with all of the props that are introduced throughout the show," shares Arielle. "And it was like: Oh, the lantern is very exciting, the stick is very exciting—but the blankets! The blankets were just this incredible, tactile, soothing tool—or they could be turned into this excitable, raucous tent at any moment. They were the most versatile and ingenious object in the whole bag, which I did not expect when we walked into the room."

Jamie agreed: "I had conceptions about which objects they were going to get jazzed about and which ones they weren't, and a lot of the times it was the opposite. For example, we brought in binoculars the first day and oh, my gosh, they loved looking at each other through the binoculars! So, we went back into the rehearsal room and we built in space and time where everyone gets their binoculars on and waves to each other across the circle. That's an example of how the workshops have changed the show."

Students as Teachers

Props and interactive moments aren't the only things that needed workshopping; the actors themselves had a lot to learn about the students they were going to be working with inside the theater. First of all: Did these little urbanites even know what it meant to go camping?

Arielle shares: "Working with kids in the city, we didn't know how near or far the idea of camping was going to be—or how scary it was going to be. There's a lot of words they might not know, like 'ranger.' So, part of our workshop goals, too, was finding out how this world was going to translate. But overall it's been really positive."

However, it isn't always evident when a child on the autism spectrum is reacting positively to his or her environment, or fully engaging with a scene, especially not in the same ways that actors would expect from neurotypical audiences.

"There's a misconception that a child covering their ears and turning around their seat is not paying attention to the show, that it's unsuccessful," says Artistic Director Drew Peterson. "Teachers who have seen us work with a classroom have said: 'That is the most engaged I have seen that person.' Not all engagement looks like wide-eyed and clapping along—it can, but it looks different for every person."

And because no two kids are alike, the company has to remain fully attuned to every individual throughout the show—as well as one another. The story remains flexible, so that the ensemble can take the plot in a new direction or stay inside a certain moment that's strongly resonating with the group. One of the key elements of an autism-friendly performance is the ability to go with the flow.

 

Bringing Everyone Around the Campfire: Trusty Sidekick Theater Company
Photo: Buatti-Ramos Photography, courtesy of Trusty Sidekick Theater Company
2017 Production of CAMPFIRE

"One thing that's said a lot is that it's challenging for individuals with autism to imagine or pretend. And in our very first workshop, the experience we had in this classroom completely defied that expectation," says Jamie. "They were so down to imagine; they were so down to play! Again, not limiting ourselves by what is told to us about this population is so important—because there needs to be room and space to be surprised and to discover."

Arielle chimes in: "We have made pretend food every week, we have sung songs every week, we have imagined the lantern as a million different things—once it was a blender! They are constantly surprising."

"They've not once, ever, been like: 'No, I don't buy it. This isn’t working for me,'" Drew adds.

Whether they're reacting like neurotypical audiences or absorbing the show on their own terms, these young audiences never turn away the chance to help bring Campfire's story to life.

Jamie reflects: "I can only imagine, if the experience is this heightened for them in the classroomwithout the tent up, without the trees up, without the lightswe just cannot wait for them to get into the theater and experience it on a whole other level."

What Comes Next?

Now that Campfire has opened, with performances for audiences on the autism spectrum running April 15–30, what comes next?

"I think the next step is to say: Great, now that we're learning how to create work for this population, how do we open this to the wider community and make this a neurodiverse experience?" says Drew. "It's a tricky balance. It needs to be specific and specialized; part of it means being smaller and diversified. But it's also about bringing other community members into it, so that people are starting to exist together more—and this is a really great step toward that."

"And does the buck really stop there?" he continues. "Trusty, in conjunction with Lincoln Center, likes to explore what it means to serve demographics that aren't usually given equal access. What does it mean to serve everyone? How is it inclusive, and how can it further include everyone? This is so important. Because everyone deserves high-quality art."

"And to be welcomed into it," Arielle chimes in. "Open arms to be welcomed right in."

Get Involved: Support Lincoln Center Education

In May, Lincoln Center Education and LC Kids bring In a Pickle to the Clark Studio Theater, also featuring select performances for children on the autism spectrum and their caregivers. To support more works like Up and Away, Campfire, and In a Pickle, you can make a gift to Lincoln Center Education or become a member of LC Kids. To learn more about how you can get even more involved, contact Mary Beth Cadmus at 212.875.5048 or mcadmus@lincolncenter.org.


T. Michelle Murphy is a writer for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.