A world premiere production of "The Elephant and The Whale" has been playing to enthusiastic audiences since the second week in April at Ruth Page Center for the Arts in Chicago.
The play, presented by Chicago Children's Theatre, continues through May 26. On May 4, however, the theater will offer a first-time production of an "autism-friendly" presentation of "The Elephant and The Whale," presented in conjunction with Chicago's Redmoon. Redmoon is a theatrical company which blends physical movement, puppetry, circus arts, spectacle and other theatrical arts.
"Redmoon's work is so clever, so childlike and so full of wonder," said Jacqueline Russell, artistic director of Chicago Children's Theatre.
The autism-friendly production is part of the theater's Red Kite Project, which was started by Russell in 2006. The Red Kite Project is a series of theatrical experiences and summer theater camps for children with autism.
Russell said the story of "The Elephant and The Whale" is essentially a story full of adventure, lessons of friendship and overcoming obstacles. "In the end, it's a happy story and it's something (the children) will never forget seeing," she said.
"Adults have enjoyed it as much as the kids," Russell added. The show mixes shadow puppetry with bold colored panoramic paintings, songs, and other theatrics.
Russell said she's happy to be addressing a young audience with special needs at the upcoming production. She said it's the very first time the company is putting a production such as "The Elephant and The Whale" onto a main stage and making it autism-friendly.
"We're doing this so they feel they're in a very inclusive, non-judgmental environment," Russell said. She said many children who have autism often have great anxiety being in various environments.
Theater personnel have taken care and consideration in modifying the show in lowering sound levels, making lights less bright, and also presenting a pre-show social story which lets the kids know what to expect during the production. A quiet room will also be on the premises.
While Russell started The Red Kite Project more than five years ago, she said her work with children who have special needs started long before that.
"I've been working with children with autism for 15 years," she said, adding she began teaching classes when she was at Lookinglass Theatre Company.
"Theater (and the summer camps) can be life-changing for these kids," Russell said. "It builds their confidence and is a great experience...Drama training can enhance their lives," she said.
"The Elephant and The Whale" will be presented through May 26 at Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. Tickets start at $20. Call (872) 222-9555 for ticket information for the autism-friendly production at 11 a.m. May 4. Visit Chicagochildrenstheatre.org/autismperformance. Select the AUTISM discount from the drop down menu for discounted tickets. Tickets are $31 for adults and $21 for children 16 and younger.