New Victory Blog

The New Victory Blog is a place to learn more about New York’s theater for families and the shows we produce. Find out what we do and what we’re passionate about—exploring the arts as a family.

Both Dr. Jamie Bleiweiss–a native New Yorker–and Dr. Donia Fahim–a Londoner–worked in clinical practice and as university professors, specializing in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Autism is a broad term that describes a group of complex disorders of brain development that can affect a person's ability to interact socially and communicate with others. It affects one in sixty-eight New York City kids. 
Autism Friendly Spaces at the New VicAutism Friendly Spaces at the Autism Friendly performance of The Gruffalo

Jamie and Donia saw a growing need for everyday community spaces to become more accessible and welcoming to the ASD community. Time and time again they spoke to parents of kids with autism who shared their frustrations about the challenges they encountered when venturing out into the community. These families dreamed of a more accommodating world where they didn't feel compelled to explain their kid's seemingly odd behavior to disapproving onlookers. They wanted a place where they weren't made to feel unwelcome and unwanted by people staring and making ill-informed comments about their parenting skills. 

So, in response, six years ago, Dr. Bleiweiss and Dr. Fahim created Autism Friendly Spaces, Inc., to address the diverse needs of individuals with autism and their loved ones. Its mission is to partner with organizations, businesses and cultural institutions–like The New Victory Theater–to help transform minds and physical spaces to enable meaningful inclusion for everyone affiliated with the Autism Community. 

During April, Autism Awareness Month, we asked Donia and Jamie of Autism Friendly Spaces to reflect on their partnership with The New Victory Theater.  

Since 2014, we've been proud to partner with the New Vic to bring New York City families multiple autism-friendly performances each season. These autism-friendly performances at the New Vic are often the highlight of our year. We regularly present our autism awareness training workshops to their phenomenal team of ushers. For autism-friendly performances, we carefully plot out the most enriching ways to introduce the New Vic shows to audience members with ASD. During each event, Autism Friendly Spaces staff and volunteers are always greeted with warm smiles and support from all of the New Vic ushers and staff at the show. It feels like we're all one big family there to support the audience!

"I absolutely love working with the ushers at New Victory! After meeting them during the training workshop, it's so special to see how enthusiastic they are during events. They truly embrace the information they learn, and are able to make connections with the audience while having a ton of fun with them!" shared Dana Khani, Senior Consultant with Autism Friendly Spaces.


Autism Friendly Spaces at the New Vic One of the many activities for kids at New Vic Autism Friendly Performances
We also consult with the production team before each show. This is critical in order to make any adjustments to the sound or visual effects to accommodate sensory sensitivities experienced by some audience members with autism. While we may make some minor modifications (like making sure show lights don't shine directly into the audience), we always maintain the integrity of the show so that the audience members have an authentic theater experience.

"Aside from working at Autism Friendly Spaces, I'm also a Special Education teacher. A visit to the theatre to see a live performance is such a great learning opportunity for kids with ASD. Knowing that these families have access to theater means so much to me," says Keren Keyzner, Director of Programs for Autism Friendly Spaces, Inc.

Additional accommodations and supports are provided during the autism-friendly shows, including designated areas in the lower lobby area where patrons can take a break at any point before, during or after the show. Autism Friendly Spaces provides trained volunteers who oversee these break areas and offer support as needed. Various fidget tools (such as koosh balls and tangles) are made readily available for individuals who may need them, as are an array of visual supports to help make the visit to the theater more predictable. Finally, we have a designated family friendly restroom, a support that many families are grateful for at these performances!

When asked what it's like to be involved in these special events at the New Victory Theater, Keren exclaimed, "My favorite part is getting to see the same families come to every show. Watching them get a high-five from the ushers and volunteers as they see a familiar face, it makes it all worth it!" Keyzner notes, "Many families talk with us about how their child said they're only staying for 5 minutes just to 'see how they feel' and then an hour later they are walking out at the end of the show grinning from ear to ear! Additionally, as a mother, I love seeing the parents find confidence. They see that their children can be successful and enjoy the theater."
Autism Friendly Spaces We believe that autism is not a puzzle that needs to be solved. Rather, we work to unlock minds and spaces in society, that's why our logo is a key! We aim to move beyond awareness, towards acceptance, accommodation and authentic appreciation of individuals with ASD!
To learn more about Autism Friendly Spaces, Inc., find out how to volunteer, or otherwise help support the work they do, please visit their website!

Posted by Beth Henderson

"As it is with all children, before the adult world manages to put out their fires, Nicole was always an artist. However, in Nicole, the fire never stopped burning." – Steve Appel

Nicole at Bello ManiaGrowing up, any kid looks forward to the wonder and spectacle of the circus, but for Nicole Appel, a certain performer held a special place in her heart. Now 25, Nicole first saw Bello Nock (of Bello Mania fame) at the age of nine when he was performing with The Big Apple Circus. A professional artist who falls on the autism spectrum, Nicole has always felt a strong connection to Bello. And, while he hasn't inspired her to take up his brand of thrill-seeking acrobatics, he has inspired her artistically.

When Nicole's father Steve—also a visual artist—heard that Bello would be returning to New York City once more, he reached out to The New Victory to arrange a meeting between the two. He wrote to Bello: 

"Your performances, in the finest tradition of the circus, are islands of innocent enchantment in a sometimes broken world, grounded in an unconditional love for your audience. Nicole's drawings, in a similar way, removed as they are from the institutionalized trappings of the art world, are also islands of innocent enchantment. The two of you are, in this way, I believe, kindred spirits."

The New Victory arranged a meeting between Nicole and Bello where she gave him a copy of her drawing, Bello the Clown. We took a moment to interview her to learn more about her connection to Bello and what it was like to meet him!

How long have you been a fan of Bello's?
I'm 25 years old. I was nine years old when I saw Bello at the Big Apple Circus for the first time, at Cunningham Park, in Queens. The Big Apple Circus comes to Cunningham Park every Spring. It's less than a block from our house. The first time I saw him, he made me feel very happy. I loved him!

When did you first start going to the circus?
We started going to the circus when I was a little girl. We never missed a year. We've been to the circus at Cunningham Park, at Lincoln Center, and at Ringling Bros. We've also seen Cirque de Soleil on Randall's Island, and in Las Vegas. And, of course, we've seen many performances at the New Victory Theater. 
Nicole Meets Bello
Nicole Meets Bello!
Nicole Appel meets Bello after a performance of Bello Mania. She presents him with a custom piece of artwork!

What about Bello and his show is most interesting to you as a New Vic theatergoer? As an artist?
I've loved seeing him riding on his little bicycle, doing magic tricks, climbing chairs and poles. He's a very funny clown. He makes me laugh! 

Bello and his daughter perform together. My dad is an artist just like me. We love to draw together. It's great for dads and daughters to be able to work together. We're all artists and we love each other!

Can you tell us a little more about yourself?
I love running. I belong to The Alley Pond Strider running club. Four years ago, I ran the New York City Marathon. I enjoy camping and hiking. I've been camping and hiking in the Adirondacks, Anza Borrego, Death Valley, and Yosemite. This winter we're going camping in New Mexico near Moab. I also enjoy traveling very much. I've been to Paris and next Sunday we're going to Barcelona to visit a Spanish friend named Pilar. We'll visit the Dali Museum, the Picasso Museum, and the Miro Museum. It should be a lot of fun. I'm very excited!

Can you tell us more about your artwork?    
I do my artwork at an art studio in Brooklyn called the LAND Gallery. I go there three days a week. Since 2014 I've had lots shows at different places. I've had shows at The Outsider Art Fair for the past three years. Bello likes to make people happy. I do too! People like my artwork. I've sold many drawings since 2014. You can see my Bello the Clown drawing and some of my other drawings at the Land Gallery website.

How do you decide the focus/theme/subject of each piece you create?
I do my drawings as gifts for people I love. My drawings are about them. They show the things that they like. 

How long do you work on a piece, or when do you know that it's finished? What are you working on now?
Most of my drawings take about 6 weeks to do. But sometimes, a drawing can take a very long time…half a year or more. I know when it's finished when there's no more white space!

Right now I'm working on my Barcelona drawing. It shows paintings by Picasso, Dali, and Miro. They all lived in Barcelona. 

What was it like to meet Bello?
Bello is very handsome and kind. We hugged each other, he gave me a red rose and I gave him one too. I gave him a copy of the Circus Drawing that I did for him. I signed it, "Nicole loves Bello." He signed my drawing, "Bello loves Nicole." It made me feel very happy. I love Bello! He's the best clown in the world! I love The New Victory Theater too. It's the best theater in the world!

Bello Mania Icon Interested in getting inspired, just like Nicole? Check out The New Victory Theater’s Pinterest board to find exciting activities for the whole family!
Posted by Beth Henderson