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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

This post was written by Candace Broecker-Penn, co-founder of Hands On.
Candace Signing
Candace interpreting Mother Africa: My Home.


While The New Victory Theater was still being renovated in 1995, the organization knew they wanted families with Deaf or hard of hearing parents or children to enjoy their seasons of shows. They reached out to us at Hands On, a service organization committed to providing access to the arts for Deaf and hard of hearing people here in New York City. The rest was history! For 21 years we have been working hand in hand providing sign interpreted performances for every show. 

Every season, we start our work the spring before when we meet with the New Vic staff to pick the interpreting dates. We also discuss the specific needs and challenges of each individual show. We’re some of the first people outside of the New Vic to see the scripts and get a glimpse of the wonderful upcoming shows, lucky us! While I interpret many of the shows myself, I often need a ‘team’ to help me out, so I make some calls to the talented interpreting community. Last year we had 14 interpreters working with us and our Deaf advisors! 

Porscha SigningOver the years the number of families who come to the New Vic has grown immensely and we now have a fantastic, dedicated audience. We greet each family in the lobby, and enjoy talking to audience members before and after the shows. There are often fun activities in the lobby and opportunities to meet the performers afterwards for autographs and pictures. We found a whole new audience this past fall when Hands On interpreted one of the autism friendly performances of Mother Africa: My Home. Hands On was asked by a Deaf mom, who has an autistic son if there was a way to combine both special nights. The New Victory and Hands On worked together on this opportunity and the whole family had a great time enjoying the circus together. We left the theater smiling, when a young girl, who was on the spectrum, shared her excitement about the interpreting because–as she proudly announced–she knew signs as well. It was a terrific experience for the whole audience and we look forward to repeating it in the future!

To help us coordinate all of these exciting initiatives, we have many amazing ushers who help us. Recently, we’ve been thrilled to see that many of them have expressed an interest in the Deaf community. Some, like Shamar Pelzer and Porscha Rippy, have learned ASL and gone out into the community to learn and volunteer. Shamar is even thinking about becoming a sign language interpreter! Having a direct conversation–whether it’s getting a ticket scanned or asking for a booster seat–helps to make the New Vic a place that everyone feels welcome. 

A mother and daughter at the ASL performanceBesides working with the wonderful Usher Corps, we also get the opportunity to work with the New Vic’s stellar group of teaching artists when they conduct classroom workshops at The Lexington School for the Deaf. When the TAs work with Deaf high school students on pre- and post-show workshops, we get to interpret! I love getting to see teaching artists begin to pick up signs from the students over the months they work together. 

The New Victory has something for everyone in the family. We’ve interpreted shows for infants as young as six-months-old to high school students to grandparents as old as ninety. It’s wonderful to see families with Deaf parents or Deaf kids watching, laughing and wanting to come back. It’s an honor and pleasure to work here and we at Hands On look forward to 20 more years!


 

ABOUT ME
Candace Penn I am Candace Broecker-Penn, co-founder of Hands On and a certified American Sign Language/English interpreter. I sign many (many) shows on Broadway – but I will admit that my favorite times are here at the New Victory because this is where children learn to love theater like I did when I was a child.

My parents are Deaf and I grew up as a bilingual child using both American Sign Language and English. In college, I studied theater then worked with The National Theatre of the Deaf. As one of their speaking actors I toured the US and around the world presenting theater in ASL. Some of my favorite memories are performing Derek Walcott’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at the Kennedy Center’s Imagination Celebration, touring Our Town to Japan, taking Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree to Trinidad and performing on Sesame Street
 
ABOUT HANDS ON

We interpret theater, publish a monthly calendar of events for the Deaf community and do workshops and training for theater interpreters. We’re small, but active - interpreting shows at many theaters in NYC – among them Roundabout, Radio City and Shakespeare in the Park. Beth Prevor is the Executive Director. 
Posted by Beth Henderson
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