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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

StageOne Brings Trademark Quality to “Pooh,” with First Sensory-Friendly Performance

Images from House at Pooh Corner. Photos – Hannah Wemitt.

House at Pooh Corner

Based on the book by A.A. Milne
Adapted by Bettye Knapp
Directed by Andrew D. Harris

Reviewed by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2013, Keith Waits.  All rights reserved.

As a reviewer, I always enter a theatre hoping for the best but fully aware that no production is a sure thing, no matter the talent and intentions driving it. I count StageOne Family Theatre as a company who achieves a consistent standard of excellence in their work that almost defies that idea. Sure, they are doing children’s theatre, which should not be condescended to but could be said to allow a more limited mission and artistic breadth than other companies. Yet how worthwhile and even noble is the effort to introduce youngsters to the pleasures of live theatre? And then to do it with invention and intelligence that engage audiences of all ages? Well, kudos to the StageOne team.

The current production bringing A. A. Milne’s creation to vivid life is no exception. Beautifully designed panoramic backdrops modeled after the classic illustrations of the original books, tender acoustic guitar renditions of a surprisingly eclectic mix of vintage pop songs, delightful costumes that suggest the characters with wit but allow the actors the opportunity to work unencumbered by claustrophobic animal outfits, and an ensemble that never missteps even once.

So it is not for a lack of appreciation of the quality of House at Pooh Corner that I turn my attention away from the acting, direction and design of the show. The 11 a.m. performance on October 12 that I attended was a sensory-friendly performance, designed to create a welcoming environment for individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other sensory sensitivities. The house lights were dimmed but not entirely darkened, audience members were encouraged to move around and change seats if required, the “Cry Room” located at the back of the Bomhard Theatre was emphasized as an alternative viewing space, and the Mary Anderson Room was designated a safe place to retreat and watch the performance on a flat screen monitor if anyone experienced difficulties in the theatre. Additionally, ushers remained in view, equipped with green glow sticks to alert patrons when loud noises were about to occur onstage.

The performance, designed with assistance from The Kentucky Center and the University of Louisville's Kentucky Autism Training Center (KATC), was the first of its kind in Kentucky, following models generated in venues such as Lincoln Center in Washington, D.C. The audience members included enough ASD children that the experiment was put well to the test, with everything functioning as intended. One person availed themselves of the Mary Anderson Room, and a couple of times families were seen to retreat to the Cry Room for brief periods; but most of the audience remained seated. They were perhaps a little more active physically than a typical StageOne audience, and a little louder in their vocal response to the action onstage. But it was fascinating to watch parents engage with their children to manage any problems. I sat near a young man who, although he expressed enthusiastic vocal approval of the play, was literally bouncing up and down in his seat and who twice stood abruptly and expressed a desire to leave, only to witness his patient and practiced mother gently coax him into remaining to the end with simple and direct communication.

It made for an experience that was more moving than the action onstage would provide. And I could not help but observe that Matthew Brennan’s appropriately hyper-active and buoyant performance as Tigger, in which the actor is never still but, even in repose, bouncing up and down slightly, could be seen as a reflection of some of the characteristics of autism spectrum disorder; and that the young man who sat near me may very well have had the rare experience of truly identifying with a character onstage. We who have watched so many plays in our lifetime may take such an experience somewhat for granted. But the care and pains taken by everyone involved with House of Pooh have here accomplished the simple, profound task of sharing that meaningful experience with people for whom it is harder to come by.

Remaining performances will occur under normal conditions, and StageOne has not yet formally announced plans to repeat the sensory-friendly protocols. But judging from the apparent success of this effort, I would not be surprised if they do it again at some point in the future.

House at Pooh Corner

October 12 & 19, 2013 at 11 a.m. & 2 p.m.

StageOne Family Theatre
The Kentucky Center, Bomhard Theater
501 West Main St.
Louisville, KY
502-584-7777




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