Tag Archives: McColl Family Theatre

Sensory-Friendly Theatre, or “How can I help you be you?”

Preview: Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

By Perry Tannenbaum

2021~Ilana Visits-02

Tyler made a surprising and daring decision at ImaginOn before attending the Sunday matinee of My Wonderful Birthday Suit. His mom, Ilana, had been sure that Tyler would want to wear noise-cancelling headphones at the performance, so I had to assure her that Children’s Theatre would be offering them prior to the show. Otherwise, she would need to pack his set of phones before they flew in from El Paso and make sure he had them when they left their hotel.

But Tyler refused the headphones that were available – in a really cool variety of colors, it should be mentioned – at the entrance of McColl Family Theatre. Instead, he chose a day-glo green worm, about eight inches long, from a wide array of fidgets and weighted cuddles on display. His younger sister, Brynn, chose a spotted little Dalmatian doggie that weighed five pounds. More surprises.2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-01

Tyler had to live with his choice. Now when Oobladee and Oobladah, best friends on this side of Moonbeam, started blowing up balloons for the surprise birthday party they were planning for Shebopshebe, Oobladee’s bestie from the other side of Moonbeam… Tyler covered his ears with both hands, dreading the moment when a balloon would suddenly explode.

Yet he didn’t cower or turn away. He didn’t run for cover. His beautiful blue eyes remained glued to the stage.2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-12

I was sure that none of the balloons would explode. Even if I hadn’t seen this show before, I could see that, sitting in front of the stage, “Tree” (resident teaching artist Kaitlin Gentry) hadn’t raised her two green glow sticks, the signal that “sensory rich” moments were around the corner. Anybody who had downloaded the Parent’s Guide from the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte website would also know that the balloons were “being blown up and let go, but they do not pop or make much sound.”

Tyler’s attention never wavered after the balloon scare, but he didn’t remain completely quiet. Gloria Bond Clunie’s script becomes heavier and more emotional. When Shebopshebe shows up from the other side of the rainbow, Oobladah is shocked to discover that Oobladee’s other best friend is brown. From the start, when he points at Shebopshebe and says, “You’re brown!” it doesn’t sound at all like a description – and she hears that clearly.

The pointing and the tone get meaner, more hateful, overtly racist. “People say that brown skin is…,” Oobladah stammers, leaning over a ledge and pointing an accusing finger down at Shebopshebe. He’s heard whispers that “you know…” and finally he blurts out: “Together – we should not play!”2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-03

You might think the two girls would be furious. Instead, they’re both rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically.

“On the Other Side of Moonbeam – we play all the time!” Shebopshebe will respond, once she and Oobladee have caught their breaths.

And this is where Tyler breaks his silence. In a voice loud enough for Mom sitting next to him to hear. It’s also loud enough for me – his grandpa – to hear, sitting two seats away, next to his sister.

“That’s NOT funny!” Tyler calls out.

Nobody turns around to shush him. Nobody glares. At all of Children’s Theatre’s Sensory-Friendly Performances, autistic nine-year-olds like Tyler are free to call out, fidget, roam around the theater, cower in a corner, or find refuge in a quiet room, where they can still watch and hear all the comedy and drama with their mom or dad.

That’s really the point: they’re free to be themselves without being judged.2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-17

Julie Higginbotham of Precious Developments has been overseeing the Sensory-Friendly Performances at Children’s Theatre since 2016, when ImaginOn’s new project was still a pioneering rarity. Now every run of every mainstage production gets a Sensory-Friendly Performance at its closing Sunday matinee. That includes the upcoming Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, opening this Saturday and running through November 14.

“It’s a big deal!” Higginbotham often says – because it’s so true in so many ways.

She’s preparing actors, directors, designers, technicians, and ushers for the special performance – as well as carefully preparing printed and online guides for protective parents and surprise-averse children. This involves meeting face-to-face with the stage manager, the stage director, the musical director, and the actors. Higginbotham also attends the designers’ run-through, dress rehearsals, and performances during the run of the show, where she scribbles over the Children’s Theatre director of production Steven Levine’s script, containing all the light and sound cues.

Where should the volume on the mics be turned down? Where should a scream be changed into a loud exclamation? Where should a live gunshot effect be changed into a muffled recording? Where must a scene with strobe effects – almost automatically a two-light-cue alert – be redesigned so that triggers that would be hazardous to seizure-prone kids are gone?

Amid the final tweaks to lights and sounds happening during the run of the show, Higginbotham takes hundreds of photos – because the Parent’s Guide and the Child’s Guide are also illustrated full-color scenarios that prepare audiences for what they will see. That’s helpful when a stage adaptation or a set design significantly departs from an original book that kids and their parents are already familiar with.

She also annotates the script for “Tree” so that she can closely follow and precisely time her one-light and two-light cues. Higginbotham remained involved in the last 90 minutes before the Sensory-Friendly Performance and even while “Tree” was upfront waving her traffic-control glow sticks.

Grandpa had to rise and shine a couple of hours earlier than Ilana and the grandkids to witness Higginbotham’s final preps for My Wonderful Birthday Suit – after getting buzzed in at the ImaginOn loading dock.2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-24

First came the final powwow with the actors, lighting crew, and “Tree.” Actors portraying Oobladee, Oobladah, and Shebopshebe all received Higginbotham’s final notes and reinforcements, with opportunities to air last-minute questions and concerns. Then the reconfigured “REWIND” scene – Shebopshebe’s brilliant and zany answer to the contrite Oobladah’s wish to “begin again” – was rehearsed and rerun without the strobes.

As the three actors exited and changed into their costumes, makeup, and matching masks (since ImaginOn is a public building, masks are worn by actors during performances), Higginbotham ascended the long lobby ramp to the top level of McColl Family Theatre. Time to prep the ushering staff, a mix of vets and newbies overseen by volunteer coordinator Louise Lawson.

Some ushering basics are turned on their head at Sensory-Friendlies. Ushers don’t simply show you to your seat, retreat to anonymity, and maybe sit back and enjoy the show themselves. They’re actively engaged in helping to ensure this special audience will enjoy their experience before the show and during the show.

Audience members don’t have a seat. With open, socially distanced seating, they have any seat. If say, they run up to the front of the house and find out that the sensory onslaught is too intense there, they can move back as far as they wish to any empty seat.

What ushers pay closest attention to is the kids’ needs. So my Tyler actually had extra backup during the little balloon scare that his mom may not have been aware of. Ushers were armed with the same fidgets, cuddly dogs, sunglasses, and headphones that Tyler was offered when he came in, standing at-the-ready, spread throughout the theater, instructed to come to his aid if they noticed he was constantly putting his hands over his ears and flinching.

“The biggest thing,” Higginbotham emphasizes to the volunteers, “is this: a lot of these families are overlooked, or they get stares. Our job is to actually see these folks, make eye contact, engage with everyone. If their communication style is one you don’t understand, that’s OK. Say, ‘Hello. We are really, really glad that you are here. What can we do for you? Can we show you to your seats? This is an amazing production, and we want to make sure you guys have a good time.’”

Any questions? Higginbotham is there to answer ushers’ concerns before and during the show, supervising the operation over a headset from the rear of the hall. Like a second stage manager.

Higginbotham’s meeting with Laura Beth Lee, the actual stage manager for Tropical Secrets, gave me a close-up view of how the Sensory-Friendly process begins – and a rewarding overview of the Precious Developments methodology.

2021~Tropical Secrets-18

The situation was somewhat surreal for this reviewer, since Higginbotham had not yet read the L M Feldman stage adaptation of Margarita Engle’s young adult verse novel. I’d covered the original webcast premiere back in March, but there were never live performances of the show and no Sensory-Friendly edition. The same cast, starring Adrian Thornburg as the Jewish boy Daniel and Isabel Gonzalez as Cuban native Paloma, are back with director David Winitsky. But Lee will be new to Cuba behind the scenes.

New wrinkles will confront everyone involved, however, since the production is moving from the McColl Theatre at the east side of ImaginOn to Wells Fargo Playhouse on the west, with a shrunken, more abstract set design customized for the new venue. Before Higginbotham and Lee powwowed in the “Lizard Room” on October 20, the returning cast had already rehearsed on the new set, likely because there hadn’t been a live show at the Wells since January 2020.

As the title indicates, Tropical Secrets is very much about this world – historical racism rather than the Moonbeam brand. With the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht falling on November 9, during the run of the show, Engle’s story will be very much in season. We really begin with that cataclysmic 1938 event in Nazi Germany, which prompts Daniel’s family to rush the 11-year-old onto an ocean liner bound for New York, where they all plan to reunite and live happily ever after.

Except that the USA turns the ship away from its ports – all of them – because there are Jews on board. Canada does the same. Hello, Havana! How in this wide world will Daniel’s family find their boy now?

Miracles aren’t likely here, and you can rule out rewinds. Meanwhile, with little more than an overcoat and a flute, little Daniel must find ways to survive and fit in. Paloma and Daniel bridge the gap between languages and cultures far more easily than their elders, but Daniel finds a link to his heritage in crusty old David, played by Tom Scott, a Yiddish-speaking ice cream vendor who sports a gaudy yarmulke.

“It’s also a very emotional show,” Lee tells Higginbotham, “a Holocaust show, so you’ve got police officers who are bursting in and yelling, there’s scary emotional outburst moments, so I can definitely see that there are these big impactful things.”2021~Tropical Secrets-32

Together with our dip into Yiddish and repeated Judaic references, Paloma has her own story – and considerable depths. She is our gateway into Cuban culture and the Afro-Cuban beat. Daniel will discard his flute for a drum and jam with percussionist Raphael Torn, who will also play the vibraphone. Topping that outbreak of rhythm and dance, there’s a full-fledged carnival scene.

Yes, there is sensory richness aplenty in Tropical Secrets – and the kid protagonists are sharp. Explaining to Paloma what living Jewish was like back in Munich, Daniel says, “In Germany, you have to wear a star on your shirt, so everyone can know what you are and hate you for it.”

Paloma’s dad is El Gordo, played by Frank Dominguez, the notorious decider when it comes to which ships are allowed to dock in Havana and which are turned away. Defending his wartime profiteering, El Gordo schools his daughter: “The world runs on business!” With no less conviction, Paloma looks her dad straight in the eye and fires back, “The world runs on kindness!

Emotional.

Impactful as Tropical Secrets will be, part of Higginbotham’s job will be to prep the able actors onstage for what to expect from their ultra-sensitive, surprise-averse audience – especially when volume has been trimmed to 75% or less and houselights turned down to half. They will see their audience more clearly than they did at previous performances. There will be fewer kids out there, socially distanced and maybe moving around or fidgeting. It may be jarring to look out into the audience and see kids talking back to the actors or wearing headphones. Or holding their hands over their ears. Or not making eye contact.

They might not even clap.

Parents will need to show proof of vaccination to enter the Wells for Tropical Secrets, but they won’t need to bring doctor’s notes or medical records for the Sensory-Friendly finale. Nor will this be an entirely special-needs crowd.

“Some folks prefer the softer presentation,” Higginbotham explains. “Some parents feel it gives their kids more freedom, and some folks can only get tickets for the Sunday matinee!”

If all goes according to plan, Higginbotham’s guides for parents and children will go out to all ticketholders on November 8, giving families six days to prepare.

Ilana was impressed by both Birthday Suit guides, but she didn’t see them as particularly useful for her Tyler, whom she describes as falling in the mild-to-moderate range of the autistic spectrum. Medication also helps him in tolerating sensory irritants.2021~Ilana Visits-22

“I don’t think Brynn or Tyler would’ve benefited,” Ilana says of the illustrated guide, “and it may actually have detracted from their experience. In children’s theatre, anything that dampens the surprise and wonder of a performance wouldn’t be optimal for my kids. And the show itself didn’t have anything too jarring (sensory-wise) that we would’ve needed to warn him about.”

On the other hand, My Wonderful Birthday Suit was far more palatable to Tyler than his previous theatre experience at Sesame Street Live! in 2019.

“Brynn loved it, but it was too loud and glitzy for Tyler,” Mom recalls. “Crazy loud, confetti storm, etc. We had to buy him off with a snow cone to get him through it.”

Higginbotham points out that the guides aren’t merely handy in preparing kids for Sensory-Friendly Performances, they also help in revisiting and remembering what they’ve seen. That can happen soon after the theatre experience is over or before the next theatre experience, when parents want to pique their children’s interest and anticipation.

“I showed Tyler the Child’s Guide,” Ilana wrote me, “and he was very excited and asked if you had sent pictures of the stage. Then he asked if I could send him screenshots of his 3 favorite pictures. Why? ‘Because they’re beautiful!’”

Unforeseen as that reaction might be, it’s what Higginbotham aims for.

“People need the freedom to be exactly who they need to be,” she says, “and to be able to feel like they’re supported. And man, we can’t predict everything, but we try. They need a non-judgment zone that I defend to the death. How can I help you be you? That’s my job.”

“My Wonderful Birthday Suit” Is a Rainbow-Bright Celebration of Diversity With Impressive Depth

Review: My Wonderful Birthday Suit @ ImaginOn

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Racism and xenophobia: pretty heavy subjects for a children’s play aimed at ages four-and-up, you might say. Yet if you recall “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” the racist’s confession from South Pacific sung by a U.S. Army lieutenant, the haters don’t wait to school their children in bigotry until they’re six, seven, or eight. In that grim light, Gloria Bond Clunie’s My Wonderful Birthday Suit, now in live performances at ImaginOn in an eye-popping Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production, comes right on time in teaching love and acceptance. Clunie’s play, directed by the playwright herself, is a rainbow-bright celebration of diversity.

Or perhaps a magical mystery tour, since the friends we first encounter in this magical place called Moonbeam are Oobladee and Oobladah. Clunie likes to keep things vague, so kids can decide for themselves whether Moonbeam is a city, country, hemisphere, or a lavishly developed rainbow. Oobladee is our hostess, greeting us before her best friend Oobladah arrives. Dee, like Clunie, relishes surprises – and maybe confounding expectations along the way. Rising above the balcony level, where Oobladee has her front door, there’s an 18-foot-tall Thinking Tree, a great place for contemplation and attitude adjustment that will summon you with a deep hum, decorated with lights and inhabited by a huge yellow bird named Bobo. Logically enough, Bobo will most often peep out of his knothole to dispense… bows.

With gift-wrapped presents strewn all across the McColl Family Theatre stage, bows are a handy commodity for Oobladee, for as she explains to us – and Oobladah when he arrives – she is planning a surprise birthday party for her best friend on the other side of the rainbow, city, country, or solar system. Her longtime friend Shebopshebe will be visiting Oobladee for the first time on this side, and there will be lights, music, presents, more presents, and cake!! A big cake. The wary, less upbeat Oobladah is not a big fan of surprises or waiting or sharing. He is uncomfortable with all of this.

Oobladah has never had a surprise party nor anywhere near this number of gifts for his birthday. He has never heard of Shebopshebe, and he cannot wrap his head around the idea that somebody else can be Oobladee’s best friend when he is. He wants to eat the cake and see what the presents are now. The monochromatic giftwraps in a wide spectrum of shiny hues are actually upstaged by the rainbow colors of Sydney Lynne Thomas’s set design and Kahei Shum McRae’s rainbow-crazed costumes for both Ooblas. Yet when Clunie wishes to rivet our attention on the gifts, she knows the way, for the smallest gift of all is the heaviest – and Oobladah actually groans when the director has him carry it over to stage right. Further confounding expectations, the biggest of the presents by far, gleaming in sparkly blue, is the lightest, and Clunie conspires with lighting designer Robyn Warfield and sound designer G. Clausen to make this huge cube (topped by a Bobo bow) an irresistible object of wonder for Oobladee and Oobladah. This teasing no doubt also enflamed the curiosities of the kiddies in the theater.

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To divert Oobladah – and educate both him and the anklebiters in the audience on what a surprise party actually is – Oobladee oversees a rehearsal of the triggering and greeting routine, cuing her lights with handclaps. Lights are dimmed as Shebopshebe appears silhouetted behind the rainbow doorway, and the surprise comes off perfectly as she enters and leans over the balcony. But the path toward opening the presents and sharing the humongous cake isn’t smooth. Shebopshebe was dressed in a coordinated outfit of light and dark purples, Oobladah’s favorite color, rather than the rainbow splendor of both Ooblas. No, that wasn’t the big problem, and it was heartwarming that the kids and parents in the house were as surprised as I was.

It went further – and deeper – than the two-besties thing. “You’re brown!” Oobladah said, pointing at Shebopshebe. Each time he repeated it, the simple description became meaner, nastier, angrier, and uglier. Really cringeworthy, as kids can be when they’re candid, and unmistakably hurtful. Obviously, the previous “respect” lesson up in the Thinking Tree hasn’t stuck with Oobladah, and one or two more climbs up its limbs would be necessary before we were done. As Clunie reached the didactic section of her hour-long drama, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the playwright found a way to teach lessons to all three players – and to briefly explore the roots of Oobladah’s racism – all with admirable tact.

You see, Oobladah has been told that brown people, people from there, people like Shebopshebe are… The sentence is never completed. Children and their parents can fill in the blanks with their imaginations, but Clunie refuses to poison the air with misinformation. We’re simply reminded that the haters, knowingly or unknowingly, really do start teaching hate to kids at a very tender age. Somewhat predictably, after the hurt he has inflicted, Oobladah must learn that he was wrong, and he must learn to apologize. Nor does Clunie gloss over the need for Shebopshebe to learn how to forgive.

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That is no small challenge for Renee Welsh-Noel as Shebopshebe after Will Burton-Edwards has been so forceful in delivering Oobladah’s odious mix of racism and xenophobia. Last to arrive on the scene, Welsh-Noel emerged as the strongest character onstage, for she also gave the sunshiney, conciliating Oobladee an earful. No, Shebopshebe isn’t a great fan of the blithe “I don’t see color” crowd. She not only knows she’s brown, she revels in being brown. She wants people to see her color, and she rejects the misguided charity of those who are willing to ignore it. If you have found Courtney Reasoner just a little spacey and peace-loving as Oobladee, you will find your qualms and her intentions validated when she draws Shebopshebe’s rebuke. Or you might see yourself fingered as an antique Flower Power peacenik and go “Ouch!”

Yet as Clunie begins to wrap up, we realize that she isn’t merely about how we shouldn’t act and feel. Turns out that it’s not at all accidental that each of the giftwraps is a single distinct color as she fancifully ties her positive message together. My Wonderful Birthday Suit is more than a title. It’s part and parcel of Clunie’s meaningful and rewarding outlook.

Wizards of Winging It

Theatre Review: Journey to Oz

By Perry Tannenbaum

DONNA BISE

I’m not sure what the guidelines are on picture-taking at the new Children’s Theatre production of Journey to Oz, written and directed by Christopher Parks. Three or four kids in the audience read the pre-show announcements, and I must confess that I was so focused on how well they managed to talk into the microphones planted on the ears of various adult cast members that I didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying.

Whether or not photos are actually banned, I can report that, at last Saturday afternoon’s performance, there was a photo- and movie-taking orgy as the 75-minute fantasy unfolded. And I can’t say that I heard even one discouraging word from the staffers who were ushering. Children and parents were invited onstage to play a wide assortment of characters from L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz: the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and even the Mayor of Munchkinland.

And of course, multiple adorable Dorothys paraded down the aisles of the McColl Family Theatre. Considering that the contours of Tom Burch’s scenic design are the book stacks we might find at a public library – not Baum’s Kansas plains or his rainbow realm of Oz – I’d say that the iPhones gleefully chronicling the misadventures of children, husbands, and moms onstage added to the giddy mix of make-believe.

Oz erudition isn’t what it once was when Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow” every year on TV without ever aging. So the kids and parents fetched from the audience are far more likely to wander off script than they would have a couple of decades ago. Cast members eschew the subtle discrimination of asking for volunteers, so shyness and stage fright can also come into play.

Parks has his five-member cast primed for the unexpected, that’s for sure. A kid in the first row was called on to emulate Toto, but he repeatedly emitted a bark that was no louder than a purr. The dad chosen as Mayor couldn’t bother to try a high Munchkin voice or to offer any testimony at Dorothy’s criminal trial at the Witch’s castle. Cast members didn’t skip over these difficulties, persisted in efforts to get things right, but they never mocked the amateurs. We moved right along at just the right moment.

Opportunities for us to participate helped to sustain our goodwill. When the cyclone touched down in Kansas, we were the wind. When Dorothy landed in Oz, we were the Munchkins who welcomed her. And when the hapless Scarecrow was besieged by crows, we were rallied to be their caws. Perhaps the most magical participatory moment was when we arrived in the Emerald City and a mini-battalion of kids converged upon them from the wings, surreptitiously recruited to portray the Ozians.

Journey to Oz isn’t myopically focused on the foundational Wizard narrative. Over and over, the players insert little vignettes about Baum, newspaper reactions to his books, personal anecdotes, and tidbits on his times. It’s a little like an annotated edition. We also get a sense of the breadth of Baum’s Oz series, which Parks deftly keeps unobtrusive. Our only lengthy digression into the greater Oz opus comes when the players point out to us that the adventures invariably begin with a dramatic act-of-God cataclysm. The cyclone of The Wizard gave way to an earthquake to trigger one of the many Oz sequels, then an avalanche, and – weirdest of all – a “hurricane drizzle.”

When we got down to business, the upstage library shelves parted to simulate the prairie and subsequently, our arrivals in Muchkinland and the Emerald City. The bookshelves lining the wings never disappeared, forming the backdrop for the first encounter with the Scarecrow and the witness box for the trial. The Wicked Witch of the West actually entered through a bookcase, framed in appropriately spooky light and smoke, and a few paper-cut props – a beard, a lion’s mane, and Toto – fancifully originated from a large book spread out on a lectern.

The magic is resolutely low–tech here, and the classy costumes by Jennifer Matthews aim in a totally different direction from the last Wizard of Oz produced by Children’s Theatre, when the late Alan Poindexter directed and portrayed a singularly frightful Wicked Witch. This time, the hat worn by Nicia Carla in the same role looks like it was snatched from the Cat in the Hat’s closet.

Carla is spared from extensive emceeing chores, but she does confront a Dorothy or two during the drama, proving quite adept at modulating her menace. Tiffany Bear is vaguely dressed like Dorothy and wields the Toto wicker basket and puppet, but she’s more explicitly Glinda when she’s chaperoning the anklebiter Dorothys onto the stage, a very engaging emcee.

Of the three guys in the cast, Tommy Foster and Dan Brunson pitch in most often on the hosting chores. Chaz Pofahl aligns himself with Carla at the beginning and end of the show, starting out as Uncle Henry opposite her Auntie Em, and ending as her servile Flying Monkey Lawyer at Dorothy’s trial. In between, Pofahl has a nice stint as Scarecrow.

Foster is the most gregarious of the three guys, doing more of the audience interaction and morphing into the Cowardly Lion. Brunson’s fine physical work as the Tin Woodsman steals far more of the show than you usually see. His robotic shtick before and during his therapeutic lube job vies in hilarity with Carla’s melting – under a barrage of confetti water.