For young neurodiverse students, it can be overwhelming to watch an assembly or show in an auditorium with the rest of their peers. The loud noises, lights and movement can cause a sensory overload.
There has been a recent movement toward creating more accessible productions. MSU’s Sense-Ability Ensemble is currently working on its fourth production geared toward neurodiverse students. It is a musical adapted from a children’s book, “What If Wilhelmina” by Joseph Belisle.
“The teachers in special ed classrooms are just really excited to have something very specific and targeted toward their students,” playwright and lyricist Dionne O’Dell said. “They oftentimes go to a big assembly with the other kids at the school and maybe the noise is too much for them or they have sensory overload and they have to leave. So something very specific to them and their needs is always very well received.”
O’Dell is working in conjunction with Belisle to develop the musical. Students at MSU will join the production team during the spring of 2022 where they’ll rehearse and eventually perform on tour at elementary schools.
“We were really interested in not just adapting a show, but creating it from the ground up for this type of audience so that it was really tailored to them and their needs,” O’Dell said.
Although performing virtually has been a bit of a challenge, previous shows have been fully booked. The performances are grant-funded so they are free for public schools.
“The shows are really interactive,” O’Dell said. “There’s a lot of one-on-one with the actor and the audience member, whether they’re copying movement or there’s a lot of music and puppetry. It’s highly sensory and highly interactive. It’s just really joyful for the students involved.”
Some of the students may struggle to communicate and understand emotions. Puppets are helpful because they have exaggerated expressions.
One of the reasons O’Dell was excited to use Belisle’s story was because there are many opportunities to use puppets. The storyline follows a little girl who is worried about her missing cat, Wilhelmina.
It takes place mostly in her imagination, thinking about the wild, crazy situations and places she could be in.
“The fact that this book was about anxiety appealed to me,” O’Dell said. “It’s not really drama therapy but it’s addressing certain issues students might have through imagination and play.”
Many neurodiverse students can relate to this feeling of worry in their own lives.
“The book is about the futility of worry,” Belisle said. “She was so worried and so preoccupied that she didn’t see the reality of what was right in front of her.”
Belisle hopes the musical adaptation of his book teaches the audience that worrying is silly. He is giving O’Dell creative freedom with the production but hopes a few elements can be added.
“In my mind, I’m envisioning the little girl to be the only live person on the stage and everything else is either a puppet or a big character,” Belisle said.
The book is based on the true story of Belisle’s daughter. The little girl character has two dads and he hopes that aspect is translated to the musical version as well.
“It normalizes same-sex relations and it normalizes who my family is,” Belisle said. “I hope it sparks a discussion about that as well. Same-sex families love and want and need and have issues and problems like any other family.”
Along with writing lyrics and plot to spark audience discussion, O’Dell is working with a composer and arranger, Chelle Peterson.
Peterson, like in previous productions, will take the lyrics O’Dell writes and compose music for the cast. She takes inspiration from many different shows like “Hamilton,” “Sesame Street,” “Peg and Cat” and even the band “One Direction” to pick a vibe for her song.
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“I will take what I hear in my head when I look at it, if I hear something in my head, and I will sit down at a piano and figure out what chords they were,” Peterson said.
With the piano, she’ll pick a chord pattern. Sometimes she will have to rework the melody after listening. Then she adds the background vocals and writes the note down. In children’s theatre, it’s important to have repetition.
She has also noticed the music can influence the atmosphere of the room. Once, when the ensemble was performing for a wild audience of 50 students, she began to play calming music on the piano and noticed the students began to calm down.
“We always adjust and adapt to whatever is needed in that particular performance,” Peterson said. “And the actors are so great at it.”
Having improvisation skills is important with interactive performances especially, because audiences can be different. But the overall goal is to express a message.
“My goal is always have the music help tell the story,” Peterson said. “It gives feel to the emotions of the characters and what they are going through.”
In this production specifically, she wants the music to show the worries of the main character.
“She’s frustrated about many things,” Peterson said. “She’s terrified for her cat, she’s worried about it and all these other things an 8-year-old is going to feel. It’s great to make this character come alive through music and help tell that story.”
The ensemble aims to tour the musical at schools and possibly expand to libraries and bookstores. The interactions between the actors and the audience build an inclusive atmosphere.
“We’ve had students that really just light up,” O’Dell said. "We’ve had students in a classroom where the teacher is like ‘don’t worry about Bobby, he’s probably not gonna participate, and then he participates the whole show.’”
O’Dell is proud of the ensemble’s work in children’s theatre.
“I love it because children just give the most honest reactions,” O’Dell said. “This type of work you really feel like you’re making a difference in someone’s life. The moments might be really small but these moments of connection are really big in that child’s life. It’s probably the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.”
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