Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Presents Autism-Friendly "Wicked": Q&A with Director of Accessibility Vanessa Braun

Tuesday, 30 January 2018 10:14 AM Written by  Sue Kerr

Ginna Claire Mason as Glinda and the North American Touring Company of WICKED. Photo by Joan Marcus

 

Wicked is a piece of art that should be able to be enjoyed by everyone.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust presents the autism-friendly performance of Wicked, this coming Saturday, February 3, 2018, at 2pm at the Benedum Center, as a part of its national Broadway tour – ticketing information, below. Pittsburgh will be the first city outside of New York to offer Wicked in this form. For this autism-friendly performance of Wicked, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust purchases every seat in the theater for sale at discount prices exclusively to families, groups, organizations and schools whose members include individuals on the autism spectrum and those who have sensory sensitivities.

Slight adjustments to the autism-friendly production of Wicked will include reduction of jarring sounds or strobe lights focused into the audience. Audiences will enjoy a Broadway theater experience in a judgment-free environment. Staffed quiet and play areas will be open in the lobby before and during the performance. Specially trained volunteers will provide audience support.

Blogger Sue Kerr had the chance to talk with Vanessa Braun, Manager of Employee Engagement and Director of Accessibility from the Cultural Trust about this performance. She shares, “I have to admit that I've never seen Wicked, but I have read the book!”

What led Pittsburgh to being the first city outside of NYC to offer this Autism-Friendly performance? Will other cities follow suit?
VB: Autism-Friendly and Sensory-Friendly programming is spreading across the nation. Our city has become a leader in offering programming to this audience. We were the first in Pittsburgh in 2013 with the Lion King. At that point we were the second city outside of New York to offer the Lion King in an Autism-Friendly form. Our city now offers an annual Sensory-Friendly Nutcracker ballet, an annual Sensory-Friendly symphony, and our EQT Children’s Festival always includes a sensory-friendly performance. In addition, there are specialized classes and museum experiences. We have wonderful partners and collaborators and a city-wide arts access peer group which meets quarterly to talk about new programming ideas, joint trainings and to be a support to one another.

But, why Wicked?
VB: Well, first of all they have had two successful AF Wicked shows on Broadway. That is where we begin - a show must have reached a New York audience. This is important because on the New York side, the shows with help from the Theater Development Fund and their advisers must work through the show, looking for production values to soften or take out. That knowledge is then available to give to the touring arm of their production. We approached Wicked in 2016 and expressed interest in being the first road house to take on Wicked. It is a huge commitment from the top on down but, I must say it was a pretty easy sell. The Trust is run by a great team of strong and committed leaders. It is a core belief that the arts are for all in this community and our leadership proves this in their deeds and actions every day. So, we approached the show and as we did with Disney we offered to buy out a Saturday matinee of the run. We settled on a date and then made the show a part of our Broadway announcement last March.   Since then a lot has gone into the show, PR, marketing, grass-roots outreach, operational planning, Volunteer trainings, Shopping trips and now we are nearly to the day. Do we hope that other cities follow suit? Absolutely. These shows are not money-making ventures but their intrinsic value is such that it cannot even be quantified.

As an adult with a disability, I think there are multiple themes in 'Wicked' that resonate with the experiences of people living with disabilities. Did the story itself impact the decision to create this special performance or were other factors involved?
VB: Not to be too corny but, Wicked is “Popular” (a song from the show). It is one of the hottest tickets anywhere. Also, from a production end, there is a lot happening there and we recognize that if not made Autism-Friendly much of the population would be left out of the experience. Wicked is a piece of art that should be able to be enjoyed by everyone.

Is it fair to say that these themes around being different and building relationships are the reason 'Wicked' is so popular? That there's a lesson for all of us about how we create accessible spaces throughout our lives?
VB: I certainly think so. The themes of including and belonging run strongly through the story. It is also a story of bravery and holding to your convictions. Like all great art, you can take the messages that resonate most with you. I was just recently having a conversation with my best friend and what she gets the most out of the show is how beautiful the music is, proving the point that there is something in the story of these strong characters for everyone.

What local organizations do you work with to support the accommodations like the quiet areas and in-house staff support?
VB: Our strongest partner is the Autism Connection of PA. We met Lu, their Executive Director back in 2013 and her and her staff’s support and partnership has been invaluable. They train our people. They advise on materials, they provide us with amazing volunteers for the days of our shows. We count ourselves lucky to have met them so early on. This being said we take advice and gather opinions throughout the community.

Why is it important for the performing arts to be accessible? What does accessibility offer the patrons? And what does it offer to the artists and creative team?
VB: Access is important because it affects us all. Our guests are our number one priority. Without them, we are not here. We like to have a little something for everyone and if you want to join in we want to take down as many barriers to your participation as we can. Being a presenter of art and not a producer we do not have a strong link to what the artists feel about access though anecdotally it looks to mean a lot to many.

We tend to think of these performances as geared only towards children and their families. How do you make the performances accessible to adults with autism as well?
VB: Autism is still most associated with kids but, do you know what, kids grow up and while we want to bring in guests when they are young to show them how important the arts can be to their lives we also want to cultivate our adult audiences and even keep guests coming when their hearing, vision or mobility is effected by age. These Broadway shows have something for the audience regardless of if you are 8 or 80. Wicked specifically, is not written for little kids. The content matter is meant for a more mature audience. This being said, we are going to keep offering Sensory-Friendly family theater and want people to feel comfortable in our venues and feel like the Cultural District is a safe and welcoming location for all.

What suggestions do you have for other venues and performance groups interested in accessibility?
VB: I would say, just start. Bring in some advisers from the community and start making small changes. We started with large print programs and now we are buying out Broadway Houses. Who knows what will come next….

I have read the novel, but never seen the show. Tell me what you love about the stage performance of 'Wicked'?
VB: For me, it is all about the relationship of the two major characters, the girls who will become the Wicked Witch and Glinda the Good. The song “Defying Gravity” ends the first Act and is the strongest and most perfect end to a first act that I have ever seen on stage. Then toward the end of the second act the characters meet again and through song tell each other and the audience how they shaped the life of the other. It is put into context by the show but again is a magical moment on stage. It can be fun and goofy in parts but, not to over sell it but, after you see the show you completely understand why it remains a blockbuster.

Thank you, Vanessa!

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Ticketing Information:
The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is proud to offer special prices for all patrons on the autism spectrum who would like to attend this Broadway show with their family and friends. Only members of the community who have a family member or friend on the Autism spectrum or who are in need of a sensory-friendly environment themselves may purchase tickets to this autism-friendly performance of WICKED. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust welcomes family and friends to experience the show together. A number of questions must be answered to complete the ticket transaction.

Orchestra & Director’s Circle Tickets: $49
First Tier: $39 
Second Tier: $19
For more information, please call 412-456-2670, visit www.TrustArts.org/Autism or in person at the Box Office at Theater Square, 655 Penn Avenue.

 

Photo: Ginna Claire Mason as Glinda and the North American Touring Company of Wicked, by Joan Marcus
About the writer: Sue Kerr runs the blog, Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents. The original version of this post may be viewed here, and you may reach Sue at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

 

 

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