two volunteers in Wicked shirts holding fidgets

Defying Gravity with a Special Performance of Wicked

Fri, Apr 13, 2018

Written by: Lily Rybarczyk

In honor of National Autism Awareness Month in April and on the heels of last week’s celebration of Inclusive Innovation Week, we’re taking a look back at our very special Autism-friendly performance of Wicked in February, as well as the Cultural Trust’s ongoing sensory-friendly and accessibility initiatives.

Behind the Emerald Curtain

Pittsburgh was the first city outside of New York to offer Wicked as an Autism-friendly performance, but the musical’s transformation began with the Theater Development Fund (TDF). TDF launched the Autism Theater Initiative in 2011; since then, they have worked with autism specialists and individuals on the spectrum to make changes involving sound and lights, while maintaining the integrity and content. To date, the Autism Theater Initiative has transformed 13 hit Broadway shows, including Wicked in 2014.

Although many of the alterations for Wicked were made in New York, there was still work to do when the show rolled into Pittsburgh in January for its run at the Benedum. The Cultural Trust collaborated with Autism Connection of Pennsylvania, inviting several members of the Autism community to a dress rehearsal of the show. After the rehearsal, the entire company of Wicked joined the guests to discuss feedback and questions with the stage manager, company manager, Vanessa Braun, Director of Accessibility at the Trust, and Lu Randall, the Executive Director of Autism Connection of PA.

In addition to the production itself, the Trust endeavored to create a welcoming, supportive and inclusive environment for visitors to the Benedum Center. Autism Connection of PA assisted with the training of staff and volunteers, a group bolstered by specialists who were familiar with Autism. On the day of the performance, volunteers were stationed throughout the Cultural District, including in parking garages, to assist and direct guests and families. All patrons received a fidget (a squishy ball that acts as a comfort object during the production), and were welcomed to visit special quiet and play areas before and during the performance.

Changed For Good

The performance was greeted with overwhelming positivity, from attendees to staff to the performers themselves. We received feedback from parents who felt they would never have been able to attend a show like this, for multiple reasons, without a special performance.

a Facebook post and Instagram comment showing positive feedback from the performance

Beyond the adaptations made, the timeless message of Wicked, one of rising above adversity and celebrating your differences, resonated especially deeply on this day. Mary Kate Morrissey, the actress who plays Elphaba, noted “I’ve never felt the lyrics ‘Everyone deserves the chance to fly’ deeper than I did at this show.”

three Instagram posts from Wicked cast members about the performance

Future Sensory-Friendly and Accessible Shows in the Cultural District

Here at the Trust, we strive to make the Steel City a place where the arts can flourish, and we hope that all members of our community benefit. “It is part of who the Trust is, we want everybody to feel welcome in this 14-block area in Downtown,” shares Vanessa Braun.

The Cultural Trust will be presenting a sensory-friendly performance of The Rainbow Fish during the EQT Children’s Theater Festival. Providing sensory and autism-friendly performances are only one component of the Trust’s ongoing accessibility initiatives, which also include specialized playbills, audio-described performances, assisted listening services, ASL interpretation and captioned performances.

These initiatives are not limited to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust; the entire arts community in Pittsburgh has rallied around the inclusivity. “It is a whole community. We are doing this as a city, we are collectively supporting these events, and we are all very engaged,” says Braun.

In the Cultural District, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre offers an annual sensory-friendly performance of The Nutcracker, as well as adaptive dance classes. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra presents a sensory-friendly performance each season (this year’s is tomorrow, April 14!). Pittsburgh CLO offers sensory friendly acting classes. Not to mention the pioneering efforts of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, Children’s Museum, Carnegie Science Center, the Warhol and many other members of our community.

We still have a ways to go, but something special is happening in Pittsburgh. As one of our favorite witches once said, “if we work in tandem, there's no fight we cannot win.” Our rich and vibrant arts and cultural organizations are, as a community, taking giant leaps forward in improving access and full inclusion for all. And together, we’re unlimited.

The ability to welcome this audience into the Cultural District and into our theater was a gift, and it would not have been possible without the support of Wicked, the Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust, Fisa Foundation, The Jack Buncher Foundation and Teletracking.

  • Broadway
  • wicked
  • Sensory Friendly Performances
  • Accessibility