TDF, The Who's Tommy, and The Pillowman: What theater can do for people with autism and their families.
By Shoshana Greenberg (lyricist/bookwriter)
In the waning days of Autism Awareness Month, the Theatre Develoment Fund (TDF) is presenting the second autism-friendly performance as part of their Autism Theatre Initiative. This time the show is Mary Poppins. Today, hundred of people with autism and their families will fill the New Amsterdam theater to experience for the first time what for many of us is a commonplace ritual: a live theatrical performance.
My brother has severe autism and while he loves many cast recording and movie musicals, he has never been to the theater. He would never be able to sit still and remain quiet through a show. I always wonder what would happen if he saw a live version of something he's only seen as two-dimensional images. How would he respond to it coming to life before his eyes? He lives too far away to attend the TDF performances in New York, so my hope is that their initiative expands to include tours, and perhaps regional theaters will follow suit.
Theater can be great for people with autism (as evidenced by the success of the first TDF autism-friendly performance of The Lion King and the theater programs around the country for higher-functioning children with autism), and I also believe that it is the best way to portray the complex relationship one can have with someone with autism, especially a family member. While films like Rain Man and others can portray the literal experience, theater has the unique ability to connect the literal experience with the abstract, revealing deeper emotional truths. This hits harder and feels even more real than what I've experienced in film.
My two favorite examples of this are the musical The Who's Tommy and Martin McDonagh's play The Pillowman.
The Pillowman is, to me, about the relationship between a writer and his/her mentally-disabled sibling. At the end of the play, the Pillowman gives Michal, Katurian's mentally-disabled brother, the choice of dying as a child or living a very hard, tortured life so that his brother can become a great writer. He agrees to live so that he will be able to hear his brother's wonderful stories.
I love this part of the play because it reminds me of my relationship with my brother. My brother, along with many others with severe autism, does not have goals in life. He will not pursue a career or start a family. He won't even live independently. What then, is his purpose in life? I have often wondered, and, from The Pillowman, I believe his purpose could be to elevate the lives of those around him. Because of Michal, Katurian was a better writer. Because of my brother, I may be a better writer, but, most definitely, I am a better person.