Breaking down the barriers of autism

For the past few weeks, Kim Denness-Thomas has been putting together pieces of an elaborate puzzle.

Patrick Dwyer performs in Mosaic Learning Society and Tumbleweeds Theatre production of Peter Pan in 2010.

Patrick Dwyer performs in Mosaic Learning Society and Tumbleweeds Theatre production of Peter Pan in 2010.

For the past few weeks, Kim Denness-Thomas has been putting together pieces of an elaborate puzzle.

The puzzle involves 27 actors between the ages of 10 and 22, who are preparing to take the stage for two upcoming performances in Victoria. Fourteen of them have varying degree of autism, but they break down the barriers of their disability every time they step on stage.

“It’s not about putting kids with autism into our productions, it’s about actors getting a chance to express themselves in the arts no matter where they come from,” said director Denness-Thomas, noting the bulk of performers have been together for the last 10 years.

“In some ways, working with kids on the (autism) spectrum allows for freedom. There is no ego, there’s just total immersion in the work, which is different than typical teenagers.”

The production is a combined effort between the Tumbleweeds Theatre Company and Mosaic Learning Society (a non-profit group that supports and educates children and youth on the autism spectrum), that partner every two years for a main stage show.

This year’s play, Brahm and the Angel, written and directed by Barbara Poggemillar, is based on a beloved South African folk tale about a young boy’s magical quest to make sense of his world, which Denness-Thomas notes parallels the work the learning society does with its kids every day.

According to Denness-Thomas, the integrated cast performs with passion and skill, and once onstage, the division between the Mosaic and Tumbleweed actors disappears as they are brought together by their strength as performers.

The show, however, does have its quirks. The cast has been doubled to include two main leads that are swapped partly through the play. And in order to rehearse for the production, the show was divided into pieces so the group didn’t need to be together all the time.

The biggest challenge, said Denness-Thomas, is working with a group of actors who have different social cues, but everyone is capable of delivering their own lines. The actors have been buzzing for weeks about their upcoming performance, she added.

“There’s so much pride. It’s a group that really cares and respects and loves each other. The theatre is really important to them,” said Denness-Thomas, noting theatre encourages the children to break down the barriers of autism.

“There’s nothing that I have done that’s more special than this group. They get up on stage and you give the show to them. I just sit back and watch where they take it and it’s just the most amazing thing. You see them have a voice and you see their confidence brimming and you see that’s going out into the world beyond theatre.”

The theatre troupe began as a way to teach autistic children social skills and concepts, such as facial recognition, body language and language interpretation. After almost more than a decade, the troupe has become Mosaic’s longest-running and most successful program, with performances at local events and professional autism conferences. Past performances in Victoria include Peter Pan, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and A Little Help from our Friends.

Brahm and the Angel will run June 3 and 4 at the Metro Theatre. Tickets are $13. For more information visit mosaiclearning.org.

 

 

 

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