MILLBURN, NJ - For parents of children and young adults with Autism, having a normal day out can sometimes be a challenge. The world is often unkind and unwilling to acquiesce to their needs.
But yesterday afternoon at the Paper Mill Playhouse they were able to have that normalcy, with an accommodating performance of Beauty and the Beast, running now at Paper Mill.
Speaking about the performance, Paper Mill Director of PR Shayne Miller said it all comes down to making the very fabric of the event more friendly to families.
"We actually take a look at the material itself," Miller said. Sometimes we'll remove things like sarcasm, which is something that some people with Autism don't understand. Mostly we just make accommodations for people."
"For example, we leave the sound level at a consistent level so there's nothing too scary," Miller added. "There are also volunteers in the aisles who have glowsticks. And when something scary or that might trigger a reaction is about to happen, they put these glowsticks up to warn people."
In short, Miller noted that the end goal is to create an environment where people can feel comfortable going to the theater. Miller explained that Paper Mill was approached by a family in Maplewood with an Autistic child that wanted to go to the theater, but normally could not.
As a result, the theater became the first one in the country to create an Autism-friendly program. But Miller does not see that as out of the ordinary for the Paper Mill.
"It's been part of our mission and part of our soul since the beginning, and so when we see a need, we try to act upon it," Miller said. "We weren't trying to be trailblazers doing this, we just wanted to try to make theater accessible to everyone."
The actors and actresses also enjoyed their time performing before the unique crowd. Belinda Allyn, who plays Belle and was previously at the Paper Mill in West Side Story as Maria, enjoyed her time on stage in front of the crowd.
"It was really fun," Allyn said."It was a very different energy, because the timing of what we normally get for different reactions like laughter and applause, it was all different. And people were responding to things that normally aren't being responded to and vice-versa, which was really fun to here, just how different parts of the show affected people."
She said she had been excited to perform in front of the crowd ever since she learned about the special day.
"It was something I was looking forward to since I knew that we were having this show," Allyn added. "This is my third show at Paper Mill, but the first Autism-friendly show that I've been a part of.
"It's such a special experience to be a part of because everyone deserves to see theater and whether or not that means they can be in a typical environment, that shouldn't deprive them of the opportunity to see an exciting experience and to have that. So to know that we were able to be providing that for people...is so unbelievably special and meaningful."
And for people in attendance alongside those with autism, the accommodation went a long way.
Short Hills resident Pat Gallo was there with her two granddaughters. For her, the experience was lovely, and something she truly appreciated.
"I've been a teacher over twenty years, and I think this is the greatest experience I have ever encountered," Gallo said. "I even was starting to cry a little bit. its a beautiful thing they're doing for the children and it wouldn't have been here 20 years ago, so I'm very grateful and thankful that they have an opportunity like the other children of the world."
Gallo was joined in that sentiment by Susan Tarulli, a Mountainside resident at the theater with her daughter.
It was outstanding, it was out of this world," Tarulli said. "It was perfect for [her daughter]. She was engaged in it, she really loves the characters and loves the storyline, but she also got to enjoy an environment she can tolerate."
"It was absolutely a wonderful experience for her to get to enjoy the theater," Tarulli added.