MAHOPAC, N.Y. - There is something about live theater that provides a different type of experience than watching a television show or a movie.
Often it is hard for children with autism spectrum disorder or who have other social communication issues to enjoy the live theater experience. They have difficulty with loud sounds, bright lights and staying still. The Yellow Finch Project, based in Croton Falls, is one of the few drama programs in the world that adapts the concept of theater into a program that engages young people on the autism spectrum.
In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified that one-in-68 children (one-in-42 boys and one-in-189 girls) has autism spectrum disorder.
Tara O’Boyle, who co-owns Tanata Productions in Croton Falls with her husband Patrick Michael Denny, co-founded the Yellow Finch Project in 2012 after learning about the Red Kite project that Jacqueline Russell started in Chicago.
“I had a background in community theater, actually around here, and then did professional theater in Manhattan for a while, but then I got away from it. I was producing things like museum installations and I realized I really missed the theater,” O’Boyle said. “I have a mutual friend of Jacqi Russell who lived out in Chicago and I stumbled upon an article about the Red Kite and I was really interested in what they were doing. They were creating a show with an audience on the autism spectrum in mind.”
O’Boyle told her friend Patricia Sprago, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist from Pound Ridge who was part of a theater company in the past, about Red Kite and the two decided to go see a show a few months later in Chicago.
“We saw the children have such an incredible time, which is a difficult feat,” Sprago said. “We knew we had to do something like it here in Westchester.”
When they returned, they assembled a group of people from the community who had special education backgrounds and raised money to have Russell train them in the adaptive theater.
For two years, Yellow Finch worked with the Westchester Exceptional Children’s School in North Salem. The group worked in the classrooms using literature, imaginative games and theme-related activities to help students develop group attention skills, social interaction skills and inventive imagination skills in a fun supportive group.
Then in April, the Yellow Finch Project presented its first theatrical production, “BOOKMARKS: Step into Spectacular Story Adventures,” a 45-minute, interactive and multisensory adaptation of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” “Treasure Island” and “The Call of the Wild.” The show premiered at the Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls.
To ensure that the children have a pleasurable experience, Yellow Finch sends out pre-show questionnaires so they can adapt the show properly. Then a social story is available on the Yellow Finch website before the show to prepare children for the program.
Before the show begins, the experience starts in the lobby where the children meet the actors and participate in fun activities such as digging for treasure and learning songs from the show.
The show is filled with multi-sensory activities and costume changes to help the stories come to life. The actors engage the audience and have the children become part of the show.
“We create a safe and welcoming environment that allows the parents to have fun along with their kids,” O’Boyle said.
Yellow Finch will be presenting 45-minute multi-sensory story times at the Mahopac Library this Saturday, Nov. 7. RSVP by calling Mahopac Library at 845-628-2009. Previously the group has done sessions in North Salem, Katonah, Bedford and Pound Ridge.
“We can customize our shows and classes based on the audience and the setting,” O’Boyle said.
Yellow Finch is in the process of expanding its programs at the Westchester Exceptional Children School in North Salem. It is creating a Shakespeare workshop for teenagers, a social interaction class for middle-school students and another books and stories class for elementary students.
To learn more about the Yellow Finch Project, visit yellowfinchproject.info.