The students held onto a large swath of blue, green and purple fabric, creating gentle waves.
One by one, they dove into the “water,” some pretending to cannonball, most holding their noses as they submerged.
Through a large opening, the swimmers came up for air, then went down one more time before relinquishing their position in the center to the next swimmer.
The students left the literal world of a room in Borland Manor Elementary School in North Strabane Township for the fictional world of an underwater scene with the help of a large sheet and a little imagination.
Led by Rebecca Covert, executive director of Jumping Jack Theater, they are a part of an artist residency project that provides students on the autism spectrum, as well as students in general education, with tools to help foster communication, socialization and creativity. In turn, the students provide feedback that Jumping Jack Theater is using to create sensory-friendly productions.
Students on the autism spectrum can have developmental disorders that can involve varying degrees of language and social impairments and repetitive behaviors.
Covert has met with 16 students throughout the school year at Borland Manor, which is part of Canon-McMillan School District. While every session is different, Covert helps the students with abstract thinking.
“Kids on the spectrum are usually very literal. A lot of theater is not literal,” said Covert. “For example, showing a scene where someone is flying. How do you do that?”
In the upcoming production of “The Light Princess,” every element was created to be sensory friendly. To show the concept of flying, for example, the actors will implement the feeling of wind by using a fan and the movement of fabrics.
There are no startling light cues or noises, because those on the autism spectrum are often upset by loud noises or sudden light changes. Even props are reviewed by students.
And, while traditional productions are usually finalized months before a performance, members of the creative team at Jumping Jack are continually altering the show based on what they are learning from students.
“In teaching, there are usually objectives. I learned a lot about the magic of failure. You come in and don’t know what’s going to happen, how the kids are going to respond,” said Covert. “They are all different and come from different places, developmentally. Some things are going to work, and some things aren’t. Part of the creativity is trying things out.”
Autism support teacher Natalie Jaskowski said the students are consistently enthusiastic about the program, and to them, every session is a success.
“Rebecca will say, ‘This didn’t go as planned. Then, the kids will come back and say, ‘Best day ever!’” said Jaskowski. “Rebecca is so good at adapting.”
In addition to “The Light Princess,” the theater company is working on “Cityscape,” a smaller, more interactive box show to be performed in schools and festivals. They’ll return to Borland Manor next year and have plans to expand the program into North Strabane Intermediate.
Both productions include interactive moments that encourage audience participation, props and sets designed for sensory exploration, social skill and communication supports and sensory engagement strategies.
Students are testing keychain fidgets that will be distributed during performances. The audience can look through transparent gel paper to transform the scene before them into an underwater blue. They’ll move yellow foam fish to be a part of the scene.
The project is supported in part by the Arts in Education Partnership of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts. The Arts in Education Partner serving Allegheny, Beaver, Greene and Washington counties is Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Additional project support was provided by Canon-McMillan.
For information or for free tickets to “The Light Princess,” visit www.jumpingjacktheater.org.