So it's perfectly acceptable for audience members to stand up and move around during the show. It's encouraged for viewers to interact with the live actors. And if an autistic child just wants to enjoy the performance by standing quietly in the doorway, that's fine too.
Russell, an Irving Park resident, worked for seven years with the Chicago-based Lookingglass Theatre Company prior to joining the upstart kids theater in 2004. Part of her role at Lookingglass was to partner with Chicago Public Schools to bring drama instruction into classrooms for autistic children.
"When I started with this company, I made it very clear that I wanted to continue that work [with autistic children] no matter what," she said.
To pursue her goal, Russell attended summer school in 2007 with London-based Oily Cart. This British theater company works in special schools with children that have complex disabilities.
Studying with the English program taught Russell several multi-sensory, interactive approaches. She returned and began implementing these skills as part of the Chicago Children's Theatre's ongoing Red Kite series.
The latest show brings autistic children and their caregivers on a bird watching adventure to the City in the Clouds. The characters include Owl, Blue Jay, Hummingbird, Hawk and Grandfather Sky.
Sometimes the audience is invited to sit in patches of soft pillow clouds. There's also a rain dance, a maypole rainbow parade and even a snowball fight. The performance is less about a traditional, narrative story and more of a sensory experience, Russell said.
Jacqueline Russell of Irving Park is the artistic director and co-founder of Chicago Children’s Theatre. The group is currently performing "Red Kite, Blue Sky," a show created for children with autism.
There are no surprise endings or unexpected twists in the show either. This is by design, as audience members are sent an outline or "social story" detailing the people involved in the performance and direction of the story well in advance.
This is intended to give caregivers an appropriately prepare children for the show using character photos and specific examples. The prep packet aims to minimize potential anxiety.
"Most people with autism really like predictability," Russell said.
Most performances are about 30 minutes long and are recommended for children ages 5-14. A capacity crowd consists of 10 children and their caregivers. There's also room for 10 additional observers.
Russell said the feedback she's received from parents often comes in the form of tears. One mother said she even stopped taking her autistic son to Dunkin Donuts because his frequent shrieks were causing a stir.
"A lot of the time, they [parents] are saying they are so self-conscious about these children that they can't even go anywhere," she said.
Tickets for "Red Kite, Blue Sky" cost $20 per child, which also includes entry for one caregiver. Observation seats are available at $10 each.
A series of free performances will be available through the Chicago Park District after the show wraps in Millennium Park. "Red Kite, Blue Sky" will visit three different park districts throughout the city.
Each park will host three shows on a Saturday and Sunday. The performances will be held at 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.
"Red Kite, Blue Sky" will perform at Independence Park at 3945 N. Springfield Ave. in Irving Park on March 14-15; Harrison Park at 1824 S. Wood St. in Pilsen March 21-22; and Ridge Park at 9625 S. Longwood Drive in Beverly on March 27-28.
Registration is required due to the limited capacity. To register, visit chicagochildrenstheatre.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Eva Laporte at 773-227-0180, Ext. 15.