Fourteen years ago, Jacqui Russell was looking for a teacher to work in a local classroom with children who have autism. When she couldn't find one, she decided to take the assignment herself. Out of that dilemma, Red Kite Round Up, a theater program specifically geared toward children with autism, was born.
After discovering a theater company in England created for children who are profoundly disabled, Russell, the artistic director and co-founder of the Chicago Children's Theatre, which runs the Red Kite program, headed to England to train with the troupe Oily Cart.
"I asked Oily Cart to bring their show here," she remembers. "But they said no, we'll teach you how to do it yourself."
Russell came back to the United States determined to create theater for the disabled; four years ago she started Red Kite Round Up. But rather than focus on all disabilities, like Oily Cart, she decided to focus primarily on children with autism.
"As a community, they have a hard time doing anything public," she says. "Oftentimes these kids are high-functioning intellectually, but not socially."
What Russell created was a theater experience where children are free to be who they are, and parents can sit back and enjoy a show where their child isn't ostracized.
At a recent show, children from Joseph Sears School in Kenilworth District 38 joined the actors onstage, exploring their guitars and the stage props. The kids were encouraged to get up and touch lightning bugs (puppets) and lay on a blanket to search the night sky.
The actors have been trained to work with children with autism, and the show is designed to engage without overwhelming. Everything from subdued stage lighting to small audience groups to invitations mailed to the children ahead of time is targeted toward making this a positive experience.
"I think the best part for my students was that they were able to just be themselves and enjoy the experience, because the actors were so good at anticipating their needs and adjusting the situation to work with them," says Myra Goodrich, a student services teacher at Sears school who attended the production with her students.
Goodrich especially liked that the experience was multisensory, rather than the more passive learning typical of a field trip to a museum.
Now more children will have access to Red Kite, as it expands from its start in Chicago to include shows in the suburbs. It has also headed north-to Canada. Russell was asked by the State Department to be a cultural envoy and bring her program over the border. She worked with a theater troupe there, guiding them as they created their own script. She hopes the program continues to spread.
"It makes you feel rewarded and sad at the same time. You imagine how many families are living like this, like refugees," she says. "For me as a parent, that was motivation to create a safe place to have a joyful experience."
Liz DeCarlo is the senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.