In a modest storefront on South Hawkins Avenue in Akron, artists and performers hone their craft as passionate teachers guide them. Masks hang on a wall and risers wait to be filled with an audience. Large glass windows by the entrance are shaded with a blue tint and the walls are painted a calm baby blue.
This is Theatre on the Spectrum, a theater program for people with autism to learn the craft, produce creative work and practice real-life skills. The program is currently writing an original production about Schneider Park, the former site of Akron’s poor house.
Theatre on the Spectrum got its start at Miller South School for the Visual & Performing Arts when an unlikely collaboration formed between Wendy Duke, a drama teacher, and Laura Valendza, an interventional specialist. They had students in common.
Of their time at Miller South, Wendy says, “Laura was a huge help because autism was new to me. Students would come to the drama program and I would go running to Laura.”
Kids with autism were drawn to the program. “We saw there was a connection with the drama. We try to meet them where they are and develop their strengths. It’s not like we say we have a fix for autism. We don’t view them as needing to be fixed,” says Laura.
“It’s about communicating and being a part of the world rather than hidden away,” says Wendy.
From there, the pair taught a class at Weathervane. That morphed into creating a nonprofit, The Center for Applied Drama and Autism and Ardmore (CADA), and working out of Balch Street Theatre. Wendy left teaching to work for CADA full time, and Theatre on the Spectrum opened its own doors in June 2017. Today, CADA deals with the grants and Theatre on the Spectrum deals with the classes.
“Acting is all about connecting with your acting partner or with the audience. Some of the things that kids with autism have challenges with are making eye contact, facing an audience, knowing where they are in space. Themes and activities that we do help them find their space,” says Wendy.
Right now, they are in the fundraising process for a new production called “Along the Graveyard Path: A History of Disability in Our Community” and they are working together with the department of anthropology at the University of Akron. The idea started from an article in the Akron Beacon Journal about the unmarked graves of people with disabilities from Akron’s former poor house in Schneider Park. The performers, adults and youth, will take the show to the public next year.
In 2016, they did an innovative take on “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams by looking at it through the prism of autism. They believe the character Laura Wingfield may have been autistic. After the performance, the program hosted a talkback for the audience. The piece toured in Akron.
“When that play was written autism wasn’t a word. She wasn’t diagnosed,” says Wendy. Laura, the character, is extremely shy in the play and only has a few lines. She keeps to herself and is very passionate about her records and glass figurines. She can be obsessive and intensely anxious. These are all signs of autism.
The program has also performed a play called “Behind the Mask” by Joshua Dushack, an autism activist and playwright.
Students of every age can sign up for classes that follow a 10-week schedule. Students take part in any and every aspect of theater, from improv and acting to writing to behind-the-scenes production. The program also has a green screen and is helping some performers create YouTube videos.
Wendy and Laura have an ultimate dream for CADA and Theatre on the Spectrum. They want to have their own ADA-accessible theater space with a housing portion so the stage manager and some actors could live on site, or to house guest artists.
“We particularly think in mind of the autistic child. We have small classes with two teachers. We look at each child and see what their needs are —whether that is social or emotional — and we incorporate those needs in what we do with them on Saturdays,” says Laura.
Theatre on the Spectrum has weekday classes for adults with disabilities and Saturday classes for kids on the spectrum. Typically, classes follow a 10-week schedule, but thespians and stage crew can participate in drop-in classes for $26 through the end of August. CADA and Theatre on the Spectrum will host an open house on Saturday, September 14. More information can be found on their website www.centerforada.org.
“The best part is observing their growth, and we are proud to be part of it,” Wendy says.
Aja Hannah is a writer, traveler, and mama. She believes in the Oxford comma, cheap flights, and a daily dose of chocolate.
Photos: Rehearsal for Along the Graveyard Path with Sid Kranz, Samir Hammoud, Jude Yovichin, Joseph Moran, Brooklyn Brake; Scott Hudson, Amanda Bugenske and Daniel Seemann in the adult company production Clowning Around; Students in a Saturday morning class for youth; Adult company presenting Act for Advocacy, a workshop that focuses on how to deal with oppressive situations, at Summit StageFest. Used with permission from Theatre on the Spectrum.