Kids with autism are often left behind. Public spaces like the theatre feel scary, loud, and unsafe. Teaching artist Sarah Diener of The Children’s Theatre of Charlotte is out change that.
I did a little digging, and I believe the last time we saw each other was 2011. I think we may have been performing some improv at The Renegade Comedy Theatre in Duluth…
That sounds about right.
You grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, where we both went to college. When did you first fall in love with theatre?
I think there were two big things that made me start loving theatre. One was just playing in my basement and home, playing dress up, creating neighborhood theatrics. My dad did a fair amount of home videos when we were little, which was a perfect excuse to show off my dramatic (and sometimes bossy) flair.
The other big thing was the first show that I have a vivid memory of seeing. My mom is an ASL interpreter, and when national tours would come through Duluth, she would often interpret them. When I was 5 or so, Les Miserables came, and I got to go see the show, and I was hooked.
The story, the drama, the music, all of it was just everything I wanted and needed to be a part of.
What was your first acting role?
I was the smallest spider in a production of Charlotte’s Web at The Duluth Playhouse. And part of a troupe of actors that did scenes in between the scene changes.
OMG. I once played the Little Little Lamb. My drama teacher thought it was real funny.
Ha! Yes! I feel like everyone in the theatre world probably has a Charlotte’s Web tale of some kind..
When I was living in New York after college, I’m not gonna lie I was very jealous of how often you were performing. The local theatre scene in Duluth has really blossomed in the last eight years. What is your favorite aspect of working in a local theatre scene?
Oh, so many things. It’s hard to pick one to say first. I think the best part of it were that I was making theatre with some of my closest friends. And that it was so exciting to see the community come alive because of the way the arts scene was coming alive. The opportunities to create work that you are really proud of is so unique. I found that often, both as an actor and as a teacher and a director.
The amount of smaller theatres that can flourish the way they do in Duluth, doesn’t happen everywhere.
Were you always interested in children’s theatre education or was your interest in teaching something that evolved over time?
Not at all. I have always loved working with kids. But in college I think I thought I had to put away that part of me in order to be “a serious actor”. I kind of lucked in to finding a teaching job with the Playhouse right out of school, and it refocused my passion onto theatre in a new way that I totally didn’t expect.
Tell me about your first experience with sensory friendly theatre performances.
I was introduced to the idea of using theatre as a social skills and communication tool for children on the spectrum in Duluth. Kate Horvath and the Playhouse run a program called Stage Play, and it focuses on how theatre builds those tools for students on the autism spectrum in a classroom room environment. I was a buddy and teacher for that program for about 5 years. And when I moved to Charlotte and began teaching here, I thought it was something that for the size of the theatre and education program that I am in, we could do something like that.
The organization had attempted to do sensory friendly performances for a show that was about a boy
with autism. And so, the company determined building those performances into the calendar might be the best place to start. I had actually never been to a sensory friendly show. I had done some research about them when I was in Minnesota.But I have more experience working with children, rather than programming the shows themselves.
But I thought that I had a pretty solid understanding of both of the worlds we were trying to combine, theatre and autism, and so when our Director of Education mentioned that she needed someone to head up the project, I jumped at it.
I’m going to backtrack for a sec: How did you end up in Charlotte, North Carolina?
Ha. I was supposed to go to grad school in Colorado, following a relationship that didn’t work out. It ended about a month before I was supposed to move and even though people at the Playhouse were incredibly supportive, offered me a way to get a job back, I knew it was time to go a different way. I had family here at the time, who mentioned The Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, and I looked to see if they were hiring, they were hiring an hourly teaching artist, so I applied. I had a Skype interview, got the job, and moved about a month later.
All very kismet…
Considering you’d researched sensory programming but hadn’t seen it up close and personal, what were some of the challenges you faced during implementation?
I am actually incredibly lucky, because the major challenges we faced were really few and far between. The staff and Children’s Theatre were all very much behind it, and I was very lucky to find a consultant who came along side of the program to support it with a stronger knowledge base of the population we are serving. I think one of the challenges was just finding the best way to do something like this for our theatre. There are a fair amount of theatres doing sensory-friendly performances, and they are all different. After talking to a lot of those theatres, we just had to be decisive about what we wanted to try, and then flexible about what would work the best.
Your role at the theatre seems very multi-faceted. Can you tell us a bit about your day-to-day?
HA! Everyday is a little different. And it depends on what time of year you’ve caught me in. In the summer, I teach summer camps all day, nearly all summer. During the school year, I teach for our School of Theatre Training, which are our acting and musical theatre classes in the evenings, as well as teaching in school residency programs during the school day. In the fall, I have also served as the performance facilitator for a play about substance abuse that tours to all 8th grades in the Charlotte area. In the spring, after our School of Theatre Training classes are over (they run October-March) we have a performance program called OnStage where 150 of the kids in our program audition to be placed in one of 4 shows, that rehearse, tech and perform in 5 weeks. I direct for that program, and am currently directing Oklahoma.
Plus running the sensory friendly program, and other odd jobs that come my way!
Ok, we’re gonna take a question lightning round “break”! Favorite summertime activity in Charlotte.
Hiking and exploring parks and nature. Or getting a beer at a local brewery.
Any park + brewery recommends?
My current favorite brewery is Sugar Creek Brewery. And my favorite park to date is one that is actually right by my house on Lake Wylie (the Minnesota girl in me can’t be far from water) called Copperhead Island.
Favorite novel you’ve read recently.
Oh my god, I am in the middle of about a million books. But I recently finished Mara Wilson’s book, “Where Am I Now?” It was lovely. I’m on a big Brene Brown and Malcom Gladwell kick currently. The book pile on my bedside table just keeps growing…
Novel you’d like to read.
All of the ones on my bedside table. Ha! No, actually, I have A Beautiful Mind that I found at a thrift store that I’m really excited about. And Jim Henson’s biography. Neither totally classify as novels, I suppose. I’ve been big on non-fiction books lately. Learning and seeing how other people have done the work that they have accomplished.
Play you’d love to direct.
Glass Menagerie. I’ve actually wanted to direct Oklahoma for a while, I think it gets written off as a smultzy show. It deals with a lot of what we see today: men and women having equal relationships, consent, groups of people who choose to judge instead of listen. I’m excited I get to direct, and with such smart, young, eager actors.
Is the culture in Charlotte very different than Duluth? I’m assuming it has a touch of Southern charm to it.
Oh, yes. There is certainly Southern charm. Sweet tea everywhere. Charlotte is bigger and more spread out. I think, coming from a smaller, more connected city, I have moments where I feel like I’m not making any kind of impact, or like I’ve been here nearly 3 years and still don’t know where or what things are. And I think that there are times where it feels like Charlotte is experiencing some growing pains right now. But, that’s to be expected, and it’s something we’re seeing nationwide. But people here are so kind. Even going to the grocery store is usually a treat.
In a recent interview with WFAE, one parent said:
To be able to get out of your house and do something like a ‘normal family’ is really, really important. I feel like having options like this is super important for those families to not feel so isolated – to be able to do things with other people, get out in the world and show their kids there are things outside the walls of their homes.
This program obviously means so much to so many. Can you tell us about a first hand experience you’ve had with a child who benefited from a sensory friendly theatre performance?
In our last sensory friendly show of the season, Children’s Theatre was doing a production of Go, Dog, Go. There was a part in the show where the actors would kick and throw giant baseballs into the crowd. Our packed school audiences went crazy for it, and it was always a part of the show that was frenetic, and full of unpredictable energy, two things that are a bit scary for a sensory friendly show. We had figured out that the best way to adjust this part would be for the actors to play a more intentional game of catch with children and families who appeared to be ready and expecting this to happen. My job during the show is to sit at the front of the house, facing the audience and hold glow sticks up to warn the audience of more sensory-rich moments that are about to happen. It also means that I get to see families taking in the show together. One of the children in the audience this time had come to see a show earlier in the year, and has some complications with his mobility. The actors were able to engage him in tossing this giant ball back and forth and his face was just filled with glee and excitement. His parents’ too. In seeing them after the show, they kept going on about how much he loved it.
I think one of the coolest responses to seeing a show, is when a child then expresses interest in doing theatre. These sensory friendly performances are where we get to plant that seed.
You’re currently working on a few pilot classes and workshops for children on the spectrum or with special sensory needs. Can you tell us a little about the research you’re doing and what you’re focusing on for Fall?
We are still in the planning process as to where exactly they fit in our year. But I was recently introduced to a method called Shakespeare’s Heartbeat. It was developed utilizing Shakespeare, iambic pentameter and physical acting as a way to work with students on the autism spectrum in a theatre setting. It focuses first on the idea of the heartbeat, and how an iamb is a heartbeat, and then moves from there to experience and learn emotion and connection and relationships. I hope to use some of those techniques along with what I learned working in Stage Play in Duluth, to build classes where an actor within our classes is able to pair as a buddy with a new actor with sensory needs, to explore communication, story, emotions, all things that theatre helps to bring out. I can say after researching and reading and seeing what other companies do in this area, that the very best research that I have experienced, is in a learning setting. Seeing the changes that can occur when a child learns how to express an emotion, or say something directly, or just how to still their body for five seconds longer. My goal is that we will have a pilot class happening by spring.
Um. That is hella cool. There are so many fascinating aspects of your work. What is your favorite part of the job?
Seeing kids grasp a new concept or make a breakthrough. I could list a lot of different things I love about my job, but that one is easily the best. Because it empowers that child or young adult to find confidence in themselves. It is about discovery, exploration. And just teaching empathy and care for others or the condition of others.