LIDDY Yang, 4, giggled when the giant “mouse man” magically swallowed bits of paper during a special performance of “Paper Planet” at the Shanghai Children’s Arts Theater.
Her mother sitting beside the young girl was happy, too. It was one of the rare times her autistic daughter expressed such overt delight when encountering a stranger.
“It is like magic to me,” said the mother.
“Paper Planet” is a program brought to Shanghai by Australia’s Polyglot Theater, a leading creator of interactive and participatory theater for children and families. It creates imaginary worlds where audiences actively participate in performances through touch, play and encounter.
About 20 autistic children and their families were invited to Shanghai Children’s Art Theater as part of a program to address the needs of handicapped children.
“As Madame Soong Ching Ling once said, we should give the most precious things to our children,” says the theater’s general manager, Liang Xiaoxia, “and should not limit our endeavors to only ordinary children, but also to those with special needs.”
Last year, special performances for autistic children and a workshop that included blind children were well received. The art theater plans to expand its services to at least 2,000 children with special needs in 2017.
Beginning this week, 250 families with autistic children will be offered access to theaters at low prices. The performances include the Bamboozle Theater from the United Kingdom, which will present its immersive program “Down to Earth,” tailored for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties. A separate program entitled “Storm” is aimed at autistic children. The two theaters will run from April 19 to May 2.
There are more than 2 million autistic children aged 14 and younger in China, according to a 2015 report on autistic education and rehabilitation. An earlier nationwide survey in 2006 suggested there were about 1.7 million disabled children under six years of age in China.
The entertainment industry is only just now catching up with this special audience.
Yang’s mother said she had never taken her daughter to a theater before. For other autistic children, like 4-year-old David Han, his only experiences outside home were trips to the park. His first theater encounter was “Paper Planet.”
The young boy is super-sensitive to sounds. He often screams in public, spurred by fear of strange surroundings. That made most indoor entertainment impossible for his family.
“People used to stare at him as though he were weird,” Han’s mother said. “I can understand that they may know nothing about autism. But it still hurts. It’s different at the children’s theater. Here we are surrounded by people who know and understand what’s going on.”
It took a while for young Han to get into the spirit of the interactive performance, but once he did, he was throwing shredded paper around with the performers.
“This is not about serious education, but rather just art and fun,” said Sue Giles, artistic director of “Paper Planet.”
“It’s about simple things like paper that can really unlock enjoyment for children with special needs. Everybody is equal in this show. Autistic children can enjoy the fun the same way as an ordinary child,” she added.
It takes a bit of extra planning for theater performances catering to autistic children, said Liang. Provisions have to be made for children with different types of needs.
Generally, interactive programs with a small amount of audiences and gentle lighting and music are more suitable for children suffering from profound and multiple learning disabilities, she said. Some concert performances work very well with blind children and those with hearing aids.
The “Paper Planet” performance intentionally lowered sound levels. It encouraged parents to allow the children to express themselves in whatever way they chose.
Both “Down to Earth” and “Storm” are specially tailored for children with special needs by Bamboozle Theater, who has been staging theater experience for such youngsters since 1994. Each performance will accept only six families at a time.
Autistic children need a bit of “protection” in theater experiences, said Zhang Yinghui, vice president of Qingcongquan Children Intelligence Training Center.
According to her, psychological preparation is essential before actually taking autistic children to theaters because it is a new experience for them. Even with that, it’s sometimes hard to predict how the children will react.
“It’s true that autistic children share similar interests with ordinary children,” Zhang said. “But their reaction may be different. They may either scare people around them or be scared themselves. Things can go out of control.”
Performance opportunities certainly lag demand. Most special needs children are still in a waiting line. Expanding offerings takes time and money.
Even with an attendance rate of up to 80 percent for each of its performances last year, the Arts Space for Kids, as a pioneering privately owned children’s theater in Shanghai, is still struggling to survive because of the high costs of production and the need to keep ticket prices low.
“We would love to invite children with special needs to our theater, if we could afford the cost or find sponsors,” said Forrina Chen, founder of Arts Space for Kids. “But unfortunately, we cannot manage that at the moment.”
• “Down to Earth”
Date: April 19-25, 11am, 2pm, 4pm
Date: April 26-May 2, 9am, 11am, 2pm, 4pm
Venue: Shanghai Children’s Art Theater, 800 Miaojiang Rd
Tickets: 150 yuan for one special child and an accompanying parent