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MSU Takes a Neurodiverse Approach to Theater Education

A few of the Wharton Center from the seating. The seats are red and the stage is dark.

Michigan State University’s Department of Theatre has produced a first-of-its-kind play that is written specifically for an audience that is neurodiverse, which are variations in the human brain that are commonly characterized as autism, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, Tourette syndrome and others. The piece is called “FARM! A Musical Experience.”

Although it is no longer uncommon for performing arts groups or venues to feature inclusionary, sensory-friendly productions, shows are typically an adaptation of a performance for neurotypical audiences. Despite the presence of prominent companies in London and New York City creating expressly for a diverse audience, there are surprisingly few works in existence.

Shortly after coming to MSU in 2012, Dionne O’Dell, Arts and Cultural Management associate director, theater faculty member and co-creator of “FARM! A Musical Experience,” became faculty facilitator for the theater department’s partnership with 4th Wall Theatre Company, an organization based in Livonia, Michigan that empowers people with special needs using acting, singing and dancing workshops.

“The 4th Wall work is done primarily through a series of theater games,” O’Dell said. “As I watched the impact that performing had on the students, I began to think, ‘There has to be more to this,’”

O’Dell and her team of MSU theater students began crafting “FARM! A Musical Experience” in early 2017 using a rehearsal process based on the pioneering multisensory, participatory models by Oily Cart and Trusty Sidekick, which applies techniques such as pre-performance workshops, live music and individual performance/audience member interaction. Sensory training also was conducted through a partnership with the MSU Department of Psychology.

“When I brought two MSU students to New York for a workshop with about 20 artists from around the world, only four had ever created multisensory theater,” O’Dell said. “There is definitely a need to expand our accepted definition of theater and audience.”

This past spring, the Department of Theatre took their production of “FARM! A Musical Experience” on tour to special education classrooms in the greater Lansing area. The choose-your-own adventure style show had students singing, dancing and interacting with the cast, but what made these performances truly stand out was the actor playing the role of Grandpa Goat; his name is Christopher Hibbs and he is a 22-year-old with autism.

When “FARM! A Musical Experience” originally premiered and toured, following a series of workshops with neurodiverse students in the greater Lansing community, Hibbs was one of the student participants.

No stranger to performing, Hibbs previously participated with Wharton Center’s Take It from The Top program and All-of-Us-Express Children’s Theatre. With a gift for impressions and a love of making people feel happy, Hibbs shares the same aspiration as the MSU students he worked with: to be a professional actor. The MSU team was quick to recognize his talent and when it came time to cast the Spring 2019 tour, O’Dell offered him the role of Grandpa Goat.

Hibbs thrived in the cast. There was a boost in participation from the student audiences when he was on stage and he even began to receive fan mail. Hibbs also formed a close friendship with “FARM! A MusicalExperience” co-creator and MSU theater alumnus, Ryan Duda.

“It was wonderful to see him accepted and embraced by typical students, doing typical things” said Christopher’s mother, Martha Hibbs. “Ryan is close enough to us now to be considered family.”

The cast of FARM! A Musical Experience. A large group of people wearing white shirts on stage with a cut out of a red barn in the background.

The cast of FARM! A Musical Experience

Hearing Hibbs speak about his experience with “FARM! A Musical Experience” sounds no different from any other theater student.

“I’m always looking for more opportunities to audition,” Hibbs said. “Ultimately, I’d like to win an Academy Award and then find ways to give back.”

The experience of having Hibbs in the cast has had a profound impact on O’Dell as an educator, as well as her understanding of inclusion and success in theater.

“Directing, with Christopher in the cast, has completely changed my idea of what a ‘successful’ show is,” O’Dell said. “Success is when everyone, cast and audience alike, are participating in a joyful experience. Having a neurodiverse cast for a multi-sensory experience. That’s true inclusion.”

The success of “FARM! A Musical Experience” has inspired O’Dell to continue her cutting-edge research and find new audiences for the work. Currently, she is developing a new production, called “Soda Pop Shop,” and has collaborated with University of Michigan’s Sean Ahlquist on a show that will combine a socio-sensory architecture model with O’Dell’s methods and techniques.

Abbie Tykocki via MSU Today

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