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Architecture and Urban Planning

U-M, MSU professors create a sensory theater experience for children with autism

By Sydney Hawkins

Oshki 1
ANN ARBOR—As Ara and Jack walk into Michigan State University’s Arena Theater, they’re greeted by a friendly frog, a dancing pelican and a sunny ukulele tune. The lights in the theater are low, and three black curtains encase the stage, where a team of actors—intently focused on the pair’s movements throughout the space—dance and sing songs, offer them objects to hold or even lotion to smell and touch. Ara and Jack, both 10 years old, are the first children to experience “POND,” written and directed by Dionne O’Dell, a faculty member in MSU’s theater department. For more than 30 years, O’Dell has worked in children’s theater, spending the last four focused on creating productions like this one that provide participatory theater experiences to children with autism spectrum disorder. She says that her work is connected to a larger movement that’s been happening in theater, especially with touring Broadway shows. “Many companies are starting to offer sensory-friendly performances that are more relaxed, with adjusted lighting and sound, along with actors and ushers that are trained in dealing with neurodiverse audiences” O’Dell said. “And while there have been many productions that have been adapted to be sensory-friendly, my goal is to create a play specifically for this audience from the ground up.” Though O’Dell has written and directed other sensory-friendly productions—including most recently, “FARM! A MUSICAL EXPERIENCE”—the focal point of her new set, currently being workshopped at MSU, is very different. 

Social Sensory Architectures

Actors rehearse “Pond” using U-M architecture professor Sean Ahlquist’s machine-knitted sensory prop.

At the center of the Arena Theater stage sits a massive, rounded, almost translucent 3D structure, with material stretched into a giant web of openings and cavities meant to touch, reach into and crawl through. The material also acts as a screen for responsive light projections that are part of the performance. Almost immediately, Ara seems to know what to do. She walks right up to it, reaching toward her friend Jack through one of the openings in the fabric, pushing the material away and pulling it back toward herself.  There’s a reason this particular part of the experience seems somewhat familiar to her.  After Ara was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when she was two-and-a-half, her father, Sean Ahlquist, who is an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, began to learn more about her specific needs, and also the way that she interacts with the world around her. “Each child that has autism is different, but what many have in common is that 60-90% of them have a hyper awareness to sensory stimuli,” he said. “Some kids are very sensitive to loud sounds or bright lights while others, like Ara, respond enthusiastically to strong tactile sensations. Receiving pressure, like being wrapped in a heavy blanket, excites her, allowing us to turn her hyper-sensitivity into a beneficial tool for reinforcing play and social interaction.” When she was 5 years old, Ahlquist had an idea that would change the course of his career as he sought out solutions to help his daughter with some of the ASD-related challenges that he knew she’d continue to face as she grew. 
Ara Ahlquist participates in a test performance of "POND" at MSU's Arena Theater. Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.

Ara Ahlquist participates in a test performance of “POND” at MSU’s Arena Theater. Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.

Ahlquist, who happens to be one of the few architects in the world who creates structures out of textiles using a computer-controlled industrial knitting machine, decided to use this knowledge as a computational design and material systems expert to create a soft, stretchy surface for Ara to interact with. The first iteration of it, titled “Stretch|Color” was a 2D surface with a black-and-white image projected onto it. By applying pressure to different parts of the image, one could digitally color it, as one might on a computer paint program with the click of a mouse.
Ara Ahlquist (center), with her mother Elaine and father Sean, is introduced to actors before entering the Arena Theater for a test performance of "POND."

Ara Ahlquist (center), with her mother Elaine and father Sean, is introduced to actors before entering the Arena Theater for a test performance of “POND.”

A structure similar to the 3D model that is being used in the “POND” production was created shortly thereafter. And as a result, much of Ahlquist’s research in recent years has centered around environment and behavior for children with autism.  “Because of her limited motor skills, my daughter isn’t able to participate in the kinds of activities that many other kids her age generally do, which actually limits her opportunities for social engagement” Ahlquist said. “The structure allows her to practice both movement behaviors and social interaction at the same time—and I think that the addition of theater will be even more impactful.”

Theater for everyone

Ahlquist and O’Dell were introduced by a mutual friend just over a year ago after each had attended the Lincoln Center Big Umbrella Festival in April 2018, an event that showcased the “world’s best theater designed specifically for children on the autism spectrum.” Their partnership, which unexpectedly bridges the disciplines of architecture and theater, has created new possibilities in the realm of sensory performance and presentation. “These shows are less plot driven than traditional theater—there’s quite a bit of improvisation as the children move around the space and engage with the actors and props,” O’Dell said. “Working with Sean has added a new interactive element to it, which has influenced the writing by introducing elements like collective decision-making and cause and effect, so I’m excited to see how it will work.”
Although Ahlquist has taken his sensory structures into schools, museums and other public spaces, he is looking forward to seeing his structure used in a theater production for the first time. "I kept thinking about the idea of introducing this unique architectural environment to children in a new way—what if we present a storyline for how they might experience it at the same time?" he said. "In addition, Dionne is creating characters in the script that talk to them indirectly about social interaction and making friends, which is much easier to do with a pelican and a frog instead of two adults sitting with them in a therapy room." O'Dell has had a lot of people ask questions about the impact of the plays on children and their families. "This is the most rewarding work I've ever done, and we have received a lot of positive feedback from parents and participants," she said. "But what really drives me is the idea of providing theater access to everyone and improving their quality of life—it is important for these kids have the chance to enjoy something beautiful that is made just for them in an environment where they feel safe and accepted."

Maize and Blue and Green and White

As for the famous MSU/U-M rivalry? "Part of the reason we were introduced was because of our proximity to one another and our potential to collaborate," said Ahlquist, who has made several trips to MSU over the past year to work on the play. "I’m definitely a true Michigan fan, but there wasn’t much consideration given to the rivalry between the two schools when deciding to take on this project."

Dionne O'Dell (left) and Sean Ahlquist at Michigan State University's Arena Theater. Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.

“It wasn't really even a question as far as I was concerned,” O'Dell said, laughingly. "We share the same passion for this work, and that's what really matters to me—it has been a great partnership.” "POND," which stars student and alumni actors from MSU, as well as Christopher Hibbs, an actor with autism based in the Lansing area, is currently in the workshopping phase—a term in theater used to describe test performances that allow for adjustments before the formal staging. The play will be ready to present to audiences in spring 2020. All photos by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography; Video by Mike Wood/Michigan News.

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