By Kirstin Grace-Simons (Madigan Public Affairs)November 29, 2017
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Washington -- Tiny trios of mice prance across stages and fairies enthrall crowds with sugar plum visions. These are amongst the treats "The Nutcracker" brings to the holiday season. It is a tradition beloved by many.
Yet, some traditions do not translate well to all audiences. Joint Base Lewis-McChord produces special events for military families with members on the autism spectrum, expanding opportunities to enjoy these traditions.
The JBLM Children's Autism Resource and Education Services family resource room hosted a trio of 30-minute performances Nov. 17 tailor-made for its audience. People on the autism spectrum often find sensory elements in the world to be more stimulating than the typical non-autistic individual might. It is like the volume on the senses is always turned up.
"While some EFMP (Exceptional Family Member Program) families can and do attend traditional performances, they are typically too loud, too long, too dark, have too many people and are located in performance spaces that may be ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)-compliant, but are not truly friendly," said Megan O'Day, systems navigator with the JBLM Directorate of Personnel and Family Readiness EFMP.
These aspects make many events less than ideal family outings.
To optimize this performance for the EFMP audience, all these elements were simply toned down a bit. The lighting was moderated. Costumes consisted of just one or two solid colors. The volume was muted, with the percussion elements in particular taking a less prominent role than usual. Doors were left open to allow audience members to enter and exit the space as needed. Finally, the audience was kept small -- around 30 people. All these adjustments made the experience comfortable and accessible.
In condensing the production for a short presentation, narration told the story where separate dances would typically be. The total number of performers for the full production hovers around 70; it was 33 for this version. Adults -- instructors and parents -- get in on the act for the full stage production. For the CARES show, though, it was all up to the youth.
A HOLIDAY TRADITION
"People aren't always sure about ballet. They think it's not for them. But, this is a fun show. I truly think there is something for everybody in this ballet. There are sword fights, fairies, and tumbling clowns. And people find they already know the music. There is something for everyone," said Mel Massey, dance, art and theater instructor with JBLM Skies Unlimited and The Studio -- A Center for the Performing Arts.
Massey grew up going to "The Nutcracker" every year. It was a tradition for her family that she has realized not everyone finds practical. Ticket prices alone can make it prohibitive. She decided to introduce the production as an offering on the installation. "It's military kids performing for military families," she said.
This year's stage performance is the second annual.
SKIES Unlimited, a Morale, Welfare and Recreation program, and its dance program, The Studio, had dancers from all age groups represented -- preschool through high school -- amongst the play's characters.
The dancers rehearsed three times a week for the last couple months, adding performance rehearsals on top of their regular technique classes. Massey is particularly impressed with her mice, a collection of 4-year-olds that mischievously romps through the set to open the show.
"I like how graceful it is," said Sarah Moore, a 14-year-old, of her appreciation for dance.
Moore, who played the Snow Queen, has been dancing since she was three. Though not her first time performing, this was her first performance of "The Nutcracker."
Other dancers have not danced for an audience before.
"I am honored to have this opportunity to dance in front of people," said Hayden Busic, an 11-year-old who has been dancing for 2 years, played a snowflake and a flower blossom.
Moore accurately predicted the response.
"I just like to make kids happy with this special thing," she said.
EFMP youth and audience member A.J. Pogoncheff, seated between his mom and sister, sported a big grin throughout the show.
LIGHTING A PATH
"We partner to expand recreational and cultural access that exceptional families don't normally get to participate in the same way," said O'Day.
Stacie Pogoncheff, volunteer with EFMP and Special Olympics on the base, said she appreciates the JBLM community.
"We really do like it here and the support and services have been wonderful," said Pogoncheff.
She has found in her efforts to encourage further support and activities for her son A.J., sometimes it just takes showing that a path to success exists.
When O'Day asked EFMP partner Skies Unlimited and The Studio if they could provide a sensory-friendly presentation of their upcoming performance of "The Nutcracker" at JBLM, Massey's response was, "why not?"
Collaborating with O'Day on what that would entail, Massey said, "She set the parameters and I filled in the blanks from there."
START OF SOMETHING BIG
According to Cindy Arnold, SKIES Unlimited director, the new JBLM CARES facility and expanded program is, "just another wonderful opportunity to partner." The network of connections that brought this event to fruition paves the way for future possibilities. "I know that I have visions of more partnerships with them and perhaps other types of activities like "The Nutcracker" happening there," said Arnold.
"The heart of SKIES Unlimited is to offer instructional classes to children that inspire them and that help them grow and to find their potential," said Arnold.
That goal fits perfectly with the vision of both EFMP and JBLM CARES.
"It's about seeing that child succeed. I think for all of us we realize that for a child to succeed, the support network around the child has to also be set up for success," continued Arnold. "That's another reason why I get really excited about events where parents are there in the audience; parents are there with their children. It's growing everybody as a group. We're growing our community as a group."
"I think for us to grow we constantly need to bring something new into what it is that we're offering -- even if it is the same thing but done in a different way or a piece of it done in a different way, " explained Arnold.
Massey and O'Day look forward to future opportunities to collaborate as well. "I would love to be able to partner with CARES in the future," said Massey. "I am hoping this can be a platform to begin that conversation to bring the arts to more families."
General audience performances of "The Nutcracker" will take place Dec. 8, 9 and 10 at the Evergreen Theater. Tickets can be purchased for $5 each at MWR's Leisure Travel Services. Also, Santa will be visiting EFMP members at JBLM CARES on Dec. 8.