Douglas: ‘Strung Along’ a great example for aspiring playwrights


Sam Douglas, Columnist

Next weekend, a theatrical anomaly will occur: A play will be performed on Northwestern’s campus that has been developed for an audience beyond NU’s borders. The play, developed by NU students, has a loose, non-linear plot and could be classified as a 30-minute sensory experience.

Developed by the group Theatre Stands with Autism, “Strung Along” takes children with autism spectrum disorders and other special needs on a journey through the land of string. With the help of Jacqueline Russell, the founder and artistic director at Chicago Children’s Theatre and its Red Kite Project, the idea of creating art for children on the autism spectrum grew to fruition at NU last year. TSWA reaches out to a community often expected to assimilate in the ways associated with neurotypical people and invites the children and their families to explore — at least for half an hour — what it means to be allowed to follow their impulses.

Theater for audiences and participants with autism has grown in recent years because of the increase in the number of diagnoses, which now lies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at one in 68 children. Boys are much more likely to be diagnosed, at one in 42, while girls are diagnosed at a rate of one in 189. Theaters have responded admirably, with Broadway and the Theatre Development Fund offering Broadway shows like “The Lion King” and “Wicked” adapted to accept the needs of kids with ASD. At the Kennedy Center at Vanderbilt University, the SENSE Theatre camp has even integrated kids into original musical theater performances.

In a society focused on the majorities, it can obviously be difficult for minority populations to be accepted. Many of the children who saw the TSWA show last year had never seen theater before, and indeed, if they had, that theater had probably not been built to accept and encourage their needs. What TSWA aims to do is cater to the needs and desires of children with autism in a way that is different from seeing a Broadway show or even putting up a musical for a neurotypical audience.

Scientists have conducted plentiful research (although there is never enough) on the importance of what is known as “floor time.”  Floor time encompasses any time spent with a child with (or even without) autism, doing only what the child wants to do, building trust and developing other basic developmental milestones. The theatrical experiences presented by Red Kite, TSWA and another company in the United Kingdom called Oily Cart are basically glorified examples of floor time. The kids, having been told what will occur at the performance, arrive, and, while there exists a predesigned structure in which they can participate, they are encouraged to follow their impulses in whatever way they deem necessary.

If you are curious about how this theatrical experience occurs, there are two shows, free and open to NU students, at 9 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday next week. My question is this: Why is there not more of this type of outreach on the NU campus? We have the resources to include people who are not necessarily included, so why should we refrain from making art, experiences or opportunities for them? Let’s do our best next year, fellow students, to take the time to include others in our busy, busy world. The benefits reaped extend not just to the participants — in this case the children with autism — but to you.

Sam Douglas is a Communication sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].