MSU paving the way for adaptive theater

How did 'Farm! A Musical Experience' come to be?

A team at Michigan State University has been working on a project over the past few years, in which the group has created -- and continues to create -- theater, specifically designed for audiences with special needs.

Most recently, a show called “Farm! A Musical Experience” toured the Lansing area this past spring. Read more about how it was received by clicking or tapping this link.

The brain behind the show is largely Dionne O’Dell, who is currently an interim program director of Arts and Cultural Management at MSU. She’s also a faculty member with the Department of Theatre, along with a faculty facilitator for 4th Wall Theatre Company, which is based out of Metro Detroit. (More on 4th Wall soon). O’Dell is in her seventh year instructing at MSU.

When O’Dell first started in her position at Michigan State, she began doing outreach for the Department of Theatre. She had previous experience in New York City, looking for new outreach opportunities in another job. So the skill translated, and O’Dell started working as a faculty facilitator with 4th Wall, which is an organization that’s especially known for its work with children who have special needs.

O’Dell started to think more about those children, and sensory-friendly theater as a whole. “The Lion King” -- which has been featured at MSU’s performing arts venue, The Wharton Center -- is known for adapting to meet its audience’s needs. It got O’Dell’s wheels turning.

Her research assistant at the time was Ryan Duda, who is now a 22-year-old MSU alum. Fast-forward to today, Duda now lives in Memphis, Tennessee. After graduating from Michigan State in May, he moved south to embark on a career as a professional actor, which he said was “a dream come true.”

Duda’s world is a bit different these days. But when he thinks back to his time at MSU, he said his role in creating and performing in “Farm” definitely stands out as a huge part of his college career.

Duda didn’t grow up with any particular connection to the special needs community. Before he started volunteering with 4th Wall as a college freshman, he didn’t have any experience at all working with adaptive theater. But he stumbled upon the opportunity and fell in love with the work, he said.

“It was incredible, being able to create theater for an audience that doesn’t have as much access to the arts and theater as they should,” Duda said.

He was eager to discuss the process and the experience of developing the play with O’Dell and a grad student, Kathryn Stahl, which largely happened during his junior year.

The group wanted to examine what kinds of theater opportunities existed for children with special needs. So they obtained a research grant to fly to New York City and meet with a theater company that was producing a musical for children with autism.

“(And at the end), we sat down and said, ‘We could do this at MSU,’” Duda said.

As far as they knew, they’d be creating one of the first shows designed specifically for people with special needs.

It’s worth mentioning that while the group was visiting New York City to learn more about adaptive theater, they saw a show on Broadway called “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” which is the story of a 15-year-old boy who has a form of autism. Duda is now starring in that very show. And yes, if you can believe it, that’s a total coincidence.

“Yes, it’s absolutely insane,” Duda said of the connection.

What are the odds?

And then as part of the research stage, O’Dell also flew to London, where she met with Tim Webb, of Oily Cart Theatre, who she called a “pioneer” of this type of theater. He’s been doing this kind of work for 30 years, O’Dell said.

“I was so inspired by this man that I wrote the lyrics (to one of the first songs in “Farm”) on the plane ride home,” O’Dell said.

She also took from London the concept of simplicity -- meaning, simple is better when it comes to these types of shows. Webb and Oily Cart also served as the inspiration behind an interactive “name” song, in which the actors will learn the audience members’ names. O’Dell said the group aims for small audiences, for example, six to eight children, although they can adapt for larger groups. Obviously that helps, when the actors don’t have 30 kids’ names to remember.

“It was great to research the concept and then actually do it,” O’Dell said. “... It’s all taken off in ways I never expected. … It’s taken over my life.”

After O’Dell’s business trips, she taught a class in January that was used to develop “Farm.”

“It was a great exercise for the students to learn about these (adaptive) issues and create something,” O’Dell said. “And then we performed for students and their families at the end of the semester. We planned to tour it the following year.”

Duda said they took the show and made it accessible to more than just the children who got to experience the “test premiere,” so to speak.

And the actors worked with theater students and students who were studying special education for their expertise, as well.

When all was said and done, “Farm” only got to visit six schools. The actors’ schedules, coupled with conflicts such as spring break, proved to be pretty tricky to navigate. But the group was happy with what it accomplished. “Farm” was really well-received by its audiences, the hosting schools and MSU’s Department of Theater and Department of Arts and Letters.

The show was even selected by the university’s Department of Theater, which has a gala fundraiser every year, to perform at the event, held at the Wharton Center.

And it’s not the end. O’Dell and her students are now working on a second performance, “Soda Pop Show.” Under a grant, it’s free for the schools.

O’Dell even mentioned a 22-year-old man with autism who she met through 4th Wall, who wants to be an actor, noting that he’s very talented. He might join the group for rehearsals for the new show, and he might even come on tour.

O’Dell was inspired by Oily Cart in this regard, as well, as they also performed with a man who had autism.

“It’s essentially putting your money where your mouth is when it comes to inclusion,” she said.

Some of O’Dell’s students had some experience working with people with special needs. It was much easier when they had a foundational understanding, she said.

When O'Dell recasts for the new show, she said, she will give preference to students who have worked with children of different abilities in the past.

“You have to be pretty good at improv and not being distracted," she said. "Some students (in the audience at some of these shows) might wander, or the actors have to know how to deal with that, or redirect."

It’s all new territory, but even when these shows wrap up, this type of work is far from being complete.
Another project is on the horizon, as well. Get this: An architecture professor at the University of Michigan is currently developing a type of interactive fabric, if you will, that can display animation. He was recently awarded a $20,000 grant intended to take this new material and use it in some kind of adaptive theatrical piece.

The show will be based around his architectural designs, which are abstract. O’Dell and Duda explained how cool the project could be.

“It’s not the end (yet),” Duda said.