Jumping Jack Theater Provides Interactive Opportunity for Special Needs Audiences

14670697_1756952637855218_8497753626687409878_nLess than a year ago, the powers of social media reunited local Pittsburghers Rebecca Covert and Stephen Santa, allowing them to combine two of their greatest passions, theater arts and children with special needs, to provide Pittsburgh audiences a unique and inclusive theatrical opportunity specifically focused on sensory and autism-friendly strategies.
The catalyst for Jumping Jack Theater Company occurred when Covert published a post on Facebook about a New York-based theater company that focuses on providing similar theater arts opportunities for audiences with special needs. Santa, a former colleague who worked with Covert in 2012, commented on her post and the pair’s creative minds got to work.
“I just felt like, kind of like a light bulb thing when I saw her post. That this [theater company focusing on providing works for audiences that would benefit from sensory and autism-friendly strategies] is something that we don’t have in Pittsburgh,” Santa said. “It’s something that our powers together can create and create successfully.”

Both Covert and Santa have backgrounds in theater arts as well as experience working with kids with special needs. Covert’s son, Jack, the inspiration for the company’s name, has autism. In addition, she is an autism and arts consultant and professional development facilitator at Arts for Autism Foundation of Pittsburgh and a teaching artist for both Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Education. Santa works at Pittsburgh CLO, a Broadway-quality musical production company and has been a music director at Camp Aim, a camp designed for kids with special needs, for 15 years.

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Jack, Covert’s son and inspiration for Jumping Jack Theater

Initially, Covert and Santa didn’t plan on fully embarking on the idea for the theater company until 2017, however, after Covert discovered there was a potential opportunity to receive $8,000 in extra funding available through the Pennsylvania Council in the Arts that had to be used by August 2016, plans changed.

Covert and Santa submitted an application for the funds and were awarded the grant, which was used to fund two, five-day pilot residencies, one at Borland-Manor Elementary School in Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania and one at Camp AIM. The aim of the pilot residences was to use ideas that Covert, Santa and their creative team had come up with for inclusion in future theater performances and try them out in special needs classrooms.

For example, during one of the pilot residencies, Covert and Santa focused on the rainforest. They used large umbrellas to represent different levels of the rainforest by placing vines and different stuffed animals and other creatures in the umbrella, providing the kids the opportunity to learn about the concepts of the rainforest in an immersive way. This also allowed Covert and Santa the opportunity to watch the kids interact and see which fabrics and other items elicited reactions.

“Going in the classroom, it was the first time everything felt right. … The kids are communicating at completely different levels, nonverbally or just showing items, and we’re just watching how they interact with their item,” Covert said. “So we’re getting a lot of different information that, you know, I think it’s not only allowing them to share about themselves but we’re kind of taking that and learning about them and seeing what we can feed into the shows that way.”

As a result of the pilot residencies, Covert and Santa are currently working on a 20-day residency, also at Borland-Manor Elementary, and have additionally been asked to come back during the 2017-2018 school year for a 60-day residency.

The residencies have also given Covert, Santa and their creative team the ability to begin creating their first “box show” using the feedback received from the very kids that will make up their audiences.

Show development brainstorm session with creative team (L to R: Stephen Santa, Sara Barbisch, Julianne Avolio, and Joann Kielar)
Show development brainstorm session with creative team (L to R: Stephen Santa, Sara Barbisch, Julianne Avolio, and Joann Kielar)

Jumping Jack Theater Company’s box show is a small, two-actor performance, slated to premiere in February, that will be shown at various schools in the area, in autism support learning classrooms and potentially some local gallery crawls.

The idea behind the show is that it is supposed to be shown in tight class spaces where the audience members can experience quality theater without having to leave their normal routine or feel like they are not in a familiar or comfortable space, according to Covert.

“A kid on the spectrum, when they’re enjoying something, it looks very different than the typical theater etiquette audience. There’s a lot of movement and vocalizing,” Covert said.

“This isn’t like an assembly show where the whole school comes,” Santa added. “This is where 20 kids come and they sit close, and they are part of it, and they experience; they feel, they touch, they listen.”

In the next year, Jumping Jack Theater Company also plans to premier a larger, four-actor show that will work more like a traditional, ticketed theater performance. Although this performance will be a full-scale production, it will still incorporate sensory and autism-friendly strategies, but will be open to the broader public.

“I think it’s important for everyone to see our show, not just the kids who it’s designed for,” Santa said. “I think everyone can learn something from it. I’m about empathy and all those kinds of things, patience and understanding, and accepting someone that’s different from you.”

Jumping Jack creative team playing and storytelling at their first rehearsal (from L to R: Sara Barbisch, Joann Kielar, Julianne Avolio, Stephen Santa, and Kyle Fischer)
Jumping Jack creative team playing and storytelling at their first rehearsal (from L to R: Sara Barbisch, Joann Kielar, Julianne Avolio, Stephen Santa, and Kyle Fischer)

Going forward, Jumping Jack Theater Company wants to expand its reach to community events as well as to other areas across the country.
We want to “do a show where families can come that it’s a safe place for everyone, and parents don’t feel like they’re being judged, or their kids are being judged; it’s a welcoming environment for everyone,” Santa said. “If this child over here is enjoying it [the performance] by flapping and standing and, you know, talking all the time, and pointing that out, that’s great.”

Jumping Jack Theater Company’s creative team is made up of Julianne Avolio, an actress and teaching artist; Sara Barbisch, an actress and teaching artist; Joann Kielar, a storyteller and teaching artist; and Kyle Fischer, a visual artist and film industry prop artist.

The theater company is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization and is fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas, a New-York based organization that supports arts and cultural groups.

In order to raise money to support current and future theater productions and projects, including theater-engagement workshops for families in Pittsburgh, Jumping Jack Theater Company has launched an Indiegogo fundraising effort. To donate, click here and for more information about the company, visit their website or their Facebook page.

Photos courtesy of Jumping Jack Theater.