Updated: Aug 31
At Rise: a Panda is swimming in the pool. Clown enters.
Wait! I'm scared.
I was first introduced to Daniel Judah Sklar’s book, Playmaking, back in 1992. An actor friend insisted I come along to see some plays written by kids as part of a program called The 52nd Street Project. I had just started teaching and was using drama to support kids struggling with reading so I was happy for the invitation.
I remember climbing the steep stairs to the Ensemble Studio Theater on 52nd street between 9th and 10th avenues and I remember, after the plays, sitting, stunned. When introduced to the director, the only question I could muster was, “How did you get those kids to write like that?” Her answer was literally three words: “Daniel Judah Sklar.”
If you are going to introduce playwriting to young people with autism, Daniel Judah Sklar’s book is a must-read! Simply titled, “Playmaking,” Sklar’s book is a personal account of his experience teaching playwriting, acting and performance to a class of fifth graders in the 1980’s South Bronx. His book reads almost like a play itself and the students take center stage through his generous use of vivid dialogue. Sklar uses his initial conflicts with the classroom teacher, Ms. Finney, as a dramatic device: will she interrupt his process or can he win her over? Their dialogues give the author an opportunity to explain to the reader the strategies behind his method.
Sklar’s book, however, is more than a well written personal narrative of one teacher’s work at a particular time in a particular place. Each chapter offers a full description/lesson for a particular stage of playmaking, from deep breathing yoga, to improvisation, to creating characters, beats, dialogue . . . all the way to staging and performing the play.
For Autism Community Theatre, the essential chapters in Sklar's book are those focusing on the development of characters. Sklar devotes a chapter to each of his four character types: animal, object, force of nature and person. These categories may seem pure whimsy at first, but each character type (and their unique Character Profiles) present different considerations and opportunities to the playwright.
Writing an animal character, for example, offers the playwright immediate access to that character. Each animal brings with them traits that help make the character concrete. Size and physical movements of the characters can be acted out even before dialogue is written. The guiding force behind each character, however, are their wants and fears.
"What does your character want?"
That is the key to all that happens and, often, it is the playwright's voice and their own immediate wants, fears or needs that come through. This is one of the powers of playwriting for people on the spectrum!
How to Adapt Theatre Exercises for People on the Spectrum?
Whether it's improv, theatre games or playmaking, the first and most important thing is to know your actor or playwright! At Autism Community Theatre, our playwrights come from our acting workshop and we have worked closely with them over time and know them well. We know their expressive and receptive communication strengths and needs, what kinds of prompts work best and when to push for more and when to give a high-five and a break, We also know how to listen, and active listening is at the heart of dramaturgy.
As with any theater activity, I strongly recommend these three steps before presenting playmaking to people on the spectrum:
understand what you're asking the playwright to do
do it yourself
think about individualized supports
As the saying goes: If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism.
Depending on your playwright's strengths, you may need to make modifications or add supports when working on the Character Profiles. These can include simplifying language, using visuals (picture encyclopedias or picture symbols) to help with the selection of characters and their traits. AAC devices can be great also, because they organize information by category and this can make choices very concrete.
Some playwrights will not need support in completing the Character Profile sheets but may need help when it comes to: "What happens next?" When playwrights are stuck, acting out the scene with their dramaturg can help move the play forward. Another solution to "writer's block" is to brainstorm with the playwright 2 or 3 possible choices and have them select one. For all playwrights, the guiding question is: What does your character want?
One last reason Autism Community Theatre embraces Sklar's book has to do with the purpose of theatre:
"Suddenly I realized why teaching children to explore an impulse and then helping them to develop it into a fully written, fully produced play makes magic: it brings back the first function of the theater, evoking a community.
' - Sklar, Playmaking page 7
Theatre is a community experience; it creates community at the same time as it defines community. That's why theatre is important - now more than ever! Autism Community Theatre!"
ACT's AT RISE 1:1 playwriting workshops were moved online in March 2020 (along with ACT's core Saturday Workshop) due to COVID-19. Three original plays debuted online in June 2020 as staged-readings and can be viewed on our YouTube Channel Autism Community Theatre.
Autism Community Theatre's workshops are made possible, in large part, by a
2020 Creative Learning Grant from