Theatre provides so many opportunities to promote nonverbal communication between actors. One effective way is to use what I’ll call “nonverbal beats.” Scenes are made up of beats (changes in character or action) which can be staged with nonverbal moments of joint attention, reaction or a physical gesture. Nonverbal beats in theater actually heighten the action or dialogue that precede them; the silence gives more weight and resonance to what has just occurred.
For instance, in the above photo from our rehearsal of Bremen Town Musicians, Donkey has just asked Rooster to join him on the trip to Bremen Town. Donkey then hands Rooster the flower as an invitation. (This is a major beat: when the Rooster accepts the flower, he is accepting the Donkey’s friendship to find a happier life and escape the cook’s pot). A piano glissando embellishes the moment and we have a strong, nonverbal beat!
Of course, it can take a few rehearsals to get there. Working with props takes time. Some actors might become too absorbed with the prop and loose focus. Other actors may not want to take the flower because, in both acting and behavioral terms, there is no motivation! In that case, the acting needs to be shaped with positive reinforcement in the form of praise for taking and, then, holding onto the flower.
So, if you are putting on a play with kids on the spectrum (whether they are nonverbal, somewhat verbal or highly loquacious!) look for opportunities to heighten important moments with nonverbal beats (and perhaps a glissando on the piano or a chime!)