The greatest perk of my job is getting to experience the world from each student’s perspective. While completing one task, I can learn the annoyance of scissors for someone with fine motor difficulties, the frustration of complex multistep directions from a student working on language comprehension, and how uncomfortable obstacle course items can feel to a student with sensory sensitivities. I learn the value of slant boards, checklists, and Velcro. I learn how to engage all of the senses by watching my students learn, each in their unique way. Nava Silton, creator of Real Abilities and the recent off-Broadway production of Addy & Uno, has created a world where children with a variety of abilities can feel included and accepted. I got to speak with her about her work, her educational materials, and how to make theatre a comfortable experience for everyone who attended.
StageSLP: How did you become interested in theatre?
Nava: I have always been enamored by theater and the beautiful way in which music can reveal characters’ inner worlds. I acted a bit in high school, but mostly enjoy watching others take the stage.
S: What is your background with individuals with disabilities?
N: I have two exceptional nephews on the autism spectrum. I graduated Cornell a year early and I spent (what would have been my senior year) living with my dear sister, whose son had just been diagnosed with autism. I was deeply impacted by the pervasive impact of autism on her whole family and when I asked her, what is the most difficult aspect of this disorder for you, she responded: “The fact that children flock to my other kids and they treat Elie (my son with autism) like he’s part of the wallpaper.” I was devastated by that notion. Devastated enough to take up the charge of determining what intervention would be most efficacious at fostering the sensitivity and interest of typical children towards children with disabilities. After working at Nickelodeon before grad school and at Sesame during my Psych Ph.D. Program, I decided to use the disseminable medium of media to convey these messages to kids. I started off with storyboarded episodes of an animated children’s television program, then moved onto comics based on schools’ interest and then most recently to the stage with Addy & Uno.
S: Addy and Uno are more than an off-Broadway show, they’re also part of a comic book series! What can you tell us about that series?
N: While schools loved the initial storyboarded episodes of the show, they said: “We’re schools, we’d love to see these important stories in book format.” Very soon after, with the help of some wonderful students, I pursued writing a comic book series, with 10 distinct comics and two instructional manuals for teachers. These were immediately popular in schools and beyond the popularity, I was delighted to find how much students’ perceptions, attitudes and intentions towards children with disabilities changed from pre to post-testing of the full comic series. This has been beyond encouraging and thrilling. Comic books are available at http://www.realabilities.com.
S: Was the series’ primary goal to be for the individuals, the caregivers and educators, or all readers regardless of who they are?
N: The goal of the series is to teach typical children and their families about the realities of disabilities, while also focusing on a strengths-based perspective. I want children to recognize that children with disabilities are children first, with wonderful strengths, interests and abilities. They happen to also have disabilities and/or struggles, just like each one of us. Moreover, the series was created so that individuals with disabilities could see themselves reflected favorably in-print or on the canvas. Based on the research findings and a large amount of audience feedback, we feel very encouraged that we have achieved these goals.
S: Can you tell me about the characters, and how they came to be?
N: Uno was my first character, since he was deeply inspired by my two nephews on the spectrum. Uno presents with poor eye contact, a general discomfort and struggle with social interaction and sensory integration issues, but he is brilliant at math and spatial orientation. Melody has low vision, but she has perfect pitch, melody and rhythm. RJ (Rolly) has a physical impairment, but his strong arms and athletic skills come in very handy for his team. Seemore has a hearing impairment and uses some sign language, but he can “see more,” he has wonderful insight and peripheral vision. Finally, Addy has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). She gets easily distracted and hyped up, but she is hilarious, gregarious and highly creative. Hence, each character has a disability, but wonderful gifts, as well.
S: Across all of your characters, how did you avoid falling into stereotypes, and how would you further educate that no two individuals with any disability present identically?
N: We think it’s very important for our audience to recognize that all disabilities fall on a spectrum of some sort. We try to subtly allude to this in the comic book series, in the show and in our debriefing sessions with students.
S: Why did you choose to express your theatrical production through puppets?
N: The research shows that puppets can often have a therapeutic effect on children. Animation can be very cost-prohibitive and the idea of using puppets in a novel way for this purpose became immediately appealing. I felt that puppets might help children better adjust to complex lessons about disabilities and bullying in a comfortable fashion.
S: From what I gathered, this show is about inclusion from the plot itself to audience participation, can you tell me about why you thought this was important?
N: Each individual with a disability has wonderful gifts to share with the world. Even if an individual does not have the ability to express their knowledge via verbal ability, there are a whole lot of wonderful things to explore in each and every child. I want typical children to have positive expectancies of their friends with disabilities, to recognize their special gifts and to take an interest in interacting with and getting to know them. Children with disabilities are at least two to three times more likely to be bullied than their typical peers. More than ever, we need to appreciate our peers, to look out for them and to celebrate them.
S: The students I work with may not be familiar with the usual theatrical experience, is yours different from other theatrical experiences?
N: We offered a trigger list and tried to be as sensory-friendly as possible. We also tried to keep the show to 50 minutes to ensure children could actively attend throughout the whole show.
S: Your characters, like my students, are very multidimensional. How did you come to tell their stories through comics and theatre and song? Was one medium easier to adapt to than another?
N: Each medium has been able to delve into another beautiful feature of these characters’ lives. The comics are a fun source of adventure and kindness. The musical allows us to dig deeper into the raw emotions, struggles and victories of each character.
S: What is the biggest takeaway you want all audience members or readers to feel or learn at the end of their experience?
N: Take the time to recognize and celebrate the beautiful gifts of your peers. Each individual in this world has unique gifts and it’s up to us to investigate and to determine what those gifts are. Bullying might offer you a superficial high, but kindness, empathy and being good to others will have the most enduring impact on you and on those who are fortunate enough to benefit from your goodness.
S: How would you encourage inclusion among student-student relationships, teacher-student relationships, and even adult-child relationships?
N: There are so many incredible models of inclusion out there in the literature and in real-life school settings. I think it’s very important for teachers, parents and students alike to have strong positive expectancies/expectations of what their students and/or peers with disabilities are capable of. Bracket out the labels and get to know the unique strengths and gifts of each peer, student or child with a disability.
S: What was the most memorable moment both in creating and performing this show?
N: I have really enjoyed seeing the sensitivity of the actors, who play all the characters, especially the characters with disabilities. The actors give their all and they allow these characters, who have been in my head for so long, to come to life on the canvas. I have also really enjoyed hearing the actors share their inner voices via Bonnie Gleicher’s beautiful music and lyrics.
S: Is there any opportunity for this show to be shared more widely in the future?
N: Yes, two wonderful producers have just optioned the show for an open-ended Off-Broadway run on Theatre Row on 42nd and 9th Avenue. Tickets are available at: http://www.addyanduno.com. The show will officially open on November 4, 2017! We also have dozens of schools all over the country, who have reached out in the hopes of a tour. We will keep you posted!
S: Every week, I challenge my students and readers to do something outside of their comfort zone. What would you challenge them to do?
N: I would challenge them to a day of kindness and compassion. No matter what the situation, you must act kind, you must be patient with your neighbors or peers, you must recognize the beauty and benefit of even the most challenging situations. It feels “nice to be nice!” We should all get to feel that wonderful feeling more often.
What I love about the characters Nava has created is that I can see parts of my students in each of them. I love the therapy materials, and they’re a hot commodity in my speech room. I strongly encourage you to check out RealAbilities.com and to explore what she’s created. I truly hope to see this production soon! It’s currently playing Off Broadway and being enjoyed by many audiences. I hope you be among them soon. I look forward to everyone taking on a day of kindness and compassion. It’s something we would all benefit from.
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP