Sequoia Fitzpatrick watched from several different seats as Kriss Kringle tried to convince a set of stubborn nonbelievers that he is the real Santa Claus.

He didn’t have to convince the 8-year-old of anything. Sequoia, sitting stage left just a few rows back in between parents Jessica and Jed, recognized the jolly old man in his red suit the moment he stepped on stage. And she said so, declaring “Santa!” as he danced onto the stage among flag-twirling elves, clowns, marching bands and tigers as Thanksgiving Day parade-goers waved and laughed during Missoula Community Theatre’s performance of “Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical.”

Sometime during the parade scene, Sequoia moved into the aisle, then into the lobby with Jessica.

“Sequoia looks like a typical child,” Jessica said. “People expect a lot – she’s 8 – but she’s as tall as some 12-year-olds. People look at her and have this preconceived notion of how she should be acting and she just doesn’t.” 

Sequoia’s autism makes it challenging to attend events like community theater performances. In fact, it was something the Fitzpatricks hadn’t tried until last Tuesday night.

There were plenty of bathroom breaks, seat changes and noisemaking at the MCT Center for Performing Arts, but the only expectation was that everyone enjoy the performance, which gave kids like Sequoia freedom to move, react and experience the MCT version of the Christmastime classic on their own terms.

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Front and center, Miss Montana 2012 Alexis Wineman watched the show among her peers. She came to celebrate the adaptive performance of “34th Street,” which was shortened and featured lower light and sound levels to make it more comfortable for people on the autism spectrum or with sensory integration issues.

“They asked me to come and I said, I’m going. I told my mom, ‘No matter what, I’m going,’ ” said Wineman, who had just finished an interview with Barrett Golding of “This American Life.”

The National Public Radio-affiliated show will air a segment about MCT’s adaptive performance on KUFM at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday during its “This Week” segment.

Wineman’s struggles with autism weren’t easy growing up, but she discovered the magic of theater early on. Diagnosed with pervasive development disorder, including borderline Asperger’s syndrome when she was 11 years old, Wineman participated in Missoula Children’s Theatre traveling productions that came through her hometown of Cut Bank.

“I think theater is magical – you get to see a fairytale come to life,” said Wineman, 18, who during her reign has become a national autism and anti-bullying advocate. She’ll be a featured speaker in May at the AutismOne conference in Chicago.

Wineman hoped the special performance would supply a spark for kids just like it did for her.

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Most parents don’t know how their kids will react in a theater situation. Overstimulation is a top concern for people on the autism spectrum. Anything from an unexpected gunshot or whistle to an intolerant audience can ruin the experience, said Alayne Dolson, executive director of VSA Montana, the state organization on arts and disability.

“Part of this is to help people realize they may have somebody in their family that would do fine at a production. This is a safe way to find out that their kids will handle it,” Dolson said.

It was a parent who inspired MCT executive director Michael McGill to try an adaptive performance. Last week’s “34th Street” production was the second such play put on by MCT; the first was “Once Upon a Mattress” last spring.

“My child has autism and (‘Mattress’) is her favorite movie on television,” the parent wrote to McGill. “I don’t get to go to theater events with her very often. That’s one of those things, there’s too much going on. Have you ever considered doing an adaptive show for people on the autism spectrum?”

McGill knew adaptive performances had been done. But professional companies being able to pull it off was one thing.

“I thought, even though we’re just volunteers, I’m going to bring this to the community, meaning the cast and staff. Everyone just embraced the concept with such heart that it seemed like the right thing to do,” McGill said.

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Luckily, McGill said, Dolson works in the MCT building.

The “34th Street” cast rehearsed for the shortened show between weekend performances. Especially loud or emotional scenes were deleted, new lines were committed to memory and rehearsed with a different delivery.

“I just talked about the sensory things that might need to be toned down, like volume and lighting, flashing lights and loud noise. It’s not going to be scary, generally – if people are warned, they’re fine,” Dolson said.

Dolson also helped spread the word about the show.

Last Tuesday, she set up an activity corner underneath the Christmas tree inside the building’s lobby. There was a corner filled with pillows, too, for anyone who needed a break during the performance.

Dolson greeted Lisa Langston as she made her way through the lobby to see the show. Langston came with her two grown daughters, one of whom has classic autism, to support the idea of adaptive performances.

Like many parents who watched the show, Langston would “never” have gone to a non-adaptive performance.

“There was no way, when she was younger, we would have been able to go. We wouldn’t have been welcome,” Langston said. “I’m hoping (adaptive performances) will happen more and more. We’re up to 1 in 88 kids being born are on the (autism) spectrum, so when you think about that, this is part of our community. It’s going to be a large segment of our population and it’s nice to have folks be aware of that and helping out.”

“This is what I wanted to see, right here,” she said, motioning to the full lobby of families being ushered into the theater for the start of the first act. “It’s just that they’re here – they got to come. They’re present with their kids and ready to go.” 

***

Before the show started, McGill and Wineman gave a short introduction.

“There’s some things to look forward to,” McGill said, prompting a piece of the stage to swing open. “It makes a rumble, but that’s normal.” 

Then green glow sticks were raised by volunteers in the front row to alert parents that noise – and the show – was about to begin.

Amy Cohen watched the audience from the stage, where she brought to life the character of Doris Walker. Over the course of the show, Walker and her daughter Susan – played by 11-year-old Abby Racicot – come to find Kriss Kringle might just be the man they don’t believe in.

“Having good diction and projection, and feeding the scene with proper emotion without displaying an upsetting version of anger or needlessly loud noise, I think that was the challenge,” Cohen said. “With so much of the audience in the same boat, you’re locked into a special form of focus. Abby and I talked before the show about how that was difficult, but it wasn’t a challenge that was intimidating. We just said,

‘This is what we’re doing, now let’s get it done.’ ” 

Some house lights were kept on during the performance. Instead of a black hole, Cohen saw faces.

“The applause became not so important,” Cohen said. “For me, how I knew I was doing a good job was when I looked into the crowd and saw people looking back at me. There were moments of a collective hush, the hush was more meaningful than the applause. It’s very rare that a performer gets to experience something like that.”

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Lisa O’Hern came out of the first act already sure Santa was her favorite part of the show.

O’Hern sings in the VSA adult special needs choir led by Dolson, but had never been to a play before.

“It’s all about acceptance,” said O’Hern’s mom, Cathy. “It’s great because it’s a journey for all of these kids. It’s a great experience to bring everyone together, we’re all here for one interest.” 

MCT’s adaptive performances are “truly unique,” said Doug Doty, coordinator of the Montana Autism Education Project for the state Office of Public Instruction. Few other adaptive performance options are available in the Northwest.

“I think it’s important for families, first of all. Other people have kids on the autism spectrum here. If you’re going to a movie or play, they may continue to talk or make noise or rock. This is an opportunity where people are going to say, ‘Yeah, whatever, my kid does that, too,’ ” Doty said.

Doty also praised the creation of MCT’s “social story,” and uses it as an example in his presentations.

The MCT social story explains the theater experience in 14 pages: the places, noises and people an audience member will encounter during a play.

“When the show starts, an actor will start to sing. If it is too loud, I can cover my ears, wear headphones, or hold a parent or grownup’s hand,” it explains.

***

Sequoia Fitzpatrick watched the second act from the other side of the theater, stage right, sitting on Jed’s lap as Kriss Kringle is unfairly accused of violence and brought in front of a judge, where he must prove his real identity.

Efforts of believers – from the recently converted Walkers to the always faithful Fred Gaily – help sway the sometimes grumpy Judge Martin Group.

“The question of Santa Claus is firmly a matter of opinion,” Group, played by Augustine Guerrero, tells the packed courtroom waiting to see if Kringle would be condemned and committed. “This court intends to keep an open mind.”

The judge’s decision that Kringle is the real Santa shows “it’s about believing and believing in each other. It’s really an amazing story and amazing vibe you feel by doing this show and by playing this role,” said Eric Heuchert, who plays Kringle and had never done an adaptive show before.

“It’s about community, and what we’re doing in community theater is bringing everyone together. A performance like this epitomizes that,” he said.

After the show, Sequoia met Santa and chased a Santa bouncy ball he gave her through the lobby.

“The best thing was the amount of freedom if our daughter needed to make noise or get up and move around, and just the degree of acceptance that we found here was really nice and warming,” Jessica said. “She had a blast. She’s so wound up, we might be here all night.” 

Cohen visited with several guests after the show. One boy who has Down syndrome told her he didn’t like the show, but he liked her singing.

Either way, Cohen was energized and inspired.

“Every so often you have to justify what you’re doing to yourself. When you do a stripped-down performance of a kind of extravagant show, the goal is really just about connection in a very profound way, especially when some people in the audience have a direct block in their ability to connect with others. The show really gave me an amazing feeling of love,” Cohen said.

“I want to say thanks to the families for bringing their kids to the theater. I just was so happy they were in the audience. They really did something for me.” 

Reporter Jenna Cederberg can be reached at 523-5241 or at jenna.cederberg@missoulian.com. Photographer Tom Bauer can be reached at 523-5270 or a tbauer@missouian.com.

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