This Bryn Mawr nonprofit is using theatre to engage individuals with autism

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Theatrical performances are not always accessible for individuals with autism. But with QUILT, a multifaceted initiative that offers engagement and performance opportunities for young people with autism, Wolf Performing Arts Center (Wolf PAC) in Bryn Mawr hopes to make theatre enjoyable for people of all abilities.

“I have two siblings on the spectrum,” said Brandi Burgess, program director for the initiative and a professional actor. “I was immersed in acting training growing up, and one day when I overheard my brother participating in occupational therapy I thought, ‘This is theatre!’”

The South Philly resident has since built an impressive résumé based on the intersection of acting and autism, blending her passion for theatre with her interest in adaptable performance at disability-focused theatre programs in Alabama, New York City and Norristown. 

And since assuming a full-time position at Wolf PAC, a nonprofit that aims to enrich the lives of aspiring performers through creating theatre, Burgess has wanted to start her own program specifically designed for individuals on the spectrum.

“Theatre is so adaptable to uniqueness,” Burgess said. “In a world where individuals with autism have to adapt every day just to survive, I love the idea of having a program that instead adapts to them.” 

Wolf PAC training

Inclusion training. (Courtesy photo)

Burgess has reached out to fellow teaching artists, families of individuals with autism, medical professionals, and other community members to publicize QUILT — tagline: “A Patchwork of Possibilities” — which is set to launch this fall. The program will be tailored to each individual student’s needs. 

Though much of the program is still in the planning stages, Burgess has already established an eight-person advisory board.

“When I was growing up, I taught theater to kids, many of them with special needs, and I knew that I wanted to work with kids with special needs in some capacity when I was older,” said board member Alyssa Rosen, a pediatric neurologist who specializes in epilepsy and autism spectrum disorders.

“I see kids with autism and other disabilities in a clinical setting, but I also use my theatre skills a lot in my work,” Rosen added. “I sing and use creative ways to engage kids and get them through exams, which can sometimes be difficult. I see helping to design QUILT as a way to finally blend my two passions.”

The intersectionality of QUILT’s mission, in addition to Burgess’s dynamism, have aided in establishing relationships with local organizations. Though some partnerships still have to be finalized, QUILT has already connected with Something Different by Eric, a local nonprofit that supports young adults with special needs; Great Expectations Together, a community center focused on inclusion in Narberth; and other groups affiliated with some of its board members.

“I’m hoping that we can partner with as many organizations as possible,” Burgess said. “Collaboration is inherent in our structure, and we want to reach as many people as we are able to.”

Burgess also recently held a community forum for QUILT, during which she shared the initiative’s goals, discussed the benefits of theatre engagement, and asked attendees to share their thoughts and ideas for the program.

“We had one person come up to us at the forum and say that he would love if there was a stand-up comedy component to our classes in the fall,” Burgess said. “So, we’re going to add that in. Our curriculum is flexible and we’re going to adjust it based on the needs and wants of the individuals who sign up for classes.”