Recently on of our Best mums posted a tweet that gained over 100k likes, 1 million views and 5.5k retweets. It was about her autistic son’s positive experience at Best Theatre Arts and as well as provoking a reaction in the ‘Twittersphere’ it certainly provoked a reaction from us.
It was our ability and willingness to integrate his fact-learning ‘super power’ into our show that surprised and delighted the readers and while it seemed second nature to us we were surprised that this approach seemed to be out of the ordinary and special in some way. After all, this is what we do at Best: we encourage all our students to ‘Find your light’.
Annette and I vowed when we set up Best in 1998 that its central tenet would be one of equality of opportunity and the careful focus on individual relationships.
Every child is different – and we mean EVERY child. As they get older their needs change, sometimes significantly, and often the performing arts environment is where these needs are most clearly expressed, especially if the child feels they are in a safe space. We try to understand these needs and work with them, rather than trying to make them conform to preconceived norms, and try to find chances to express themselves through performing arts. One of our key opportunities to do this is in our annual shows.
To give us the flexibility to adapt, we never put on standard shows like ‘Oliver’, ‘Annie’ etc – usually these give a handful of kids a big chunk and leave the rest to run on and off occasionally. Also there are very strict rules about what you can and can’t do to the script. So we write our own – like ‘Dreamcatcher’, Sunlight’, ‘Timonfeya’ and ‘Histeria’, adapt classics like ‘Twelfth Night’, or produce a showcase of sketches and vignettes and even then we are constantly augmenting to shape the shows around the specific casts that inhabit them. This means, for example, that there are three very different versions our current show.
People often ask us why we don’t audition. It’s for many reasons. Children have enough stress in their lives without adding a further public examination with a somewhat binary outcome. And we know them and what they might be capable of so why ask them to prove it? Our amazing successes in the National Theatre Connections programmes with ’The Boy Preference’ and ‘These Bridges’ were with casts whom we’d never auditioned but had grown up with us. We knew what we thought they were capable of (even if they didn’t immediately believe it themselves) and they delivered. And some. The upcoming show from our current older cohort, ‘Find A Partner’ is showing signs of brilliance too.
In the case of our current Musical Theatre show for 6 to 16’s, WhatUWill, we discussed casting with the groups and which roles they felt interested in and they almost completely cast themselves. And we are doubling some roles to make it even more fair.
So @naomi_rovnick’s son’s experience is not unusual at Best Theatre Arts, but she has managed to encapsulate in a brief tweet what we’ve been trying to explain to everyone for the last 24 years!