Like many festive occasions, “A Perfect Party for Trees” involves giving and receiving presents: a pine cone, a jar of found objects, a song, even a badger and a bird (both are inventively portrayed by puppets). But perhaps the greatest gift this new play offers its audience is intangible: the freedom to be themselves.
The show’s producer, the Trusty Sidekick Theater Company, has created an interactive woodland adventure for children ages 5 and older who are on the autism spectrum. In the show, which is filled with music, young spectators become part of the cast and can participate — or not — while happily defying the constraining conventions of traditional theater. Sit still? This production is a promenade. Be quiet? Please sing along. Don’t get your hands dirty? The plot of “A Perfect Party” includes treasure boxes, filled with trinkets and real dirt, that children can dig into.
“It feels like a celebration of this audience instead of a segregation of this audience,” Leigh Walter, Trusty Sidekick’s executive creative producer and the play’s director, said in a recent interview with the show’s creative team. “It’s us, like, going into a public space and throwing a party like we’re throwing a party.”
City parks provide the convivial setting. Originally scheduled to debut in June on the Autism Nature Trail at Letchworth State Park in Castile, N.Y. — a coronavirus outbreak in the cast ended that plan — “A Perfect Party” will now have multiple performances, all free, on Sunday at the Little Island Storytelling Festival in Manhattan and Sept. 23 to 25 at Brooklyn Bridge Park. (Email registration is strongly encouraged, though walk-ups are allowed, space permitting.)
The show is a birthday tribute to the spirit of the forest. Two quirky characters — the Beekeeper (John Rankin III) and the Bear (Jesse Greenberg) — join forces with Ms. Branch (Naeemah Z. Maddox), a cheerful delivery person who transports both the birthday presents that the cast and the audience create and the offerings that the forest spirit unexpectedly leaves.
Arriving in acorn-shaped containers, the spirit’s gifts include the Badger, assembled on the spot from a sock, a cushion and a couple of back scratchers, and the Thrush, whose components are a gourd, a handkerchief and a penny whistle. Designed by Eric Wright, a founder of the Puppet Kitchen, these transformative animals underscore that objects, like people, can play many roles.
“We’re trying to create this perfect party for the spirit to come out and visit us,” Walter said. “And all along the way as well, our characters are sort of stumbling along in this story of self-acceptance, really of discovering themselves.”
Trusty Sidekick is undergoing its own process of self-discovery. A pioneer in theater for audiences with autism — it has created two such commissions for Lincoln Center, whose Big Umbrella Festival for children on the spectrum is also this weekend — the company is staking new territory with this mobile, open-air play.
“I wanted to see what we could do to give all the characters a little story arc and have the audience move with that story arc,” said Marty Allen, the show’s playwright.
Because the spectators change locations twice during each 45-minute performance, Greenberg and Maddox, who are also the production’s composers, chose percussive, acoustic instruments that are easily transportable, including a kalimba (thumb piano), a pandereta (hand-held drum) and a West African bell. (At one point, children can choose from a variety of small instruments to join in.) The main musical source, however, is a lightweight glockenspiel, which Greenberg plays with yarn mallets, yielding a softer, more ethereal sound.
“We definitely wanted textures and timbres that would be clear, but not too intense,” he said.
Reactions to sound, however, were just one consideration. In creating theater for audiences who might find certain sensations stressful, Trusty Sidekick not only tried out aspects of the show in classrooms of autistic children but also, for the first time, brought people on the spectrum onto the creative team.
“There’s the common saying, ‘If you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum,’” said Andrew M. Duff, the play’s associate director, who was diagnosed when he was 2. In addition to making audience members comfortable by incorporating repetitive gestures and rhythms into the show, Trusty Sidekick will email registering families an intake form about their children’s individual sensitivities. The company can then take the responses into account when performing.
Every moment of interactivity is also a choice: Audience members who don’t want to dig with their fingers can use small shovels or simply “supervise”; those who don’t want the treasure boxes’ unearthed trinkets to become gifts can hang onto them during the show.
Children might even “chuck the box and dirt,” Duff said. He added, “I think my job, more than anything, was just to encourage our cast and crew to not only be prepared for that, but to look for moments of encouragement in these styles of play.”
“A Perfect Party” ultimately teaches that perfection is illusory: In life, the different, the unusual, the flawed can often be the most prized. When a speech to that effect was cut during the play’s development, Twig Hu, the show’s 18-year-old assistant director, who is also on the spectrum, asked that it be restored. “It was important for people to hear,” she said.
Trusty Sidekick, which also produces theater for general audiences, wants these children to know that they won’t be judged. However they choose to participate, Allen said, “there’s just not a wrong way to be here with us.”