Autism-Friendly Performances by the Blue Man Group
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Speaker 2: VR Workforce Studio. Inspiration, eduction, and affirmation at work. Welcome to another episode as we open up the VR Workforce Studio to champion the courageous stories of vocational rehabilitation from individuals with disabilities.
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Rick Sizemore: Welcome to episode 72 of the VR Workforce Studio podcast as we celebrate International Podcast Day with a special feature presentation on the Blue Man Group’s autism friendly performances. The Blue Man Group from Boston has announced their fifth annual autism friendly show, which will be held in Boston at the Charles Playhouse on October 19th. These autism friendly performances are suitable for individuals and families affected by autism and other sensory related issues. I was so fortunate this year to see the Blue Man Group with my son Derek who hooked us up with backstage passes and luckily we met and talked with today’s guest, Jason McLin. Learned about Blue Man Group’s upcoming show in October.
Rick Sizemore: Jason is a veteran performer with the Blue Man Group. Joins us now with more on their autism friendly shows. Welcome to the podcast, Jason.
Jason McLin: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Rick Sizemore: Jason, how did these autism friendly shows come about?
Jason McLin: The original idea started in the Chicago production. They shared a close working relationship with their local Autism Speaks chapter and found the partnership can be really fulfilling. So based on that experience, they started to extend it to the other five Blue Man Group cities.
Rick Sizemore: Who offered the suggestion that the typical Blue Man Group performance be altered and why that should happen?
Jason McLin: I think that there was enough of a connection. There was a resident general manager in Las Vegas and his brother was part of Autism Speaks, so there was enough familiarity with Blue Man folk and folk that worked with Autism Speaks where there was somewhat of a shared language of kind of an understanding of how would this look, what would this be like, how can we make this accessible, so really it started from that place. This is something we’d like to do jointly, Blue Man and Autism Speaks. Certainly from our end, it was really a question to them of saying what can we do to make this possible for as many families to come and see the show.
Rick Sizemore: This show is so unique and so exciting, and so energetic. One has to wonder what kinds of things did you consider when you got into that conversation about changing the typical Blue Man show, if any Blue Man show has ever been considered typical?
Jason McLin: Well, I think the exciting thing is that I think one of the reasons the show is so appealing is that it’s operating, it touches people. For us it became a question of what are the things that would be hindrances. So, we have plenty of headphones, so right there we can start to make this adaptable. Even for people who come to see the show that are not impacted by autism, a lot of people will still request to wear some kind of headphone or ear plug, so we knew we had that. Okay, but what if we just turned the volume down? It becomes a question of, I guess if I were to cut to the chase, the question is if you’re trying to make your art accessible, it becomes a question of what then would impinge upon the art itself or what just makes it accessible, right? Like that fine line of what extent are you going to say so and so can’t be a part of this production because it impinges on the artistic integrity?
Jason McLin: And from our vantage point at Blue Man, we were thinking that’s really not an option for us, because this is about connection and relationships. So we want to make it available to everyone if possible.
Rick Sizemore: Everyone should make it a point to see a Blue Man Group show. Getting into a mode where you’re going to change that had to be a little scary.
Jason McLin: I don’t know if I’d use the word scary, but I would acknowledge that certainly from our perspective, we didn’t want to get into a situation where people are going to be uncomfortable, unnerved. And I think from that standpoint, that first show certainly had some of that tension, some of that feeling of like everyone’s on board to do this, Autism Speaks, it was practically a full house. So a lot of families were excited and we the performers, the Blue Man crew, everyone involved on our end. But there was that kind of, “How is this going to go? Are we going to inadvertently create a circumstance where someone is unnerved?” I think that opportunity and beginnings of that relationship far outweighed those concerns.
Jason McLin: On the Autism Speaks end, they are considerably learned and gave us a lot of what to expect and these kinds of things. And interestingly enough, the character, really the blue acts as a neutral mask. There’s an interiority there that the character has. It is acting as it’s permeable, so when you make eye contact with someone or connect with someone, it is this kind of unique experience. When I have done those shows, that is still really there. And I can’t necessarily explain why that is, but a lot of the connections have been really rich with not just the parents, but children themselves. I think while it’s, some would say it’s a little loud, it’s very stimulating to the senses. At its core, that sort of relatability, that part was always going to be there.
Rick Sizemore: How is the show different than the typical show you might see any other week?
Jason McLin: We have the noise reducing headphones, we have the ear plugs. The brightness of the lights are turned down a little bit. We also remove some of the strobe effects that happen. The other thing is that when we go into the audience, a lot of times we’ll literally walk, as you saw, walk into the audience via that seats with people in them. We have a tendency to not do that. We still come into the audience, but we don’t go across the seats. We really leave that open to see what the sense is. The first third before we enter the audience, everyone in real time is sort of gauging how is this being received, how does the audience seem, how are the families looking. That certainly is a lifeline for us, is do the families seem … They’re so versed and they live this every day, that they’re a great barometer of how this is going, the comfort level.
Rick Sizemore: Do you have a favorite story about someone in the audience and the impact that one of these autism friendly shows had on an audience participant?
Jason McLin: I do. It didn’t actually happen to me, but I was able to sort of witness it. At the end of the show, I don’t know if you caught this part, because of course we were meeting upstairs in sort of the VIP area, but downstairs, the other Blue Man goes as the audience leaves and there’s a lounge down there. So we were all down there and taking pictures, and there was another Blue Man across the room, and the child must’ve probably been maybe five or six, four or five or six. And I looked over across the lounge and saw them, and the Blue Man was knelt down, so they were eye to eye, and just … The child was still wearing the noise canceling headphones. They were probably less than a foot from one another and just staring at one another. And it lasted for a long time. I think that’s what I mean where I say of course these differences are largely just addressing those sensory needs and making it conducive because of course, as you know through all your work and all the families that are impacted by autism, the connection, the relatabilty in whatever way it comes together, is happening.
Jason McLin: And as I sort of looked across the room and watched that happen, it was amazing. You’re rarely ever going to get that with people that just come and go. “Oh, right. Great. Thanks a lot. See you later.”
Rick Sizemore: But that connection is powerful.
Jason McLin: Oh, it was amazing. It was very powerful.
Rick Sizemore: And individuals with autism are so unique. Folks that work in the field often have a phrase and they say, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
Jason McLin: Exactly, exactly.
Rick Sizemore: I’m curious, it’s been said that music is a universal language for everyone. What have you seen from the stage that would suggest that that’s true, especially considering these autism friendly shows?
Jason McLin: When my wife was pregnant with our first child, she came to the show and sat in the band loft, and our little one was in there just doing cartwheels, through the whole show. My sense though is kind of how we pay attention, all these discussions, even just introverts and extroverts, right? And this window in our society, a very narrow window of actually how one is supposed to behave or receive information, or acknowledge that they’ve received information, right? We already exist kind of in this super narrow window. And then you have families, I think what’s exciting and what I see in the audience is all of the different expressions of how that connection is being experienced. It pushes the envelope and pushes me to see this really wide spectrum of how we connect or pay attention or receive information. Or relate to our world. And it’s a very positive, I think it’s remarkable to see it.
Rick Sizemore: I’m curious how the process of engaging in these autism friendly shows may have changed you or your fellow Blue Men on stage as you see it unfolding.
Jason McLin: Over the years. For those of us that have done the show a long time, you’re already sort of mitigating this feeling of noticing how we as a culture consume entertainment has changed. So for me as someone that sort of veers towards kind of the Luddite end of things and has grave concerns about screens and everyone experiencing or consuming some kind of entertainment through a screen, seeing that in live performance and wondering do they know, are people acknowledging that this is happening in real time. And when I had started to do, when I had the opportunity to be in these shows and started to see why I was reminded of that very power of seeing things live, in real time, and that palpable sort of moving you at the cellular level connection that happens, why it’s so crucial to see and experience art of any kind live and in person.
Rick Sizemore: Absolutely.
Jason McLin: You know, and I think that was it. And connecting with the families and being a part of something that says we’re working to make this accessible, it was exciting. Thinking again about who is this for, to what end are we doing this, those kinds of larger questions.
Rick Sizemore: It certainly says a lot about you and your fellow performers and the organization wanting to create that connectivity and provide that accessibility for people with autism, and we certainly celebrate that with you. While BMG has regular performances around the country and tours extensively, is the autism friendly show unique to Boston or are they going on in other places, too?
Jason McLin: They do go on other places. Chicago show, those will be on October 6th, their Autism Speaks friendly show is October 6th. Las Vegas has already done theirs. And then ours of course will be on October 19th.
Rick Sizemore: Any final thoughts?
Jason McLin: Generally I sort of like to operate under this notion that there’s sort of nothing happens by accident, and it was a pleasure meeting you and your son in that show, and then to be able to sit down and talk a little bit. I think given in a manner sort of what your personal view on kind of how things are going in our world in this day and age, I do think that most people are looking for a deeper connection in their life. And this partnership and doing this show, certainly is an opportunity for us and Blue Man to have a moment of just that, of seeing what we do in a deeper way. It’s very exciting. This has been a real pleasure.
Rick Sizemore: Jason McLin, veteran performer with the Blue Man Group, comes to us from his home in New England and we thank you so much.
Jason McLin: Thanks so much, Rick.
Rick Sizemore: We’ve included links with more on Blue Man Group’s autism friendly performances as well as ticket and contact information in our show notes at VRWorkforceStudio.com.
Rick Sizemore: We welcome Miss Wheelchair Virginia, Vicki Lee Varner to the podcast as our guest commentator. Vicki, what an amazing interview with the Blue Man Group.
Vicki Varner: Truly. I think it’s so awesome that a group with such a huge following is doing something so awesome with these autism friendly shows. It’s truly amazing.
Rick Sizemore: They are worldwide and if you’ve seen their videos or you’ve been to one of their shows, they take this idea that music is the universal language to a whole new level. It’s crazy. One of the things I love, if you go to their website, it says something to the effect of, “I don’t know what just happened, but I loved it.”
Vicki Varner: I mean, that’s my life. I think it’s everybody’s life, so I love that, too.
Rick Sizemore: The other thing is that, is just amazing for me, is their merch. I learned the word merch from my daughter. I’m 58. I’m a little older and I do have a 15 year old daughter and she said, “What about the merch, dad?” And what we learned at the show is, I bought this coffee cup, okay? And it’s like a black coffee cup, but when you put coffee in it, the Blue Man appear out of the blackness on the cup.
Vicki Varner: What?
Rick Sizemore: It’s crazy. So I took this down to my dad who’s 79 years old who also loves the Blue Men. That’s nuts, right?
Vicki Varner: Yeah.
Rick Sizemore: My daughter, little kids, middle ages people, folks my age and my dad all love the Blue Men.
Vicki Varner: Yeah, that takes some talent to appeal to every age group out there.
Rick Sizemore: They do. And then my mother, we took her the hat that says, “Get your glow on,” so she’s wearing that to her church group meetings and getting all these comments about, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of the Blue Men. I saw them on NPR.” Everyone loves the Blue Men and the fact that they’re reaching out to provide these autism friendly shows. Just a super thing.
Vicki Varner: Yeah. So heart warming, it really is.
Rick Sizemore: Well, Vicki Lee, thanks for being on our show today. Always the best to you and the crew at Miss Wheelchair Virginia.
Vicki Varner: Thank you.
Rick Sizemore: I’d like to thank all of today’s guests as well as Courtney Megliola with Lone Star Marketing for her help in coordinating the interview with Jason and the Blue Man Group. We hope you’ve enjoyed today’s show as much as we have. It means the world to us that you take time out of your busy schedule to listen to these podcasts. We also thank the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation for publishing and distributing the VR Workforce Studio podcast and for all they’re doing to support vocational rehabilitation. You can find out more about them at www.RCF.org. I know they’d love to have you involved. Until next time, I’m Rick Sizemore inviting you to join me as we podcast the sparks that ignite vocational rehabilitation.
Speaker 2: We certainly thank all of our partners in podcasting who made this episode possible. Aladdin Foods. Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities. The Community Foundation of the Central Blue Ridge. The Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation. CVS Health. Dominion Energy. The Hershey Company. The Jesse Ball duPont Fund. United Bank. The Virginia Manufacturer’s Association. And Wells Fargo.