St. Paul project intended to make stage performances accessible to all

By KAITLYN NAPLES
STAFF WRITER
Local theater productions are open to everyone, and are a great way for families to come out and support their fellow citizens who are actors and actresses.
However, sometimes families with children who have special needs may have a difficult time bringing them to things like theater performances.
Mark Mazzarella, director of Performing Arts at St. Paul Catholic High School, is spearheading a new project called “The Ovation Theater Project” that will have one performance night available for families who have children with autism or other special needs.
Mazzarella said he heard someone once talk about how they had never been able to see a live performance with their child, who has autism, because it was too difficult for the child to be in that setting.
“I love theater, and I think everyone should experience theater, so I wanted to make that available to everyone,” Mazzarella said.
He and his brothers own Mazzarella Media, a company that creates educational videos for schools and home-school markets. He said within the last four years, the company has been making videos for children with autism, which also gave him the idea to come up with this project that will help make live theater more accessible to families.
Interested parents will bring their child or children to the performance geared towards families that have children with special needs, with the hopes of beginning to get them used to a kind of setting that includes applause, music, lighting, singing, dancing and more.
“We want to have families come in and feel comfortable,” Mazzarella said. “I’ve been training my actors to focus on the performance and deliver the story, so they won’t be disturbed by children who may be making noise or who are standing, instead of sitting in a chair.”
He said he has done some research on this kind of project and has only seen a similar initiative on Broadway, where they lower music and light changes for children. Mazzarella said his project is part of a process that will hopefully help children overcome fears and anxiety of being in a theater setting, walking though a lobby, watching rehearsals, and more, through “systematic desensitization” which is a behavioral therapy that can help children or adults overcome phobias or anxiety disorders, he said.
“Families will get to experience something they may have never experienced before,” Mazzarella said. “If we can offer them that, and try to make their lives a little bit easier during the performance, then it will be a step in the right direction.”
In November, St. Paul Performing Arts will be presenting Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” and the opening night on Nov. 8 will be the performance devoted to families with children who have special needs and autism.
“A hometown theater is a place these children can get used to,” Mazzarella said, adding that his goal is to take this project to high schools around the country, so that these performances are opened up to an entirely new audience. “It’s just important to let these families know that there is a place they can go.”
He said during the performance families shouldn’t feel uncomfortable about leaving or stepping out for a little while with children. He added that there will be a quiet room at the school where children can go to look at books about theater or color.
The performance for families with autistic or special needs children will be on Thursday, Nov. 8 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Paul Catholic High School, 1001 Stafford Ave. On Nov. 8, families can print out their free admission tickets on St. Paul’s website, www.spchs.net, and for the rest of the performances tickets will be $8 for students, $12 for seniors and $15 for adults and can also be purchased online. The show will run the weekend of Nov. 9, with shows on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and a matinee show on Sunday at 2 p.m.