Abhishek Sanyal, 18, has three great fears in his life: heights, death and young children. When his school’s biennial school production “The Lion King” was being cast, it would seem impossible that he would be cast as Mufasa, the Lion King. After all, he was gloriously unsuited for the role: the character had to climb Pride Rock, hold a child high above him, and later, die.
However, teachers at the Kaleidoscope Learning Centre at V-Excel Educational Trust, a non-profit organization that works with special needs children, primarily conditions that fall within the Autism Spectrum Disorder, thought he would be perfect for the role.
“It’s mostly about the journey of the production,” says Gita Bhalla, associate director of V-Excel and principal of Kaleidoscope Learning Centre, “It is the perfect situation for Abhishek (Sanyal), for example, to overcome his fears.”
And so, it is on a Tuesday morning, at rehearsal, that Sanyal mouths the dialogues, as Aaqila, who plays Simba, sometimes prompts him. About 80 children, mostly in their late teens, some of whom are in the Vocational Training Unit, are waiting for their cue. On one side, a child closes his ears, for his sound sensitivity is through the roof. In another, one of the actors repeats his actions waving his hands in a circular motion. One child drops to the floor, wailing. Staff and teachers, many of whom are also part of the play, are at hand, and let children go through it. There is no removal of a child from the scene, and no shouting if a child misses a cue.
(Aaqila, who plays Simba)
While the therapeutic advantages of theatre for children with special needs have been well documented, staging productions can be quite challenging. Many of the children who fall within the Autism Spectrum have heightened sound, light and sensory sensitivity, rendering the stage a counter-intuitive choice to engage the children.
This is V-Excel’s seventh annual day with a play (it alternates with a themed Sports Day), and its most ambitious. It was not meant to be so, say sisters Neha Bharadwaj, academic coordinator and Puja Bhalla, psychologist, co-directors of the play.
“It’s a story that puts forth the idea of remembering who you are, and what is special about you. For our older kids, who are stepping into vocational training, it raises really pertinent issues,” Puja says.
What’s more, they knew The Lion King like the back of their hand.
However, it proved easier said than done. For one, the characters were animals, which meant that actors would have to walk like the animals they represented. Plus, the scenes are choreographed, so the children have to move from one part of the stage to another. Added to that were the dialogues.
“It ended up being the most complex play we have staged,” laughs Bharadwaj.
However, it is through the sessions that they learn, get perspective, break boundaries, and expand their possibilities, says Ajita Panshikar, executive director of V-Excel. “By entering into another person’s character, children are often able to be themselves,” says Panshikar.
Theatre has long been part of the day at the school, one of the very few in India that incorporate the Waldorf curriculum for special needs students.
A production such as The Lion King, intrinsically holds benefits with social skills, something children with special needs typically struggle with. Educationally, cognition (understanding the story), attention (getting cues right), and memory are all enhanced during the process of the production. Two of the scenes have also been directed by the children themselves.
“I always say that my annual day is over before it happens on stage—the magic is in the process,” says Bhalla.
Radhika Soundararajan, director of the AIM for Seva Krupa Home, a residential facility for adult men with developmental disabilities, says that staging plays provides an opportunity to not just showcase talent, but also to give the differently-abled a sense of validation. “When we staged ‘Smile’, an inclusive play, it was heartening to see their self-esteem go up several notches. For days afterward, they were talking about their part in the play.”
It’s not just the children who realize their potential: There are teachers who go on stage for the first time in their lives, staff who realize their artistic side and latent singers and dancers who burst into song and dance on stage.
Old car seats are brought on to stage in their new avatar as a cave, old cardboard boxes find new life as a pool, and painted brooms make up the tall African Savannah. All the props are made by the students at their Vocational Training Unit and by teachers, and it brings the entire V-Excel community together.
Bhalla, meanwhile wishes that it wasn’t just the V-Excel community. “Children here belong to all of us, and it would be wonderful if the community around us said, ‘Let’s showcase the children’s talent’, and came forward to engage with the production.”
At the end of the practice session, there is a round of applause. Special mention is made of Kailash, who plays Scar. He’s visibly happy, and in one corner, a child raises his hands high up to close his ears to block out the sound of applause, leaving his palms free to clap above his head.
The Lion King will be staged at Narada Gana Sabha, Chennai, at 3:30 p.m. on April 9. Admission free.