BurkTech Players Use Theatre to Help Those with Autism

Clay Martin wanted to do something for the Burkhart Center, and he came up with this acting group. So when I came here to visit the school as a potential MFA candidate, one of the things that I saw was the the Burkhart Center being built next door to us which they explained was a new department for autism education research that they were building. And
it’s something that I had actually experienced in my professional career as an actor. Actually, a man that I worked with in one of my first jobs, his sister, who is in her 50’s, was on the spectrum. And because of being on stage and being
in an acting family and being involved in theatre, she had learned to communicate
with people much better than she was as a child. But it was because of theatre that
she was able to do that. Between the community service program and Clay’s
interest in doing something meaningful as a theater production with folks with autism, we
really started building a partnership that led to two things. One is the community service classes, and that’s where theater and dance graduate students and undergraduate students lead classes for children with autism in the community. At the Burkhart Center at our
first class, Dr. Wesley Dotson said, “It’d be great if we could have a performance at the end of this.” And we were thinking, “How are we going to do that if we’re only there for a short period of time?” In that amount of time, that’s right. With students who had not much experience.
And what they pulled off at the end of that was the beginning of the BurkTech Players. And that is a theatre troupe of Texas Tech theatre and dance students and young adults on the autism spectrum. So Clay and I took that upon ourselves to actually kind of help re-formulate the BurkTech Players which allowed students from the Transition
Center to come and work on theatre with students from the School of Theatre and Dance to be able
to you create these wonderful productions and to allow them to actually get the
experience of performing alongside soon-to-be professionals within the theatrical world. We had a guest artist, Jaston Williams, who comes in, the author and performer in Greater Tuna We were over there and they decided that we wanted to really push for professional activity. Not just something that was in the realm of appeasing parents. And they kind of brought me in to watch it. You know, I don’t tell too many people
what to do. If I see something that obviously needs work, you know. I mean,
I’ve had a life in the theatre and so you know I can save people a lot of time. You know,
save them a lot of time [laughs] You know, I can just tell you. I can tell you right now, that ain’t one gonna work! I’m sorry! [laughs] But it’s been a joy. One of my personal teachers from the Burkhart Center said, “Hey, we’re starting this kind of theater group and we thought maybe you can be a
part of it, so I decided to jump on board on a whim and it turned out to be the most amazing decision I’ve ever made. Getting to be involved with these plays and having to really work with these people on
the live theatre experience. A lot of people who are on the spectrum have trouble with spontaneous and adapting behavior and social interaction, and theatre provides a groundwork. A practice area. It’s a laboratory for them to have a structured experiment with social
interaction and to work on skills that they have without the variability or the
pressure of failing. They actually get to see what’s it like
to rehearse a show, be able to put on a show with blocking,
memorizing lines, and things like that. They also get to see what the entire
design process is like from sets, costumes, sound, anything that goes into actual
theatrical production. It really kind of gives me a place to be emotional where I couldn’t be in real life. Being able to portray these different characters, and being able to express emotion sets in other places I wouldn’t. It’s just an incredible way to escape to
my own personal playground, if you would. I have a child that is on the autism spectrum. And I know that people can sometimes be just fearful, you know, of something that they don’t quite
understand. And understanding autism is, you know, every autistic person is
different. They’re all degrees of it and the way my son’s manifest is different
than the way some other people’s manifest but what you discover is that you, you know, you discover your own humanity. We had an incident a few weeks ago in one
of the last classes where one of the young boys who had been in the class very
rarely talked. As he was leaving, he turned around to all the other theatre students and waved and said, “Bye!” That was the first time he’d spoken
to any of them in the class, and we barely have a dry eye in the room when something like that happens. But for our Tech students to get to experience that kind of breakthrough with a student, to realize what they’re doing matters is really powerful, and we love what we’re seeing it do for our Tech students. Our motto for the first semester was: “If it
were easy everybody would do it.” And we’ve had a lot of interesting experiences along the way, and we’re getting this down, and we’re figuring out how to get out in the
community. We know that our students though are benefiting as much as they are because they’re learning real sensitivity to another partner. And I think that the BurkTech players has really got some things in store that’ll really propel us into being a real solid theatre corps. After I graduate, I’d like to do more official acting. Every time we’ve done something we
push farther into new areas and kept expanding and everything we’ve done, and
I don’t know how, but it’s turned out to be a tremendous success, and not
only provided growth for the students in the Burkhart Center but also for our
community as well. The BurkTech Players… their degree
of honesty was astounding. And it’s a real hard thing to teach because people get
hung up on the words, you know, and don’t realize what it’s about so much more
than the words. The words are there to supplement the action, and watching them was, oh, they’re marvelous. [applause and cheering]

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