We recently had the chance to talk to Aaron Feinstein; the Executive Director and Founder of Actionplay, which provides inclusive arts, education, and cultural opportunities for people on the autism spectrum and related conditions, and strives to create a more inclusive world. Aaron is also the Director of Big Daddy Autism a documentary film about a single sole-custody father of a non speaking teenager on the autism spectrum living in NYC.
Kerry: Hey Aaron! Tell us how you first got involved with the autism community?
Aaron: I was a freshly graduated MFA Director from UCLA working in the professional theater world when I met Elaine Hall in 2004. She told me about her idea to create an original musical with a group of children on the autism spectrum and their siblings. I thought it sounded like an awesome idea, and even though I had little experience with people on the spectrum, I jumped right in and was one of the directors of our first Miracle Project production. The Miracle Project became the subject of the 2-Time Emmy Award Winning HBO Documentary Autism: The Musical. I don’t think I ever smiled or laughed as much working with this group, and that is one of the reasons why I continue to work in the autism community 11 years later.
Big Daddy Autism might be one of the coolest titles I’ve heard for an autism documentary in a very long time. Can you tell us how the idea of the film came about?
I met Ken and Alex when I was working as a drama teacher at The Rebecca School for children on the autism spectrum in Manhattan. Although I didn’t really work directly with Ken or Alex, I remember Ken was one of the few dads that I would see in the school building. Alex who is non-verbal was having a difficult time back then, and I remember Ken being very patient and non-judgemental. Years later I was telling my friend in the community that I wanted to make a documentary, and she told me that Ken wanted to tell his story. Ken and I spoke on the phone, and he discussed all the ups and downs of being a single dad with sole custody of his son. I thought both Ken and Alex sounded like extraordinary individuals-and I was right. It’s a very inspiring story of unconditional love.
Tell us what was going through your head the night that Actionplay Chorus performed with Weird Al Yankovic and Jodi DiPiazza at a Night of Too Many Stars! That must have been quite a night for everyone!
Oh man, that was one of the best nights ever! Weird Al and Jodi were so cool and such pros. The Actionplay kids loved it. It was such a Hollywood experience from our trailer with a flat-screen feed of the live show, to meeting Jon Stewart and other celebrities backstage. The Actionplay Chorus received a long standing ovation, and it was a real celebration and approval of the work that we’ve been doing for the past several years. It was so rewarding!
So many organizations are looking to include those with special needs with disability-friendly related events. What advice would you give to someone trying to host one of these events in their local community and how to get started?
Reach out to people in the disability community or families with children who have disabilities that you may know directly or through your staff, and invite them to an event! Talk to them about their experience and what kind of adaptations they would make. I don’t really believe in one-size-fits-all adaptations because, for example, the autism spectrum is so incredibly diverse.
I like the idea of sensory friendly events, but I think respect is the most important part of any event. People can always reach out to our staff or myself at Actionplay through our website actionplay.org, and we can help catch folks up to speed on respectful language and help to troubleshoot specific problems or prep staff who are nervous about creating such an offering in the community. We have lots of experience in this work, and we stay on top of the current trends and technologies in the disability community. Don’t be scared! You can do it, and it will be meaningful to the community.
What has been one of your favorite events so far in your work in the disability field?
Definitely Actionplay’s most recent musical comedy production Revenge of the Godz! Actionplay’s performances are way more punk rock than what is typically done within the disability community. We don’t sanitize our shows. We create everything through improvisation, and our shows are funny, moving, uplifting, and full of great music that you’ll be singing the whole way home.
Anything else you’d like to leave with our readers?
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