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New Victory Blog

The New Victory Blog is a place to learn more about New York's theater for families and the shows we produce. Find out what we do and what we're passionate about—exploring the arts as a family.

The jovial and jaw-dropping BELLO MANIA, featuring more mania than ever before, has made a triumphant return to The New Victory Theater! We caught up with Michael Karas, juggler extraordinaire and one of the newest members of Bello’s troupe, to find out how his #LoveOfTheater began. Haven’t had a chance to see Bello and his crew’s crazy antics yet? Check out our trailer, then read on for Michael's interview!
 

Michael KarasWhat inspired you to get into juggling?
When I was younger, I went to an arts festival in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There, I remember watching a guy juggle three wooden mallets and play a song on a xylophone at the same time!  I thought it was the coolest thing, and I was inspired to learn absolutely everything I could about juggling. Not only was juggling fun, but it made people smile!

How did you hone your craft?
I learned how to juggle in a number of different ways. First, I read every book from my local library on how to juggle. The art really came to life for me when I was a child actor; I was in a show with a fellow actor who taught me the very basic skills of juggling. A few years later, another friend of mine taught me how to juggle three clubs. From there I began to teach myself, and often watched video tutorials to master different juggling techniques. I enjoyed juggling so much, it never felt like practice!

How did you conceptualize, and ultimately realize, your solo acts in Bello Mania?
I don't always perform in theaters as large as The New Victory, so right away I knew my acts had to be BIG! I made sure to use extra large rings and balls that would be bold enough for everyone in the audience to see, from the orchestra all the way up to the balcony.  

For the first act, I wanted to do something more along the lines of a "classic" juggling performance, so I chose jazzy music to accompany difficult and flashy tricks with clubs and rings. For the second act, I switched it up and used a mix of popular hip-hop songs to bring some "New York flavor" to Bello Mania. Lastly, I knew that Bello loves to be silly, so I had to bring my puppet act, "Mahna Mahna," to the show!
 
The tiny puppets of Comet in Moominland encounter a monster
The playful puppetry and detailed sets of Manitoba Theatre for Young People's Comet in Moominland opened our 2007-08 season.

Fred Garbo in an inflatable suit, Naielma Santos and an inflatable dog
In 2002, Fred Garbo and Naielma Santos of Fred Garbo Inflatable Theater Co. covered our stage with air-filled props, long before inflatable snowglobes were a thing.

We hear you saw Comet in Moominland and Fred Garbo Inflatable Theater Co. when you were a kid. Both shows played right here at the New Vic! Where did you see them?
I actually saw those shows back home in Pittsburgh where I grew up, but my memory of them has always stuck with me. I remember Comet in Moominland was performed "in the round," meaning the audience sat in all directions around the stage, and the action happened in the center—I didn’t know theater could be done in that way! When I saw Fred Garbo Inflatable Theater Co., it was on a very big stage; the entire production was so visually-striking, it’s something I’ll never forget.

How do you think your #LoveOfTheater has grown since those early theatergoing experiences?
My parents felt that taking their child to see theater was essential, and I'm so grateful they held that belief. As an adult, I still go to the theater quite often. I try to see around five to ten shows a month! I have always admired how fearless live actors, performers and entertainers are. Now that I’m older, and a performer myself, I understand how important it is to support live theater and entertainment.

In your New Vic Bill bio, you mention that you "LOVE being an audience member." Can you tell us more about that?
As much as I love performing, I also love being an audience member. Having been on both sides of the curtain, I can appreciate, as an audience member, the amount of work that goes into every single show. When I see a show, it inspires me to make my own art. Sometimes just sitting in a theater and watching a performance gives me hundreds of new ideas.

Why should families see Bello Mania?
Bello Mania is a perfect family show. It gets everyone laughing and saying "wow" together!  Kids will laugh at Bello's wacky shenanigans and adults will appreciate how skillful all the performers are. Bello's goal is to bring multiple generations together to laugh and be amazed at the same time. Kids will be inspired to try new feats and adults will re-connect with the curious child inside each of them.  
 
 
Bello Mania icon Be sure to catch Michael Karas and the rest of the BELLO MANIA family performing at The New Victory Theater through May 1, 2016. Who knows? Your #LoveOfTheater may begin—or grow—when you witness harrowing high wire hijinks, the show-stopping sway pole or Michael’s jazzy juggling!
Posted by Zack Ramadan

Written by Aliza Greenberg, Arts Enrichment Coordinator for LearningSpring School

"Are we going to The New Victory Theater?"

 

The staff of Autism-Friendly Spaces poses with the cast of THE GRUFFALO
Aliza, bottom row and left of center, gives good Gruffalo face with her fellow AFS volunteers at an Autism-Friendly Performance of The Gruffalo.
After attending Handa's Surprise at The New Victory Theater, I get asked this question by my youngest students almost every day. Handa’s Surprise wasn't designed specifically for kids on the autism spectrum, nor was the production adapted to be autism-friendly; but the format of the show and the welcoming environment that The New Victory provides allowed my students on the autism spectrum to have a fun, positive, memorable day at the theater.
 
LearningSpring School, where I am the Arts Enrichment Coordinator, is a school for students on the autism spectrum. From my past experiences with The New Victory as a volunteer with Autism-Friendly Spaces, I knew the New Vic to be committed to providing a supportive and inclusive theatergoing environment for young people with autism. 

The New Victory partners with Autism-Friendly Spaces to train their staff and help plan and coordinate their autism-friendly performances. While volunteering, I've seen a staff passionate about making their theater an inclusive space, and I've had the chance to collaborate with the fantastic New Victory Usher Corps. Everyone I've worked with at the theater has been eager to learn more about autism and provide the most comfortable theatergoing environment possible for this population, so I knew that even if the performance wasn’t specifically autism-friendly, it would still be a welcoming environment for my students. 

 

A stop-motion animation of a star falling from the sky, and a man and a cat climbing the mountains to retrieve it.
Student animation made in preparation for The Star Keeper.

A drawing of purple avocados annotated with 'My favorite part was the avocados'
Fruit-filled post-show reflection from Handa's Surprise.

A drawing of a smiling figure on a bed over water annotated with 'Imagination bed of magic!'
The best bed ever, from a post-show reflection following The Star Keeper.
Through the Education Partnership Program, my students and I have had the pleasure of attending three productions this year, and we have a fourth coming up in May. Not every show is the right fit for every student, so the New Victory Education staff worked with me to identify the shows that would best engage students on the autism spectrum at different ages. We chose shows that had multi-sensory engagement (words, music, strong visuals) but were not overly stimulating to the senses. The Education staff also seated our group close to the exits in case any of my students needed a break.

For each show we see, we begin preparing a month—sometimes two months—in advance. One of the ways we prepare is by learning as much as possible about the productions beforehand, and by engaging students in the art forms they will experience. For Handa's Surprise, we explored the book, re-enacted the story with fruit made from clay and learned some of the show’s music—the fruit lullaby has even become a classroom calming ritual! 

The New Victory Teaching Artists who visited our school also provided interesting ways to engage with the shows’ art forms. All the Teaching Artists have been eager to work with us and learn more about how to best support students on the autism spectrum. We have been able learn side by side as educators and artists in this process. 

Of course, necessary preparations extend well beyond engagement with story and art forms. Individuals with autism often do not know the social conventions associated with going to the theater, and the theatergoing experience can present many challenges. It's dark and quiet, and sounds and visual effects that excite the senses often occur without warning. There’s also little opportunity to move around.

To help prepare my students, I create social stories explaining the events and social expectations of the day. I also create theater strategy cards for them to be able to easily identify their needs using pictures during the show. For The Gruffalo, inspired by to the New Victory School Tool®, we all made Bravery Backpacks and filled them with calming strategies that students could use during the performance: putting on noise-canceling headphones, handling a fidget, asking for help from a teacher, getting a drink of water or taking a break.
 
Strategy card with a grid of simple images labeled 'I will remember to use whole body listening: eyes watch, ears listen, quiet mouth, body calm'
Strategy card with a grid of simple images labeled 'In the theater, I can point to a strategy to tell my teacher what I need: break, headphones, fidget, water, bathroom'
Example in-theater strategy cards, along with our Bravery Backpack worksheet.

My students love the theater, and they deserve to experience the joy of theatergoing as much as any kid. I look forward to more theaters presenting productions that support and engage individuals with autism. And just as The New Victory has welcomed our students to the theater, even when the performance was not specifically autism-friendly, I hope more theaters will begin opening their doors to individuals with autism. But to my kids' question, "Are we going to The New Victory Theater?", my answer will always be, "Soon!"

 


 
Aliza Greenberg Aliza Greenberg is the Arts Enrichment Coordinator at LearningSpring School. No stranger to the autism community, Aliza served as the Autism and Education Specialist with Trusty Sidekick Theater Company during their development of Up and Away. She also volunteers with Autism-Friendly Spaces and the Theater Development Fund's Autism Theater Initiative and is a Project Leader for the Museum Access Consortium's Supporting Transitions project. Aliza's brother is on the autism spectrum and, thanks to increasing initiatives to make theater autism-friendly, she brought him to his first performance last year!
Posted by Zack Ramadan
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