Four-year-old Cruz Taplin is backstage at the Capitol Theatre reaching for the prop oranges and cakes used in the musical Aladdin. Excited, he lets out a squeal when he sees the crystal ball.
Cruz knows the story of Aladdin inside out. He's watched the movie countless times. But coming to the theatre is a whole new world. Diagnosed with autism at age two, Cruz is non-verbal but squeals when he is happy or excited. This makes going to the theatre very difficult, says Cruz's mother, Amy Taplin, of Hoxton Park.
"It is impossible," she says. "He might get out of his seat or squeal and other parents don't like that. The lighting or the sound might bother him, or he'll feel freaked out by the crowds of people."
But the main problem is Amy feels judged by other parents. "People think he is being naughty and I'm not controlling him," she says.
This coming Saturday, however, Amy, Cruz and hundreds of other parents and children will be able to enjoy a special matinee performance of Disney's Aladdin The Musical in a judgement-free "autism-friendly" environment, presented in association with Autism Awareness Australia.
The house lights will be left at 50 per cent so kids don't feel alarmed by the dark and they can, if they need to, get out of their seats and walk around during the show. If a child needs to leave the auditorium for some quiet time there is a comfy beanbag area in the foyer equipped with cuddly toys. Families can bring their own snacks and Autism Awareness Australia volunteers will be on hand throughout the performance.
During the show, the volume of the music will be lowered, and potentially startling sound effects downplayed. Strobe lights and pyrotechnic effects will be turned off.
"This is a show where theatre etiquette is thrown out the window," says Matt Henderson, Aladdin's company manager. "The show is all about the kids feeling free to move and make noise. We minimise the dynamics of the show but it still has all the splendour and spectacle for families to enjoy."
Blockbuster musicals on Broadway have been offering "autism-friendly" shows since 2011. Disney's The Lion King was the first. Others have included The Phantom of the Opera, Mary Poppins, and Matilda. The concept is new in Australia, however.
Disney trialled an "autism-friendly" performance of The Lion King in Sydney two years ago and the Sydney Opera House has staged a number of "relaxed" or "autism/sensory" shows in recent months. Next week it will announce a wider program of shows for children with a range of abilities.
Darling Harbour's Monkey Baa Theatre Company has programmed "relaxed" performances into its season. So, too, has the Sydney Festival and the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta.
"To be honest, I'm just so relieved the theatres are doing this," says Taplin. "To know we will be sitting among other parents who understand is so comforting. Cruz and I are really excited."
Actor Ainsley Melham, who plays Aladdin, says he's performed for children with autism before and found it a buzz. "It's an environment where parents and children feel safe to be themselves. We get such a buzz from all their energy and excitement. The whole cast is looking forward to it. We can't wait to see their awe-inspired little faces."
The autism-friendly matinee of Aladdin The Musical is at the Capitol Theatre on Saturday March 4 at 1.30pm.