And I have a red kite;
I’ll put you right in it.
I’ll show you the sky.
—Sufjan Stevens, “Sister”
Jacqueline Russell wanted to show everyone the sky. That’s one reason she immediately created robust offerings specifically for people with disabilities in her early days founding Chicago Children’s Theatre.
“We wanted to make going to theatre part of their lives too,” said Russell, who serves as the company’s artistic director.
Chicago Children’s Theatre’s Red Kite Project, lovingly named after Sufjan Stevens’s lyric, houses numerous programs for kids with autism, developmental disabilities, and other accessibility needs. Since it began in 2005, Red Kite has offered radical belonging to more than 5,000 families, proving that programs centering populations with disability are not liabilities but needed investments for theatre companies everywhere.
Last week, I attended a Red Kite summer camp celebration, a culminating experience that salutes campers with disabilities, their creativity, and the friendships they’ve made. Forming connections with the people at Red Kite, I felt how powerfully the organization wields theatre for everyday miracles in love and saw how the robust alchemy of disability, youth, education, and theatre makes for extraordinary community and impact.
My family and I haven’t had the easiest time finding places that fully embrace my very tall, music-loving older brother, Miguel, who is now 28 but still cognitively 2 and nonverbal. I know firsthand how challenging it is to find a program that will suit many different people’s needs across constellations of disability, as well as how cathartic it is to find a community of parents, siblings, teachers, and advocates who understand and uplift the person you love. Though many organizations find themselves unequipped to include people who need extra or individualized attention, Red Kite has fought to secure the funding to provide the staff needed for each program, even developing training so new educators will know how to support students across a wide range of disability. Many families expressed to me that they had not found a place before Red Kite so open, loving, and expansive to their child. Said Russell, “I think there’s a big hesitation from a lot of families that their kid will be too much. We’re seeing families that would like to participate but don’t know if they can.” Which is why, she added, she spends much of her energy “really trying to convince people that they are welcome here, and we want you here, and there is something for you here.”
It’s hard not to tear up with joy when engaging with Red Kite’s offerings. These include a three-week summer program, Camp Red Kite; Red Kite Workshops, weekly afterschool five-session classes; Red Kite Residencies that partner with classrooms around the city; and Red Kite Friendship Tours, exciting multi-sensory interactive performances at parks, libraries, and community centers. A particular hit this summer, the Friendship Tours have been helpful in allowing families to choose which location or day works best with their routine and preferences. Attendees are encouraged to engage however much they’d like, with some exploring colorful props, some following bubbles, some dancing to calming music, and some seated with headphones on. When it comes to performances like these or on-site sensory-friendly shows at CCT, all ages and ways to be are welcome. “I think your brother would love this,” said Russell and director of education and access Sam Mauceri with a smile.
These are not words I hear often.
Theatre’s power, to me, lies in people-gathering and soul-opening; at its best, it empowers people to both share their stories and to listen. At Camp Red Kite’s Aug. 11 celebration, I felt inspired by the love among families and the pride in every camper. “That’s why I do this,” said Mauceri. You don’t necessarily see the impact it has from day to day, they said. “But as they’re leaving you see the pride. You see the sadness because they’re having to say goodbye to camp.” Over the weeks, the campers (ranging from 8 to 22) had the opportunity to break off into smaller groups to craft their own sets, devise stories, act out characters and big emotions, dance freely, and sing.
Even in just one afternoon with them, I made friends at Red Kite, and I could tell that while each camper had their own specialization or creative preference, all felt included and celebrated for their own talents and efforts. It was for them to say goodbye at the end; like any artist after a big show, they too were closing out a powerful endeavor. They will keep with them the support network, which included not only Red Kite families and staff, but also special guest Rachel Arfa. Having supported Russell’s work for years, Arfa now serves as the City of Chicago Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, and she extended her support and resources to the families. Her experience as an attorney, the first deaf commissioner of MOPD, and a strong force in turning Chicago into a more accessible city make her the perfect trailblazer to join this effort.
And the campers? They won’t just keep the memories and the friends; there’s also much exciting art they made. 13-year-old camper and artist Luke wrote a song last summer that his family has proudly kept at home, his mom and advocate Tareema Jean-Baptiste told me. “It was so poignant,” she said. “They were doing a project themed around bad guys, and he wrote a song that was about how bad guys can look bad, but are not always bad. He created this villain who sang, ‘I’m a bad guy because I steal, but I only steal guns and then I melt them all down so nobody gets hurt. Don’t be afraid. Sometimes people run away from us because we seem odd, but we’re not bad. We can be good.’” The complexity and resonance of her son’s message stunned me. Mauceri shared that campers develop their personal styles and edge to their artistic expression. I marveled at one young camper’s outfit choice; she had such a vibrant style both on- and offstage, I told her. She beamed and jumped.
The confidence and glimmers of true belonging feel especially significant. Jean-Baptiste told me of Luke, “We had the Neighborhood Parent Network fair around kids with developmental differences last February here (in the CCT space). Luke was the greeter for the fair, and he was so confident,” giving directions and asking people to save the elevator for people who use wheelchairs. She continued, “And one lady stopped and said, ‘How do you know this?’” Jean-Baptiste smiled, emphasizing her son’s pride in his community, “He goes, ‘Because I belong to Camp Red Kite.’”
Luke’s only been a camper for three years. Many kids grow up through Red Kite’s offerings, like Valentino, who’s going on 10 years at Red Kite. Now 21, Valentino especially enjoys singing and drama. His dad, Jason Ruiz, told me the experience has been “memorable, unforgettable, uplifting, and progressive.” He elaborated that he has to look back at photos because “it’s hard to believe how far he’s come.” Though his son didn’t typically approach people or introduce himself before Red Kite, he’s a pro at it now. In the culminating camp performance about chefs cooking in a mystical land, he added some very interesting and fun ingredients to a “confusion cake,” made of question marks, rice, and strawberries—and the cake could talk by the end!
Ruiz spoke prophetically about compassion. Of the staff, he said, “I travel a bit of distance here. So arriving early, you see the dedication, with them showing up for their early morning meetings and staying after to figure out how they can make this camp experience amazing for every child. That’s one of those things I pay attention to. And it means a lot. It’s very genuine.”
How exactly Russell and Mauceri were able to get here involved many experiences and community players. Work with Lookingglass Theatre Company, Agassiz Elementary School, and Old Town School of Folk Music culminated in Russell’s extensive tool kits, lesson plans, and sense of ease. Before her tenure as executive director at Lookingglass, she served as their education director, “spending a lot of time in Chicago public schools, putting artists in residency into schools.” She said, “I happened to be in a self-contained autism classroom that really wanted a teaching artist. I had no experience working with that population whatsoever, but decided that I would just volunteer myself and do the work. It was just the beginning of this whole adventure. I partnered with the special educators in this CPS school for about 13 years.”
Russell told me how getting funders and the CCT board behind Red Kite “didn’t take much convincing,” considering the deep ties she already had to the disability community and Chicago’s philanthropic presence, which recognized the ways the population could benefit from theatre arts. The initiative has only expanded with more collaborations and reach: London-based theatre company Oily Cart collaborated with them in 2007 on a multisensory piece, and 2020 brought a renewed vigor to support kids with disabilities. Though many companies weren’t able to continue serving their audiences during the shutdown, Red Kite became as busy as ever reaching kids both in Chicago and all over the country through Zoom, prompting many organizations’ much-deserved recognition and financial support. A recent grant has supported expansion in the return to in-person work, enabling Mauceri to manage the Red Kite Project full-time.
Mauceri marveled that in returning to in-person work there was “a surprisingly huge turnout for sensory-friendly performances in particular.” As they and Russell meet new families and find that theatre resonates with renewed urgency, the kids are eager to keep creating. In the disability education space, one that is often underfunded and underappreciated, Red Kite soars, offering a beacon of inspiration and excitement about the future—a future in which all communities find belonging at the theatre. Looking ahead as kids age out of some programs, Valentino’s dad knows he will continue to lean on Red Kite, hoping more people will see his child as they do. Though the path remains unknown, he said, “The goal is to keep him busy and have him live a fulfilling life.”
I know I hope for the same.
Gabriela Furtado Coutinho (she/her) is the associate Chicago editor for American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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