(PCM) Five child-like puppets, each with specific disabilities, are opening our eyes to how friendship and caring for one another can truly change our world. “Addy & Uno,” a fresh new off-Broadway musical playing at the 14th Street Y Theater in New York City from Sept. 2 through Sept. 24, boldly, and affectionately tackles some difficult topics, including bullying, disability and friendship. It does this with puppets, humor and unforgettable music. The brainchild of author and educator Nava R. Silton, her musical was adapted from the widely successful, “Realabilities Educational Comic Book Curriculum.”
The show features five characters with disabilities who harness their special strengths — associated with their disabilities — to save their school from bullies. Silton came up with the concept, and wrote the book. She then partnered with Bonnie Gleicher, who wrote the music and lyrics, and the two hard-working and passionate women are also the co-producers. Silton, a developmental psychologist with a Ph.D. from Fordham University and a B.A. from Cornell University, has worked at Nickelodean, Sesame Workshop, Mediakidz, and has consulted for Netflix and The Autism Seaver Center,
She is currently an Associate Professor of Psychology at Marymount Manhattan College, has written more than three dozen peer-reviewed articles, and has edited two books pertaining to disabilities and is currently editing her fifth textbook.
Gleicher, is a singer and songwriter, who has performed on Broadway, toured the country, and originated roles on cast recordings. Her writing has been published in “The New York Times,” and on “Fox News.”
Q: The theme of the show is “what if goodness ruled the world?” What does that mean to you?
NAVA SILTON: We live in a time of unrest, and frustration. We are challenged with a lot of “non- goodness” in the world. This show is dynamic and refreshing, and the message is that it is beautiful to be kind, and that “it’s nice to be nice.” Life becomes so much more illuminating and exhilarating when goodness is at the helm.
Q: Why is it important for children to be empathetic?
NS: Research shows that when kids learn to be more kind and empathetic, they are less likely to bully, and more likely to have healthier social relationships. This helps them succeed later in life, and prevents against bullying. Empathy is unique. It can be modeled and nurtured in children.
Q: Please tell me the history and the premise for the show.
NS: In 2010, I was teaching a graduate child development class at Fordham University, and I came up with the idea of five kids with disabilities who try to save their school from bullies.
Q: What a great idea!
NS: So I brought it to the schools, and administered pre-and post-tests to see if the children’s knowledge and perceptions were changing as a result of the materials, and they were! That propelled me from 2013-2016 to write a full comic book education series, with 10 comic books and instructional manuals for teachers. The wide-spread success of these materials inspired me to pursue a live show.
Q: What happened next?
NS: Since animation is so expensive, I decided to use the idea of puppets and music, which are such wonderful tools for children. I was fortunate enough to meet Bonnie, in a coffee shop, and she went on to create this transformative music.
Q: How did you relate to the project?
Bonnie Gleicher: I felt for them, and got chills learning about these characters because they have such humor and fun in the face of challenges. I studied the “Realabilities Curriculum,” and wrote the first song the next day. Our first performance was within three months of writing those first words. It has been an exciting ride and the response has been incredible.
Q: How have you personally been changed by this project?
BG: It was pretty remarkable. My head was so in it, and what they were going through, that I started noticing disability accessible signs and it was a whole other world to me. My own concern for people with disabilities just shot up. I’ve been able to learn some sign language with a few of the phrases that the parents and their children learn in the show, and I have used it. It all has been a kind of awakening for me, that I hope our audience shares. I hope it brings them from zero to 60 in terms of empathy.
Q: What do you want people to leave the show thinking about?
BG: We want people to walk away with the idea that it’s nice to be nice. People sing about it. They want to make a friend they wouldn’t have before and in doing so they become a kinder and more empathetic person. I think of the possible impact on the city, the country and the world. This has a big picture impact.
Q: What do you want for the future of this unique show?
NS: We have been so encouraged by the wide appeal of this Off-Broadway debut, and we are pretty hopeful about its future thereafter. People are excited by the novelty of the show and the fact that it is a family musical. It is also an opportunity to learn about bullying, sign language, and friendship. A number of parents have discussed the multitude of lessons from the show and we have received a lot of media attention, so we are feeling pretty hopeful.
Q: Tell me about these characters, which must feel like family to you by now.
NS: Yes, they are absolutely family! Uno, the main character, has autism, which as a psychology professor has been a focus of mine. I have reached out to many organizations involved with individuals who have autism. I also asked my sister after my nephew was diagnosed with autism what the hardest thing she had faced. Her reply: ‘People come to our home and flock to my other kids, but treat my son (with autism) like he’s part of the wallpaper.’
Q: What else was part of your extensive research?
NS: I sent out a questionnaire on viewing preferences when I freelanced for Sesame Workshop. The question to parents was: ‘Would you rather have a TV show teach your kids [on the spectrum] social and emotional skills, or teach other kids by showcasing individuals with all abilities, so they wouldn’t be fearful and would become motivated to get to know their friends?’ The majority of those who responded picked the second choice.
Q: Talk about the whole topic of bullying, which is on parents’ minds as a grave concern from their children of all ages.
NS: Unfortunately, children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their typical peers. A principal way to help with prevention is to have an open line of communication in the home. If children can feel safe talking to their parents, that helps a great deal. I encourage role playing – like asking the child, ‘How would you deal with this scenario?’ and ‘What would you say to someone who calls you names?’ I would say to literally play out this sequence so they have a tool kit to use. It becomes more challenging when children are nonverbal.
Q: So many children, and adults, look at someone with disabilities and see the limits, but your focus is just the opposite.
NS: Yes. We are eager to reveal the wondrous abilities within disability. I advise parents to spend as much time as possible working toward your kids’ strengths, and to provide activities and opportunities that make them feel confident and capable, which will help them stand up for themselves. Also, if your child is being bullied on the bus, or at recess, find safe people, another student or a teacher, who can help. It is really important for the child to know he or she has a safe place.
Q: How does this show promote the “gifts and talents” ´that those with disabilities have and need to reveal to the world?
NS: Each of our characters has “real abilities.” Each has a disability, but the idea we want to get across, is that they have real, unique abilities, and a diversity of talents.
Q: Please, tell me about them.
NS: Uno has autism, but is terrific at math and spatial orientation. Addy has ADHD and she struggles with distractibility and impulsivity, but she can be hilarious, spontaneous,, and adventurous. Seymour is hearing impaired, but has great sight and insight, and is sweet and romantic. RJ is confined to a wheelchair, but he has athletic ability using his incredible arm strength. Melody has low vision and uses a walking stick, but also has perfect pitch and a mothering personality.
Q: What can these characters teach us?
NS: Audience members are often so cognizant of the characters’ strengths that they at times fail to notice the walking stick, hearing aid or wheel chair. They are so focused on the wonderful gifts. So a big focus of ours is on strength.
Q: It sounds like they each have super powers instead of distractions.
NS: Originally I wrote this where they had super powers. But I didn’t want someone to have unrealistic expectations of their new friends. Though they all have special and unique abilities.
Q: How has your personal connection to your nephew with autism impacted this project?
NS: I felt that my nephew informed the character development of Uno and that Uno helped me understand my nephew. It’s been an incredible journey. Bonnie and I are both moved by the message, and I am sitting here sewing a prop for the show. We will do anything and everything to get this show and its vital message out there the masses.
Q: Why tackle so many disabilities in one show?
NS: We wanted to reflect on a variety of important life stories here and for various children with disabilities to see themselves represented favorably in the media. Moreover, we wanted typical children to recognize that individuals of all abilities have special strengths, and it’s up to them to be the investigators to find out what those strengths are. If you don’t give someone a violin, you don’t know if they can become a virtuoso. We want children to see the show, read the comics and to celebrate the wondrous abilities and gifts of their new friends.
Q: Why should people come?
BG: This is for people who are looking for meaningful family entertainment, and a theatrical experience, on a Saturday or Sunday. In 50 minutes you will have this emotional journey with these kids. We want to change family entertainment.
NS: This show has a remarkable blend of humor, heart-warming music, and real pedagogical opportunities to teach about disabilities from a strengths-based perspective, and to promote vital life lessons to stop-bullying, to forge meaningful friendships, and to always pursue kindness.