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Westminster theater group aims to break down barriers for those with autism, other disabilities

Carroll County Times - 1/8/2020

Jan. 7--It's a dark December night in Westminster when Jen Shillingburg and Michael Eaton find themselves on a cliff's edge.

"Don't lean too far forward," Shillingburg cautions.

Eaton shouts in a panicked tone, "Don't look down!"

But Shillingburg loses her balance and slips. "You've got the arm strength," she groans, "Carry me up buddy."

Their arms entwined, Eaton makes to lift her up, then leans too far forward and emits a scream of fear.

"Freeze!" Came the command from Britt Burr, the founder and creative director of the nonprofit Barrier-Free.

Launched in 2017, the group brings together people with autism or intellectual disabilities to produce and perform original theater productions. The group will put on two different shows in mid-March at McDaniel College, and on this night, Shillingburg and Eaton were kicking off an improv exercise for the dozen or so actors gathered on the top floor of the community center at 25 Union St., in Westminster.

"Grace, take Michael's place," Britt said. "Now it's Grace's responsibility is to create something completely new from the improv we just saw."

Grace Thompson, the theater group's movement director, took Eaton's place, and commenced to take the scene in the direction of a Black Friday fight over a refrigerator.

Such improv is at the heart of the Barrier-Free program, said Lauren Burr, director of operations and Britt's wife.

"They create their own characters through their improv," Lauren said during a break. "We put them into groups and say, make a theme. Whatever you want. Then we start noticing some common threads."

The scene make take place in outer space or on an island, and so the actors will improvise in those locations until clear characters emerge.

"Then we say, with these characters and locations, play with this beginning and your improv needs to show the ending, and all those themes, characters, plot elements we create through the improv," Lauren said. "Then Britt writes those into a beautiful script, and that's what they perform."

Becoming involved in community theater can be rewarding for any adults, but Lauren said that for people on the autism spectrum or with intellectual disabilities, it can be especially valuable as they leave the structured environment of high school and enter the adult world on their own.

"We add a new role and purpose in these adults' lives, they are now actors and Barrier-Free participants," she said. "Coming to Barrier-Free when we are doing inclusive theater, drama therapy techniques, they are learning conversational skills, how to maintain eye contact, how to have a conversation, how to learn names."

By taking on other characters, they can practice those social skills that could be difficult for them to practices as themselves, Lauren added, skills that can translate into the workplace and elsewhere in their lives.

"This whole thing has really helped me out a lot," Eaton said.

Eaton has been acting in theater productions with Britt since 2014, when she was running a similar program at The Arc Carroll County. When Britt decided to create Barrier-Free as a stand-alone entity, he followed, and is now both an actor in the productions and the group's "promoter."

"It's been expanding a lot more," he said. "I've been making a lot of different friends, hanging out with different kinds of people and have been able to make new hobbies."

The plan is to expand more, Britt noted, since although Barrier-Free has been around since 2017, it was just the summer of 2019 when the group finalized the paperwork to become an official 501(c)3 nonprofit.

"We are doing lots of fundraisers every month to build up those funds to present to grant and scholarship organizations, to show that we are serious about hits, this is what we are doing," she said.

"We have to get through our first fiscal year so that we can apply for grants, and have the matching funds and stuff," Lauren added, and so "we are funded by our tuition, which is very small if you break it down -- it's $200 for the whole season, which is less than $5 for each rehearsal."

Shillingburg also followed Britt to the newly independent Barrier-Free after having interned with Britt while obtaining degrees in both theater and psychology from McDaniel College and graduating in 2017. She's found application for both skill sets, acting as both stage hand and drama therapy facilitator.

"This is actual drama therapy because just engaging in the act of theater is therapeutic," Shillingburg said. "I think that especially people on the spectrum, they get to experience this idea of being someone else and I think it can really help them with empathy -- understanding different situations with different people. That's something that typically people on the spectrum struggle with."

And, of course, empathy can run both ways, and giving people a better understanding of the experiences of people on the spectrum is one reason why Sam Silverman, of the Linganore area, has come back for his third performance season with the group.

"There's a wholesomeness of the whole idea of adults with autism and learning disabilities all working together for one big production," he said. "It's good to be aware that people with autism and learning disabilities don't have to be treated different; they are treated like everyone else."

It was the wholesomeness of the production the group put on in the spring of 2019 that drew Mark Minnon, of Westminster, to join the group for the first time this season.

"I saw that it was at the theater and I liked it so much that I wanted to try," he said. "It was something to do with an out west kind of show, it was pretty awesome."

This year, one show will be titled "Cosmic Crime" and the other has yet to be given a name, according to Lauren, and while it's too late for new actors to join and be a part of those performances, Barrier-Free will have other opportunities.

"We'll have classes starting spring and summer immediately falling the season in April and June. Then we will start a new season next September," she said. "We also do monthly social outings though and those are open."

But in the meantime, said longtime Barrier-Free actor Tyler Ellyson, of Hampstead, everyone involved hopes people will come out to support the shows in March.

"I am looking forward to a lot of people showing up to watch," he said.

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