Autumn Ness, CTC Company Member and Preschool Play Aficionado
Posted on November 26, 2018
Meet Autumn Ness and hear about her work with ‘The Biggest Little House in the Forest,’ developing preschool plays and plays for children on the autism spectrum, and performing for toddlers.
Autumn Ness has been a CTC Company member for the last 19 seasons. She began her foray into developing and performing work specifically designed for the 2–5 year old age set in 2007 when CTC began focusing on developing work for early learners.
Let’s start at the very beginning with the development of The Biggest Little House in the Forest — one of CTC’s first preschool shows. What were some surprises you had when you first began performing this specially-designed show for toddlers?
Autumn Ness: “This show was workshopped for about three years before we first performed it in 2010. In the very, very first version, it was meant to have all live actors playing the animals, so it would have been a six-person cast. But, they felt it was too big of a crowd for this little show about working together, and opening your heart to others. So I started workshopping with just me and it became a puppet show. We didn’t have anything except yogurt cartons, toilet paper rolls, tape, and wire for puppets back then. The very first thing I did in the workshop was to take a ribbon on a wire, stick it in a plastic soda bottle, and make it a butterfly who comes out of her cocoon. And that is still the opening of the show. It’s funny how things like that can survive years of workshops and rehearsal — the simplest thing!
“It was like I was wearing a giant skirt made of preschoolers.” -Autumn Ness
This is a show where there is no barrier between the performer and the audience, so the first time we ever performed the show for a live audience, the kids just followed me around the stage. It was like I was wearing a giant skirt made of preschoolers. They would take the puppets and wander away with them, so we made them all special hiding places in the set so they aren’t seen before their characters are introduced.
The most notable thing about doing a preschool show are the comments. The audience speaks to you freely and often, mostly about what’s happening in the show, sometimes about what they had for breakfast, sometimes about their cat. They just want to share it with you, and it’s my favorite part.”
After a few years, this show went on the road; performing at preschool centers, and even places like the Minneapolis Crisis Nursery. Do you have any stories to share of performing outside of CTC’s space?
AN: “We have toured this show to community centers, Children’s Hospital, The Crisis Nursery, and schools all over the state. Depending on where we are, some moments may resonate very differently. At the hospital, the kids like to see the puppets being prepared for what comes next. At the Crisis Nursery, they want the animals to rebuild their home so they have a safe place to live. What I love about this show is that it’s created to adapt on the fly. So we can take the time to hear their concerns and the puppets can talk about them and act on them.
I do have to say, one of my favorite hazards of touring a show in a Minnesota winter is that our biggest trick in the show is bubbles, and the the bubbles would often freeze on the truck. Then our stage technician would have to search for a bathroom with a hand dryer to thaw them out for showtime.”
Recently, you were awarded Theatre Communication Group’s Fox Fellowship Grant to develop both a new preschool work (Babble Lab) as well as new work for children on the autism spectrum. Can you tell us what your inspiration was for developing work for children on the autism spectrum and where you are in your process currently for this new focus?
AN: “Yes! I was lucky enough to receive the Fox fellowship with CTC as my host theatre. The idea to develop “next level” programming at CTC for kids on the spectrum comes from my own two spectrum sons, and everything that is unique and special about them. I have gotten to travel nationally and internationally to meet people, and see what kinds of projects are being done for the neurodiverse population — there’s so much to see and learn! Whenever I get overwhelmed in this “research and development” process, I try to remember that above all, it’s important that we make a play with heart. All the other research is important and necessary, but our task as artists doesn’t change — make something with heart.”
In November’s American Theatre Magazine’s Role Call feature on you, Artistic Director Peter C. Brosius calls you a “fierce advocate for young people.” Can you give us a few ways in which adults can become fierce advocates for young people, too? In other words, how can we embrace our inner ‘Autumn Ness-ness’?
AN: “Oh gosh, that was very nice of him! And ironic that would come from Peter, because HE is my example of respecting the intelligence and creativeness of young people. In my time at CTC, the most important lesson I have taken away is that the youth audience is not indulgent or soft. They are immediate, and raw, and real. What a gift for any performer!”
Finally, for adults bringing their toddlers to their very first play with The Biggest Little House in the Forest, what can they expect?
AN: “A saying we have as actors is ‘No two shows are alike, every show is different.’ This has never been more true than when you are performing for the preschool set! The level of involvement is unlike anything I’ve experienced as an actor — telling the characters where to go, and what to do. This audience isn’t going to sit back and observe — if there is music playing, we should be dancing! If something important is happening, we must go get a closer look! And for heavens sake, if bubbles come your way, catch them! I have been able to perform this show at our theatre, and all across the state, and the show has never been the same twice in a row! Please come visit us and see for yourself — come open, come ready, come wide-eyed, come ready to dance — and I will make sure to have my Wheaties that morning!” —Interview by Melissa Ferlaak