NEW YORK, NY.-
At Theater Row in Manhattan, a gigantic notebook, filled with lines of type, stands open onstage. As the audience gazes at the pages, the letters refuse to stay still. They push together and pull apart, all the while bobbing like drowning swimmers.
Rubbing your eyes wont help. This moment from Fish in a Tree, a world premiere from New York City Childrens Theater, reveals the way a social studies textbook appears to Ally Nickerson, the plays 8-year-old heroine. Although Ally doesnt know it yet, she has dyslexia, a learning disability that, according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, affects 20% of the population.
The goal was to give our audience a real picture of what its like, said Barbara Zinn Krieger, the companys artistic director, who consulted more than a dozen experts on dyslexia while writing the show. Adapted from a 2015 bestseller of the same title by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Fish in a Tree relies on digital technology more than any other production in the companys more than 25-year history. It focuses on Allys life both at home, where her brother has a secret of his own, and at school, where Ally, who has become a troublemaker to hide her disability, faces bullying from two girls.
Although Ally is a sixth grader in the book, Krieger wanted her to be younger onstage, especially when I discovered that the earlier you discover somebody has dyslexia, the better off the child is, she said.
Throughout the show, which opens on Saturday, Kylee Loera, the creative teams video designer, uses the onstage notebooks surface as a screen on which to show both still and animated images of Allys outer and inner lives: not only the pages she struggles to read, but also her familys kitchen, her school, and her fantastical daydreams, or mind movies.
But most of all, the notebook, which Ally calls her Sketchbook of Impossible Things, is the home for her artwork. (One of its blank pages is also outlined on the floor of Ann Beyersdorfers set.) In the sketchbook, which Ally carries with her, she draws fanciful creatures and encounters, which take shape onscreen overhead as the audience watches. And as Ally, portrayed by Lily Lipman, changes over the hourlong action acquiring a diagnosis, a mentor and self-esteem her art changes, too, shifting from black-and-white to color.
In devising an onstage gateway to Allys imagination, We were like, what if the portal is actually her notebook? said Sammy Lopez, the shows co-director. And what if we gave the audience the opportunity to jump into the notebook with Ally? And so that kind of inspired the ways in which we built out the physical life of the show.
Allys sketches, which she often draws during class, are by illustrator Ben Diskant, who is dyslexic himself. He based some of the images on references in the novel, like boxing lobsters and a small fish with wings. (The works title comes from a quotation attributed, probably falsely, to Einstein: Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.) Diskant, however, also contributed his own ideas, sketching animals because, he said, he has always found their lack of language comforting.
Drawing has set me free creatively from having to explain myself in any written form or any verbal form, he said, adding, and so I really relate to Ally in that way.
Loera designed the imagery for Allys mind movies. As these adventures unfurl onscreen, or, in one case, as shadow puppetry, the shows young adult performers, who also play Allys third-grade classmates, teacher and brother, simultaneously act them out. For instance, Ally sees herself being jailed in her imaginary film The Prisoner. As her schoolhouse morphs into a prison in the projection, Louis Baglio, in the role of Allys new teacher, Mr. Daniels, adopts clothing and props to become a Wild West sheriff. (This all occurs comically to the strains of the theme from the 1966 Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.)
We have to teach our young audience that, during this play, youre going to see the players create, youre going to see them step into Allys mind, said Melissa Jessel, the productions other co-director. Music, she added, really helps to engage.
In addition to film-score excerpts and a musical theme that serves as a bridge between Allys reality and her imaginings, Glenn Potter-Takata, the productions sound designer, uses a buzzing noise to accompany Allys dyslexia-associated headaches. Occasional voice-overs Why, why, why cant I read like everyone else? further disclose her thoughts.
The shows creators also added detail and texture to the novels explanation of the condition. A dyslexic teacher Krieger consulted described it as like trying to extract information from mental filing cabinets, but selecting it in the wrong order. That analogy went into the script.
So did up-to-date tools for dyslexic students, which the shows dramaturge, Taylor Janney-Rovin, an educator who instructs dyslexic children at Valence College Prep, in Queens, suggested. Mr. Daniels, whose help Ally finally agrees to accept, introduces Ally and the audience to multisensory techniques for children with learning disabilities. These include skywriting writing letters large in the air and drawing words in shaving cream.
Krieger continued to modify her script drafts in response to internal feedback. (In the cast, creative team, company management and staff, there are seven people with disabilities.) She had invented an encouraging statement from Allys grandfather, Anything is possible if you try hard enough. Lipman, who is on the autism spectrum and has an auditory processing disorder, objected to this wording for its implied burden on those in similar circumstances. Krieger rewrote the line as Many things are possible if you believe in yourself.
Lipman approved the revision. The biggest moment for me is when Allys like, So theres a reason why I cant read, she said. Her character realizes that her classmates have an advantage, Lipman added, and its just that I didnt get that piece that they all got.
The play, however, is not intended just for young people with disabilities. Its examination of bullying, friendship and sibling bonds is geared toward a larger audience, as is its wide embrace of creativity.
The companys hope, Jessel said, is that children walk away from the story interested to explore their own imaginations.
Fish in a Tree: Through April 9 at Theater Row, Manhattan; nycchildrenstheater.org. Running time: 1 hour.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times