Arts for Autism

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  • Karen Stahl

A little girl – no more than waist-high – gripped the microphone tightly and gazed out over the audience of the Gershwin Theatre, fully washed in stage lights and adrenaline.

She belted out the familiar “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman, gaining more traction as the song progressed.

The anthem calling for inclusivity and embracing one’s true self was an emblematic number for a night that preached just that.

The fourth annual Arts for Autism is a one-night benefit concert incorporating performances from 180 performing arts students around the country and 47 Broadway performers. A number of the individuals onstage, both presenting and performing, are on the autism spectrum.

Michael Holzer, general manager of Educational Travel Adventures and producer of the event, said the benefit helps educate young performers who may have never worked with autistic individuals before how to accept others.

“I hope the stigma is changing,” Holzer said. “When you have autism, you can’t change it. It’s really about people understanding you, understanding it, and work with people that are different than they are.”

The star-studded Broadway event gives 100 percent of ticket sale proceeds to benefit Autism Speaks – this year, Arts for Autism raised $46,582 and enjoyed 1,200 people in attendance.

In the four years of the event, it has raised $166,582.

Teal Wicks, currently starring as Lady in The Cher Show on Broadway, said she first performed in the night when it was in its beginning stages before being approached again this year.

“It was a great, great night,” Wicks said. “It’s on so many levels. For one, it’s for a wonderful organization and for great benefits to autism research and outreach. And then it’s the other level of just youngsters performing on a Broadway stage with you.”

And actress Phoenix Best, who is fresh off her run as Alana in Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway, said what the event is doing to promote onstage representation for all individuals is inspiring.

“As a black female, inclusion has always been very important to me, but it encompasses so many other things,” Best said. “We are live embodiments of a dream or focus, and I think it is really important to continue to strive for excellence, no matter what is in your way or what you think might be in your way.”

Looking toward the future, the organizers of the event want to continue to raise money for and promote the cause of Autism Speaks. Applications to perform in the summer 2020 production at the Gershwin Theatre are already available online.

Ultimately, Best said that she wants more Broadway performers to be aware of the work that Arts for Autism is doing.

“You can keep going through any type of adversity or any type of thing that an obstacle or roadblock,” she said. “Having these kids get to perform with us onstage for this cause shows even more that we celebrate it and support it.”

And perhaps the little girl tightly gripping the microphone while belting out a tune from The Greatest Showman will one day soon find herself on the Gershwin stage again.