Photos by: David Quang Pham
Growing up with a neurodiverse older brother, Evan's desire to create spaces that were welcoming and accessible was very personal. From 2015-2018, Evan participated as a student volunteer for Openspot Theatre (Formerly the 4th Wall Theatre Company), an organization that provides performance arts education for neurodiverse individuals. Under the guidance of the organization & the Michigan State University Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, Evan was trained to respond sensitively & tailor sensory experiences to individual student. Working alongside the students & facilitators, Openspot Theatre brought unique lesson plans, scripts, choreographed dances & performance showcases tailored made for students with autism, ADD and other developmental disabilities.
In addition to creating lesson plans as a teaching artist for Aurora Theatre Academy & The Clayton County Performing Arts Center, Evan also facilitated the Sensory Friendly Performance for the 2019 season TYA Production. You can view the Social Story created for this production by clicking here.
In 2019, Evan became a founding member and Associate Artist of the Sense-Ability Ensemble alongside Artistic Director Dione O’Dell & Teaching Artist Ryan Duda. The ensemble is a group of theatre alum, professional artists & Michigan State University students who create multi-sensory theatrical performances specifically for neurodiverse audiences. The ensemble includes artist & collaborators who are trained in physical theatre, puppetry, music, dance, architecture, video projection & many other facets of theatrical design. The ensemble’s mission is to celebrate the power of diversity and ability while striving to provide theatre access for all.
The group has developed three World Premiere productions that have toured to special education classrooms around Michigan: Farm! A Musical Experience, Soda Pop Shop & POND. Funded by Michigan State University grants from Theatre, Arts and Letters, the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, and the Center for Research in Autism, Intellectual, and other Neurodevelopmental Disorders, these productions contribute to a wider understanding of the arts, health, and social/emotional well-being. Additional partners include the Oily Cart Theatre in London, Lincoln Center Education, and the Trusty Sidekick Theater in NYC.
Farm! A Musical Experience
In 2017, Evan, alongside his partners from 4th Wall & the Sense-Ability Ensemble, began to devise an original interactive, sensory-exploratory musical for children and young adults on the autism spectrum. Farm! A Musical Experience, premiered at Michigan State University on April 21st, 2017. The show toured to Michigan schools in the Spring of 2018 & 2019. The show was also hosted by Wharton Center for Performing Arts. National tours for the show are currently in development.
Farm!, is a story about a young boy named Sammy (performed by Evan) who works on Domer Farm with his guardian Farmer Fran (Kathryn Stahl) & doesn't want to do his chores. While sorting the laundry he discovers that one of his orange socks has gone missing. Sammy teams up with his one sock named Oliver (Ryan Duda) to search all around the farm for Oliver’s “sole-mate” Ophelia (Shelby Eppich). Throughout the journey, the audience will be invited to participate in the various activities such as riddles, dancing with scarecrows, and braving a storm. At the end of the show, the audience will be invited on-stage to participate in the conclusion of the show with a song that incorporates the names of individual audience members.
Research on creating this show, and the state of theatre for audiences with autism, was presented by Ryan and Evan at Michigan State University's Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum where it received First Place in the Humanities and Performing Arts section. The abstract can be found by clicking here and going to page 138 of the document.
Farm! was also featured in ING Magazine. The article can be found by clicking here and going to page 10 of the document.
In 2018, Evan attended The Big Umbrella Festival at the Lincoln Center in New York, alongside Ryan Duda & Dionne O’Dell. The festival welcomed artists who shared an interest in creating theatrical spaces that catered to children on the autism spectrum. There they met Sean Ahlquist, an architect and associate professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan, who was creating social-sensory architecture. The group teamed up to develop another brand new & innovate sensory friendly production. Together, they all workshopped the crafting of a production with the goal of giving the audience control of an environment that allows them to actively participate in the structure of the production.
The story of POND, which is structured differently from traditional plot-based theatre, is about a family who all live by Pollender Pond. The siblings invite the audience to go on an adventure with them around the pond where they encounter many denizens of the pond like Pelican Pacey (Ryan Duda), Tesla Turtle (Isabella Stenz) & Fabio Frog (Evan Phillips) through song, dance & interactive storytelling. As the audience works together with one another along the way, they find magical pennies that can be used to make a wish at the Wishing Well encountered at the end of their journey.
The set of the show has massive, translucent, 3D architectural structures that have fabric, textiles & sensors stretched over them. Interactable animations are projected onto the web of movable fabric. The structures have openings & cavities that children can touch, reach into and crawl through. When children press on the fabric with a certain amount of pressure, animations such as a fish swimming around on one’s hand, will appear. As well as a variety of other animations.
POND has been covered by several news outlets, some of which can be viewed here: