Sensory Friendly, All-Friendly
DEC 1, 2017
by Yan Chen
The house doors are open, the lights haven’t gone all the way down, and audience members are scattered across the auditorium. During this performance, patrons are free to move to different seats, step outside briefly, or express themselves out loud in response to the show. At the end of the performance, a girl in the front row leaps up and dances exuberantly with the cast onstage.
Welcoming audience members with sensory sensitivities, on the autism spectrum, or with other special needs, sensory friendly performances are part of a larger effort to make theater more accessible. In conjunction with other initiatives to expand access programming, the A.R.T. has offered a sensory friendly performance annually for holiday season family shows beginning with the 2014 production of The Light Princess (and including this year’s upcoming Charlotte’s Web).
These initiatives are coordinated by A.R.T.’s Education & Community Programs department. To ensure that these performances accommodate their audiences, the department works with occupational therapist Mary Beth Kadlec, ScD, OTR/L, Program Director for Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders (CANDO), an outpatient clinic part of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center at UMass Medical School and UMass Memorial Health Care.
Kadlec describes sensory friendly performances as “providing a space for individuals with special needs where they can be accepted for who they are,” where “they don’t have to be afraid of social humiliation or being judged.” Before, during, and after the show, a number of detailed adjustments accommodate a range of sensitivities to sensory stimulation and large-group events. Distributed before the performance, a printed “Social Story,” with pictures and text adapted for different types of learners, describes the theater experience by providing an overview of the play and informing participants of interactive activities in the lobby, as well as the types of assistance available throughout the event.
In the theater, adjustments are made to the performance: house lights are kept on but dimmed, allowing audience members to move freely during the performance, and house doors are kept open so that audience members can take a break from the show. The show’s sound levels are lowered to accommodate sensitivity to loud sounds. Outside in the lobby, break areas with fidget toys and cushions are available, with trained ushers ready to offer assistance if needed.
Actors come onstage before a show to introduce themselves and explain portions of the story or demonstrate actions in the show that might appear confusing or dangerous, a process they rehearse with Kadlec present to offer professional suggestions. The cast also connects with their audience in a meet-and-greet before and after the performance.
Audience attendance at A.R.T.’s Sensory Friendly Performances has risen each year. Other theaters in the Boston area, too (including Wheelock Family Theatre, Broadway In Boston, SpeakEasy Stage Company, and others), have staged sensory friendly performances— evidence of a broader, and growing, initiative to make the theater more welcoming to all.
Yan Chen is a dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University (’18).
For more information about sensory friendly performances at A.R.T., please visit americanrepertorytheater.org/sensory-friendly.