When Loud Is Too Loud: Sensory Friendly Performances Meet Need

Dec 11, 2019 at 9:35 am
Photo By J. Parker Staten, Kentucky Performing Arts
Photo By J. Parker Staten, Kentucky Performing Arts

Amid bright yellow, hanging scarves and a deep red rope dangling from above the stage at The Kentucky Center’s Bomhard Theater, CirqueLouis artists welcomed guests to join them onstage.

They had time, as the company wasn’t scheduled to begin “The Circus Show” for another hour. Performers were poised with hoops to spin, and others had various items to juggle.

Some were equipped to walk on stilts.

This wasn’t part of the regular show but rather a sensory-friendly performance especially for children such as 6-year-old Aiden.

He was among the first to step up with his grandparents Robin and David Hitt, who live in Jeffersontown.

Robin Hitt knew when she read about this sensory-friendly performance she wanted to bring Aiden, who is autistic and nonverbal.

Over the 30 minutes he got to explore, he learned how to grab the ends of the yellow silks and twirl one of the performers who had climbed into the strands above.

He gaped at the jugglers.

During the hourlong performance, Hitt took in her grandson’s reactions as he was giddy and watching the jugglers and the artists on stilts.

“It almost made me tear up,” she said. “I knew he would love it.”

Aiden sometimes repeatedly clapped his hands on his knees.

Hitt said those are Aiden’s way of stimming, something some with autism do to process emotion when excited.

Near the finale, he became enthralled when two performers spun on long silks near Aiden’s and his grandparents’ third-row seats. During several moments, he squealed.

No one shushed him.

Here, Aiden didn’t have to be quiet — and that made Hitt love this experience even more.

“It was an environment he felt totally comfortable in — as were all these kids around him — I could tell,” she said.

This was Hitt’s first time hearing the term “sensory-friendly performance.” But sensory-friendly or “relaxed performances,” designed for people with autism or others with sensory issues sometimes called neuro-diverse, are growing in number around the county. In the past few years, increasingly Louisville arts groups and theater companies have started offering them.

This year, the Louisville Ballet has an entire sensory-friendly performance of “The Nutcracker,” after presenting just one act of that ballet last year. It is shorter than the regular performance running about an hour and 15 minutes.

Actors Theatre of Louisville’s first sensory-friendly show was in 2018, but now it is offering sensory-friendly or relaxed performances for every production — including “Dracula” — in its 2019-2020 season. This excludes the Humana Festival of New American Plays.

This CirqueLouis performance was its second designed to be sensory friendly through help from Kentucky Performing Arts, which approached the organization in mid-2018 with the idea of adapting its production and obtaining a grant.

CIrqueLouis performers with visitors to the pre-performance touch tour for ‘The Circus Show’ in November.  |  Photo by J. Parker Staten - Kentucky Performing Arts. - J. Parker Staten - Kentucky Performing Arts
J. Parker Staten - Kentucky Performing Arts
CIrqueLouis performers with visitors to the pre-performance touch tour for ‘The Circus Show’ in November. | Photo by J. Parker Staten - Kentucky Performing Arts.

How It Works

Several elements distinguish these performances.

Producers turn down house lights about halfway, rather than putting the audience in complete darkness; vocalization from the audience is accepted; seating is limited up to 80% to allow audience members to get up and move around; people are allowed to exit and enter as they desire; and pricing is usually set at a general admission fee.

Producers also make a quiet space available, such as a room that allows continued viewing of the performance and/or another space away from the theater that offers a televised viewing of the performance.

For these performances and others, arts organizations offer noise-reduction headphones and manipulatives — small items patrons can turn over in their hands to release any kind of stress during a show. They even upload videos to their websites showing what a visit to their theaters looks like so visitors with sensory issues can watch them before their visit to know what to expect.

This extra attention for CirqueLouis didn’t involve making big changes to its production. The work came during that pre-show tactile tour onstage that Aiden joined in and in making guides for the audience that outlined the action of the performance. Patrons got those from ushers and were able to follow along, so they knew what to expect.

In almost any sensory-friendly performance, those guides list surprises or triggers — loud sounds such as a gunshot, the time a flash of light is coming or the scene with the injury or death of a character. These allow patrons to prepare themselves. To alert patrons of these moments, presenters usually have several designated people who hold up glow sticks at the edges of the theater before these moments.

‘I Know The Struggles’

StageOne Family Theatre began mounting sensory-friendly productions in 2011 with “Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business,” the play based on Barbara Park’s book.

“It’s not about changing what we do. It’s more about creating a safe environment and helping the audience understand what is going to happen,” said Andrew Harris, StageOne Family Theatre’s associate artistic director.

Harris didn’t create this sensory-friendly production via a calculated planning meeting at the theater’s office but through his earlier work bringing theater to classrooms. At the time, he was working at Jefferson County Public School’s Field Elementary School where there was a class with disabled students and units with students with moderate to severe autism.

While other Field students had opportunities to go to StageOne productions, these children had never been to the theater. So, Harris created a pilot program.

“I wish I could tell you that I’d done this research. But I was following my gut and talking with the teachers,” Harris said.

Harris prepared the students by reading the story to them several times, talking with them about the characters and bringing in pictures of the costumes and the set.

“Then I got this wild idea,” he said. “Familiarity breeds comfort. So, I grabbed one of our associates when the play was in tech rehearsal. I looked at the seating map. I took his flip phone and did a spontaneous walkthrough. Quick and dirty. With no script.”

Harris then had the video transferred to a DVD so the students could watch it repeatedly. On the day the students came to the theater, Harris was wearing the same clothes he was wearing in the video.

Susan French, who was Field Elementary School’s principal and is now principal of Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts School, called Harris’ pilot program “a pioneering effort” to give these children “equitable access.”

She still gets emotional remembering the experience, she said, because autism runs in her family. Her sister has twin boys who have autism.

“I know the struggles,” she said. “But the need for all students to have this experience drove our strategy.”

Even after the Field Elementary students had seen the play — with no evident anxiety or outbursts, according to French — there were continuing successes. French said back at school the children were able to retell the story in the correct sequence.

“Parents were thrilled,” she recalled.

This all happened in Louisville as the idea of offering such performances was gaining momentum nationally.

In 2011, the New York-based, nonprofit Theatre Development Fund offered the first autism-friendly Broadway performance with “The Lion King.” That launched the Autism Theatre Initiative, for the same organization that runs the TKTS ticket service. Through the initiative, it offers families with members who have autism affordable tickets for selected productions.

Two CirqueLouis performers with Aiden Canfield during the pre-performance touch tour for ‘The Circus Show.’ - Photo by J. Parker Staten - Kentucky Performing Arts. - J. Parker Staten - Kentucky Performing Arts
J. Parker Staten - Kentucky Performing Arts
Two CirqueLouis performers with Aiden Canfield during the pre-performance touch tour for ‘The Circus Show.’ Photo by J. Parker Staten - Kentucky Performing Arts.

Every Production

In Louisville, StageOne committed itself to offering sensory-friendly performances for every production during its 2013-14 season.

Talleri McRae, who was then associate education director, urged the company to be more deliberate in creating these productions and making accommodations, Harris said. She also helped spearhead a group to preview the performances to define points in the script when those glowing green wands should go up. Members include Stacy Ridgway, Kentucky Performing Arts manager of accessibility services, and Heidi Cooley-Cook, a training coordinator with Kentucky Autism Training Center.

Cooley-Cook said it’s difficult to know how many audience members are using these services because they aren’t required to identify themselves. In the first formally designated sensory-friendly StageOne performance in October 2013, “The House at Pooh Corner,” only two people identified themselves, she said. But through talking with people via her work with Kentucky Autism Training Center and the arts community, Cooley-Cook believes greater numbers from the autistic community are attending such shows. Numbers could be higher because StageOne now has a six-year record of performances. Actors Theatre of Louisville has been offering them for more than a year — beginning with playwright Anne Washburn’s “Little Bunny Foo Foo” in January 2018.

Can ‘Dracula’ Be ‘Relaxed’?

McRae began working for Actors Theatre in 2015 as a consultant to help the theater work with audiences with a range of disabilities and accommodate neuro-diverse individuals. Actors Theatre applied the idea, used at StageOne, of using the curtain speech to let an audience know verbalizing is acceptable as is walking around and leaving the theater.

“It sets the ground rules that this is a no judgment zone,” Cooley-Cook said of these speeches.

“Little Bunny Foo Foo” ran smoothly with the throngs of children in the audiences, including neuro-diverse attendees of the sensory-friendly performance, McRae said, comparing the experience to those at StageOne.

Then, Actors Theatre prepared to open its 2018-19 season with the more adult-oriented play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” the Tony Award-winning drama about a teenage boy on the autistic spectrum who leaves the safety of his neighborhood to solve the mystery about the death of a neighbor’s dog and makes unforeseen discoveries. An actor on the autism spectrum was in the lead role, and the production included the theater’s second sensory-friendly performance.

McRae’s goal has been to have sensory-friendly performances with every production. But even long after embarking on “Little Bunny Foo Foo,” she found people treated the idea of translating “Dracula” into a sensory-friendly production as one exception to fulfilling her goal. Still, she kept voicing her belief it could be achieved. Among her supporters were Kentuckiana Autistic Spectrum Alliance cofounder Micah Peace, also one of the advisers for sensory-friendly performances whom McRae recruited.

So, early this season, Actors Theatre presented a “relaxed performance” of “Dracula.” (Producers often use the term “relaxed” for adult productions.) McRae found from talking to Peace and other people with sensory issues that they wanted to see the same “Dracula” that everyone else gets to see.

Said Peace, “There’s a misconception that it is so intense that it cannot be made accessible to people.”

For “Dracula,” some sensory-friendly practices did not apply. For instance, the house lights were turned all the way down so the special effects would work.

But Actors worked with Peace and Cooley-Cook to prepare the audience. They went through the script during a rehearsal and identified moments that would necessitate glow stick notices and others that should be noted in a pre-show talk.

“We know with the autistic community those details are so important because they take in so much information sometimes the smallest sensory detail can make a huge difference in their experience,” McRae said. “Certain effects could distract your attention too much — or give you a migraine or even cause seizures for some people.”

To explain the production’s pyrotechnics, the stage management team created a video for the pre-show talk. Other theater staff received feedback from neurotypical patrons who were happy to see how this worked because, those patrons said, the fire had always made them nervous.

Peace called this result a curb-cut effect — likening these productions to the curb that dips to the street to facilitate a wheelchair’s movement but also helps people on bikes, pushing strollers and delivering packages.

Rewards For Performers

Actors and other performers say they rarely need to do any additional work — or anything at all — to make performances sensory friendly. But they have reaped rewards.

One is actor Jon Huffman, who portrays Scrooge in Actors Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol. He recounted a moment of connection “full of meaning” during the curtain call at last year’s sensory-friendly performance of the play.

Before the play, he learned a mother who came with her teenage son was sitting in the first few rows. Her son was a huge fan of “A Christmas Carol” and Scrooge and eager to see the show. So, Huffman acknowledged him during the curtain call.

“This young man came rushing to the foot of the stage, raised his hand to give me a high five, and we ended up clasping hands,” Huffman said. “When it was over, he went back to his seat, and the cast sang the final song.”

Huffman saw some fellow cast members crying as he came off stage. When he later went to the theater to look for the two, he found they had already left.

Louisville Ballet dancer Leigh Anne Albrechta said none of her dance steps changed last year when performing the sensory-friendly version of “The Nutcracker,” and they won’t this year when she performs the role of Marie’s mother. She said the biggest differences are sounds during the performance, and house lighting is brighter.

“It was pretty neat because we could see more people in the audience. ... Then, there was the excitement and the laughter.” she said. “It’s just a special thing to know you’re able to perform for people who are able to be in their comfort zone.”

louisville nutcracker
Sam English
Leigh Anne Albrechta in a former Louisville Ballet production of the "The Brown-Forman Nutcracker." | Photo by Sam English.

The Power Of Art

Sabrina Corbin’s 12-year-old son Liam, who has a sensory processing disorder, will be dancing the part of Fritz in this year’s “The Nutcracker.” He’s one of two boys dancing the role throughout the run.

“I’m so excited about him being in a sensory show,” said Corbin, who with her husband enrolled Liam in piano and ballroom dance lessons at 5 years old, when he was barely able to speak.

Corbin credited the arts with helping Liam develop coping mechanisms and find success.

“It’s been days, months and hours of tears,” she said, “bear holds and screaming when he was little. And not knowing what the future would hold for him.”

Louisville Ballet’s sensory-friendly version of “The Nutcracker” is just one of the many such performances here this holiday season. They include Actors Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” and “The Santaland Diaries.” StageOne will present “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”

The success is evident.

Ridgway recalled how she was moved by watching a woman last year at the first sensory-friendly “Nutcracker.” A woman, who looked to be in her 60s or 70s and had her face cast downward, entered the Kentucky Center visibly uncomfortable and seemingly anxious. Ridgway assumed the people on either side of her were family members.

Then, Ridgway saw her after the performance.

“She had her head up. She was smiling. She was walking with a bounce in her step,” she said. “She was a totally different person.”

Educating The Rest Of Us

Going forward, those working on these productions hope that more of them with larger audiences can create a tipping point — and not just for those with sensory issues. They want to create greater awareness and acceptance of people with autism and those with sensory issues at the theater and in other public spaces.

That’s presently a hurdle, as Ridgway explained. Among Kentucky Performing Arts’ most frequent complaints from patrons are those about other patrons who make sounds or movements.

But, McRae said, institutions can work to increase overall understanding and acceptance by being hosts who set the tone for performances. That includes providing everyone in the theater with information on neuro-diverse behaviors and how some of these people perceive the world. Actors Theatre has worked toward this by providing this information on its website.

Said Cooley-Cook: “Now, we are beginning to talk to the whole community.” •

Follow Elizabeth Kramer on Twitter @arts_bureau and on Facebook at Elizabeth Kramer - Arts Writer.