To mount one sensory-friendly performance for each mainstage production
To present performances that will not be over-stimulating for children on the autism spectrum
Creating a welcoming environment for families with children on the autism spectrum
What Needs Work
Retaining consistent volunteer ushers
To continue staff and volunteer training, and to build audiences
When, in 2014, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte staged Jennifer Overton’s Spelling 2-5-5, a play about a boy and his brother, who is on the autism spectrum, the production brought up questions within the organization about how to authentically portray a character on the autism spectrum onstage, how to bring families with children on the spectrum to the show, and how to create the best theatregoing experience for all. That production sparked the North Carolina theatre’s initiative to present one sensory-friendly performance for each of its mainstage productions, starting in 2016 with A Year With Frog and Toad.
“We are the first big organization in Charlotte to be doing it, and so it is kind of baby steps in figuring out what we can offer,” says Sarah Diener, the company’s resident teaching artist.
The theatre sought guidance from Julie Higginbotham of Precious Developments, a local organization dedicated to working with kids and families in the special education world. “We knew that we do theatre very well, but we were not the experts in this particular area, so we partnered with Julie as a consultant,” says Michelle Long, who heads the institution’s education department. “There are so many tentacles to this once you dip your toe into it, so she was just so wonderful to be our consultant throughout this year.”
Higginbotham advised on the procuring of fidget toys, weighted stuffed animals, and other calming objects for children on the autism spectrum. And she aided in creating online resources for families, training -theatre staff and volunteer ushers, designating a quiet room, and identifying sensory-friendly moments in scripts and productions.
The theatre also reached out to others that present sensory-friendly performances, such as Chicago Children’s Theatre and Stages Theatre Company in Hopkins, Minn., for guidance. “There is a transparency between theatre organizations, and each organization has to have a different approach to it,” says Diener. “What things have been tried? What seems to have resonated with audience members?”
Another partner in promoting the theatre’s sensory-friendly performances was the Spangler Library for Children, which shares a building with Children’s Theatre of Charlotte.
“Not only do we share the building, but we also have a lot of shared programs and a shared programming committee,” says Long. “The building that we are housed in is called ImaginOn, and it was built specifically for our two entities 11 years ago. We take that partnership very seriously.”
The Spangler Library has a section dedicated to books and resources for families with children on the spectrum. One of the listed resources is Children’s Theatre’s sensory-friendly performances, which are presented at each of the two performance spaces that share a building with the library.
“One of the tricky things about being in the space at the library is that everything that we do is behind closed doors and costs money, and anything that the library does is free and public,” Long says. “We are regularly trying to find self-guided activities, ways families can interact online with the shows we do, through a program called Theatre 360.”
That initiative provides outlines for the productions, as well as games and stories that explore the show’s themes. “Whether families are in our building, at home, or online, they can interact with the shows,” says Long.
The program also includes an online tour of ImaginOn, which leads viewers through the building—from the ramp leading up to the entrance to the box office, from the restrooms to the seats in the two performance spaces—so that children on the autism spectrum can be prepared before visiting.
As for production preparations, Diener and Higginbotham sit in on rehearsals, designer runs, and tech rehearsals to take notes on how sensory-friendly performances might be modified. Loud sound cues and flashing lights are sometimes pulled back, and a script of signal cues is created for other sensory moments that may be over-stimulating for children on the spectrum. With the signal cue script in hand, house staff will stand at the front of the stage and wave glow sticks to signal to the audience that a sensory-rich moment is approaching.
Aside from some design tweaks, sensory-friendly performances are no different from others. Actors are instructed to deliver the same performance, and are simply made aware that some of the audience members may be up and moving around, or making noise during the show.
“We don’t want actors to change the way they do their show,” says Diener. “What we are hoping for is that it is the same show onstage, and then we just adjust how the audience experiences it.”
When children arrive for a sensory-friendly performance, they are greeted at the entrance with headphones, fidgets, and weighted lap dogs to choose from before they enter. Volunteer ushers, who are informed of possible scenarios that may occur during the performance, lead children and families to their seats. The children can switch seats, visit the quiet room, or move around if need be.
So far the response has been positive. “We’ve gotten good feedback from the audience that some of the tools we have been providing the audience, such as the fidgets, have been really helpful,” says Diener.
Long adds that patrons have expressed relief that they are able to experience entertainment as a family in a judgment-free setting. “We haven’t really sat down to dig through the data yet, but I will say that the audiences got larger and larger as word spread,” says Long.
In the new season, the theatre would like to dive deeper into the process of training the staff and retaining volunteer ushers. It has often proven “hard to find consistency with ushers that can be there for all six of the sensory-friendly performances throughout the season,” says Long.
Another key is confirming that staffers and volunteers are all on the same page and have a shared language. “How can we make sure that they feel trained enough that they are set up for success to help the families that are in the actual space during that time?” Long wonders.
Moving forward, the theatre will tackle some of the challenges that arose the first season. For example, when Children’s Theatre presented the sensory-friendly performance of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever in the 570-seat McColl Family Theatre, staff learned that audiences for these performances should not be allowed to reach the space’s legal capacity.
“As much as you want everybody to be able to come, with these performances you have to hold steady at maybe selling only half the house so that there is space and room for families—otherwise it can get very overwhelming for the children on the spectrum,” says Long, noting that the packed holiday show led to a lot of “energy” in the house.
And while the company would like to increase the number of sensory-friendly performances offered, weekday school performances take up the bulk of the performance schedule, and schools do not want to separate out students on the autism spectrum for different performances.
But the learning curve is moving in an upward direction. This summer the theatre shared its experience mounting sensory-friendly shows with other theatres in the state at the North Carolina Theatre Conference.
“What we are trying to move toward is being stigma-free when it comes to audience members whose needs are different from our own,” says Diener. “Really what that comes down to is clear and honest communication, as a staff, as teachers, and as artists. My goal for the program this year has been to make our theatre a place where families don’t feel judged for the way their child takes in and processes a show.”