To create an immersive theatrical experience that is sensory-friendly and ADA-accesible
To build a program with trained companions to lead audience members one-on-one through the show
Creating a personalized, inclusive theatrical experience
WHAT NEEDS WORK
Creating accommodations for a variety of needs, building audiences
Instead of a pre-show announcement about silencing cell phones and unwrapping candies, audiences at the Bricolage Production Company’s The Forest of Everywhere, which ran May 17-June 3, must take a pre-show oath. Audiences enter a 12-foot-wide redwood tree named Shushy and are led through “The Oath of the Oaks” by Ranger Roger and an alpaca named Simon. The oath reminds the young audience members to be kind, to be gentle, and to help everyone they meet inside feel like they belong.
The goal of Bricolage’s Immersive Companion Program (ICP) is to show that everyone indeed does belong in the theatre. While the point of many immersive shows, from Sleep No More to Then She Fell, is that they’re staged in adventurous, barely accessible venues, such entertainment options by definition leave out a large portion of the population. And that’s where Bricolage’s program comes in, equipping any theatregoers who ask for one with a one-on-one companion to guide them through the company’s immersive shows. The team of volunteer Immersive Companions—trained audio describers, ASL interpreters, and emotional aides—can be arranged ahead of time for anyone needing any sort of accommodation. For the company’s first ICP show this fall, DODO at the Carnegie Museum, an audience member who had a debilitating fear of snakes was led on an individualized track of the show.
The Forest of Everywhere was specifically grown for children on the autism spectrum and those with mobility challenges to freely experience the magic of theatre in a sensory-friendly and ADA-accessible space. It was created in response to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Children’s Museum’s request for Bricolage to adapt their youth programming to be inclusive for children on the spectrum. First produced in 2016 as Welcome to Here, the show has been improved to become more accessible.
While both immersive shows and sensory-friendly performances had been done before at the theatre, an immersive sensory-friendly show was a new hybrid.
“Once we started doing some research and gathering the creative team and began devising in rehearsals, it really became clear to us that a lot of the work that we had been doing in the immersive realm was perfect for this community,” says Tami Dixon, the show’s writer and director. “Our immersive work is intimate, personalized, and sensory-based. I think this type of work is incredibly flexible, and the borders are really porous and allow us to engage with human beings one-on-one.”
The ICP program was created from the same place of individualized attention.
“The solution had to be just like the type of theatre that we create: personalized, intimate, and one-on-one,” says managing director Jackie Baker, who heads ICP. “We need to allow them to self-identify what all of their potential barriers may be to this work so that we could meet them where they are.”
And while creating immersive shows is the company’s stock in trade, crafting an interactive world to be fully inclusive posed new challenges. “The very thing that makes our other immersive work successful was making this one a disaster,” Dixon concedes, “and that was the structure.”
The original conception was to have audiences spend set amounts in each location, but at the 11th hour, Dixon cut back on the narrative and made the experience less linear, so that guests could explore the world at their own pace.
In shuffling the story this way, though, the team had to let go of any worry about spoilers. “We had to give up the ghost on trying to keep everything precious and secretive,” says Dixon. “This audience needs to know what they’re getting into, so we just tell them everything from beginning to end.”
And while The Forest of Everywhere offered Immersive Companions, the show was created with a concept of universal design, considering physical and spatial accommodations from the start.
Inside the forest, children could choose their own adventure: They could lie down in the log crawl, create music with Esther the ostrich, dance with Don Key the burro, or slide down a sliding board. Whatever they chose to do, there was one task at hand for all who entered: A worldwide storm has left animals from across the globe scattered, audiences were told, and the audience members had to help the animals acclimate to their strange new home in the forest.
The show wasn’t just for children with disabilities, of course. All who attended got the benefit of the loose-fitting structure, minus traditional theatregoing rules.
“Removing some of the restrictions and expectations just allows kids to be kids, regardless of whether they are autistic or allistic [neurotypical],” says Baker. Adds Dixon, “When we can give the opportunity for the parents to see their child interact with neurotypical kids in a setting that is inclusive, we give them a gift that they don’t often get.”
To maintain the ethos of inclusion throughout, the show’s characters and other roaming “Forest Friends” in green vests reminded the guests to uphold the rules of “The Oath of the Oaks.” This was an especially helpful reminder if a child got over-stimulated while in the space.
“The oath is also for the parents,” says Dixon. “Many times parents of children on the spectrum don’t feel a sense of relaxation—they feel on guard all the time to protect their child from the mainstream world that is not very accepting or loving. It is a reminder to them that this is a different space—here we practice letting go and allowing.”
The creative team relied on autistic artists and children on the spectrum, along with their families, to be beta testers throughout the development process. Pittsburgh organizations such as the Arts for Autism Foundation and Evolve Coaching also provided support.
From the workshop production in 2016 to the latest iteration, a few improvements were made. For one, all the animals were accessible in this version, whereas before some had been placed on risers in the theatre.
And a new character was added: a crocodile with large teeth and a menacing exterior. “We’re talking about inclusion, so we wanted to add an animal that came with all these labels and see if we could change that and alter how people experience that animal,” says Dixon. The crocodile turned out to be a wise and docile storyteller.
The take-a-break space for those who need to exit was also revamped. After meeting an architect at the Big Umbrella Festival—a month of sensory-friendly performances, events, and symposia—at New York City’s Lincoln Center this spring, Dixon learned how quiet spaces outside the action can hinder autistic children’s ability to reenter. The space now has a hammock and interactive props from the forest to occupy guests.
“Now we give them an option to integrate slowly at a different pace and maybe with less stimulus, so that when they come back they can see things that were in the take-a-break space there back in that world and not be afraid of them,” says Dixon.
The company also reached out to parents to see what challenges typically prevent families from attending performances.
“One barrier we learned from talking to parents is that it is hard to justify paying for a ticket for themselves when the experience is really for their kid,” says Baker. So the company created a pricing structure in which the first chaperone of any group can attend for free. Stations for breastfeeding mothers were also available throughout the run.
The open-world show even offered the ultimate accessibility option: It was over whenever a guest decided to go. Before they left, attendees were told to look for Osheen, the Great Prince of the Forest. Osheen, played by an actor with autism, brought guests to the Water of Lights, thanked them for their help in the forest, and gave them a parting gift.
“They’ll have this little token, this beautiful golden acorn lovingly handmade by many of our volunteers, to remind them of their experience in the forest,” says Dixon. “Whenever they want to come back, they can. What better way to send off these people, kids or adults, than to let them know that they can behave this way outside of the forest?”
And while the company has made strides in opening the entrance to the forest even wider for audiences, there’s still a lot to learn.
“I would really love to know what other people are doing to make their shows accessible, so that I can borrow and steal and they can borrow and steal, and we can all do better in general with this kind of work,” says Baker. “I’m sure that we are going to fail gloriously in ways that we don’t know yet, that they will tell us all about. And I want to know what that is so we can do better next time.”
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