A Welcoming and Warm Change

by Nancy Schaeffer

in Audience (R)Evolution

Post image for A Welcoming and Warm Change

(“Our first staff training”, photo credit: Rachel Wells. Left to right: Sandra Session-Robertson , DCT Senior Director of Communications & Philanthropy, Haylie Miller, PhD, University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, Robyn Flatt, DCT Co-Founder & Executive Artistic Director, Pat Robbins, Texas Area Director for Autism Speaks.)

Dallas Children’s Theater is so excited to be starting our exploration in making theater accessible for  children with developmental disabilities like autism, Down syndrome, and hearing or visual impairments in the DFW area.

As Director of Education and Project Director, I and  our head of communications and philanthropy, Sandra Session-Robertson,  jumped right into the research phase by traveling to Orlando Repertory Theater in December to see their sensory-friendly production of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” We really got the royal treatment from our colleagues there.  They were generous with sharing of their materials and experiences so far in this space.  We  got to see a standard production of the show early in the day and then a sensory-friendly show later.  In managing our expectations, they told us that there were not sure how many people would actually get to the theater that day because of the unique challenges these families face, but fortunately, the show was well-attended and most audience members sat in the middle section together.

Children in the audience were active in their seats, many having brought their special lovie-toy from home, and they clearly loved the experience. It was so heartwarming to watch.  One child got overstimulated at one point and his parents took him out for a short time. They returned and enjoyed the rest of the show. Many children engaged afterwards with the actors, especially Santa, to get autographs. One item of feedback from audience members was that the house lights were too bright. The remainder of feedback was gratitude for the theater offering this special programming.  People were genuinely grateful and looking forward to learning about the next show.  Sandra and I both shared what a privilege it was to be in a like-minded audience where no one had to be self-conscious about behavior.  And you know, we are learning more about the typically developing child in these families who seldom gets a full theater experience because of the unpredictability of the challenged family member.  One little one was so excited that he got to see the entire play!  How delightful it was to see his face.  All in all, we were appreciative for the chance to get to go and learn and observe firsthand from our colleagues.  We are confident it will move us down the path of being really prepared (we hope) when we pilot our first sensory-friendly performance on March 1.

Also in December, we invited local community members with experience in developmental disabilities to be part of an advisory group. They came with great energy and appreciation for what we were embarking on for their audiences. So far, they are excited about our March production of “Go, Dog. Go!” with its minimal dialogue, non-complicated storyline, and lots of interesting visual and auditory content.  They think it is an ideal show to test our initial research. However, the planning timeframe is very tight! Autism Speaks’ Director Pat Robbins and Dr. Haylie Miller of the University of North Texas were gracious enough to pull together a box office personnel training on January 7 so that we will be well-informed when parents call with questions.  Over ten staff members sat in and learned about aspects that  families deal with that we perhaps too often take for granted.  They encouraged us not to use slang such as “take a breath,” because the child literally will do that, and may not process it the way a typically developing child might. They talked to us about how affectionate some of these audience members might be and how to think about handling that. They talked about the kinds of questions the parents might ask ahead of time and why. They encouraged us to invite parents to come check out the space ahead of time if they want to.  They help sensitize us to the families’ worlds and how our actions can present a welcoming and warm change in the midst of their often chaotic lives.  The sense around the room seemed to be one of pride for what this effort would mean to these families.

Haylie and Pat told us to expect a wide range of functional levels, including minimal verbal skills. Take-aways included using simple, concrete language (beginning interactions with 3-5 word sentences); being okay with a wide range of behaviors as long as they aren’t harmful; and positioning volunteers at all exits to prevent children from leaving unexpectedly. We also learned that the more we can do to support and provide information, the more we will relieve parent anxiety, which can be significant.

We already have developed a first draft of a “Social Story,” which is a pictorial guide with simple language explaining what children can expect when they come to the theater. The Social Story will be available on our website. General production adaptations we plan to make include leaving the lights up a few levels higher than for a standard performance (but not too high!), reducing the sound level, and providing a tailored introduction with very concrete rules. We also will offer a “Quiet Room” for children who may need a break from what for them may be overwhelming sensory input.

Our next step is for local advisory group members to attend an early production of “Go, Dog. Go!” and give feedback about specific elements of the show that might create discomfort for children with developmental disabilities. We are evaluating whether we can leave in one blackout that sets up a trick. If we don’t, the audience will see the set-up of the trick.

The advisory council also is going to help us ensure that our target audiences receive information about our sensory-friendly performance.  They would love to see a theater filled with appreciative families.  Of course, our hope is that we can deliver that, but we know there is still much work to be done.

Our pilot sensory-friendly performance is set for March 1, 2014. Our Orlando Rep and Nashville Children Theater partners have already confirmed that they will be in attendance to see a standard show on February 28, give input, and then attend the March 1 sensory-friendly show, followed by more discussion.  What an exciting year it will be! We look forward to more sharing time with our colleagues of like minds, thanks to this grant.  We can’t say enough about what this Inclusion Project means to us.

Nancy SchaefferNANCY SCHAEFFER, Education Director, has been a vital member of the Dallas Children’s Theater resident staff since 1984, managing the theater’s education program and serving as one of three decisionmakers on the artistic side of the operation.  Nancy also directs at least three of approximately 10 shows the theater produces each year. She earned her BA in Theater and Dance from Western Kentucky University.  As DCT Education Director, Ms. Schaeffer directs DCT’s year-round Theater ArtsSchool, and coordinates and oversees all Arts-in-Education activities.  Nancy also teaches several creative drama and movement classes, acts, and choreographs many shows.