Sensory-Friendly Performances Thrill Dallas Audiences

by Nancy Schaeffer

in Audience (R)Evolution

Post image for Sensory-Friendly Performances Thrill Dallas Audiences

(Photo by Karen Almond. This post is a part of the Audience (R)Evolution grant program and blog salon.)

The Dallas Children’s Theater’s first-year venture into making  theater accessible for  children with developmental disabilities is nearing a wonderfully successful close. While the movement for sensory-friendly theater environments continues to grow nationally and internationally, children with developmental delays like autism, Down syndrome, and hearing or visual impairments in the DFW area now have had three opportunities to attend a live children’s theater performance modified just for them. And they are loving it!

Go, Dog. Go!

DCT’s first sensory-friendly performance ever, Go, Dog. Go! was held March 1, 2014 to a house of 301! The primary way that our audience found out about the performance was from our targeted marketing through agencies, schools, and therapists, including social media. For our first sensory-friendly performance, we were able to recruit 17 volunteers to help ensure that families felt welcomed and were assisted with any needs. The following sensory-friendly adaptations were made to the performance:

  • Deeply-reduced ticket price of $5.
  • A customized curtain speech with specially-worded rules and an invitation to families and children to feel free to express themselves.
  • Overall volume lowered at the sound board.
  • Volume of MC Dog’s whistle reduced by actor.
  • Cut playing of wood blocks during “Dogs in Trees” song.
  • Cut dropping of large wooden plank; instead actors set it down.
  • House lights at ½ for the entire show.
  • Cut flashing lights in both sections of jackhammer.
  • Cut flashing red and green lights on the traffic light at the end of cars.
  • Cut flashing light with the confetti at show end.
  • Back three rows of audience were not subject to actor interaction.
  • A rehearsal with actors and crew was held to incorporate sensory-friendly adaptations.  Actors and crew members were compensated.
  • In addition to typical photography props and stand-ins, we developed a hand-held photography cut-out board for children in wheelchairs.
  • A designated Quiet Room for children who become overwhelmed and need a quieter space.

Stuart Little Audience Front Row

(Photo by Patty Bates-Ballard.)

Celebrate Inclusion! Weekend

As part of the effort to mount our first sensory-friendly performance, we were thrilled to be able to host a Celebrate Inclusion! Weekend with our partners from Nashville Children’s Theater and Orlando Repertory Theater. Our partners saw a standard performance of Go, Dog. Go! followed by the sensory friendly performance. We held two roundtable discussions as well as informal dialogue opportunities over dinner Friday evening.  Partners also had the opportunity to experience other aspects of Dallas, including the Dallas Arts District, another theater performance, and the Sixth Floor Museum, which commemorates the assassination and legacy of President John F Kennedy.

Nashville Visit

After having visited Orlando Repertory Theater in December 2013, a DCT team visited Nashville Children’s Theater in April 2014 to see the sensory-friendly performance of Lyle The Crocodile. The audience of about 200 was comprised of families with children on the autism spectrum and families with typically developing children. Ushers were friendly and helpful, and passed out programs and surveys to families before the show. A staff member gave a live curtain speech, and announced the comfort room/cry room in the back of the theater, but said that audience members were free to react to the show in any way. The overall sound level reduction was the major accommodation for the sensory- friendly performance. Also, an actor reduced the sound of his whistle blow for a parade scene. The house lights were not adjusted for the performance. There was a staff member in a pool of light near the stage, preventing a total blackout. When something startling was about to happen, the staff person held up a red light wand. These accommodations seemed to work well for the audience, and we heard lots of enjoyment. A few children and parents exited and returned.

Stuart Little

We featured Stuart Little for our second sensory-friendly performance on July 12, to a house of 338! This play required fewer customized adaptations than Go, Dog. Go!  We continued with the sensory-friendly sound and light adaptations to the performance, as well as providing the customized curtain speech and Quiet Room. The only customized adaptation for this play was to have Stuart’s flashlight search above the heads of the audience.

Response

The response we have received about our first two sensory-friendly performances truly has been amazing. We exceeded our goals in every area.

Actor Audience Pic Stuart Little

(Photo by Patty Bates-Ballard.)

100% of parents said their child with sensory sensitivities enjoyed the show.

95% of verbal children said they liked the experience / want to return to see another show.

93% of non-verbal children were visibly at ease and/or engaged during the performance.

96% of parents said they believe their children were comfortable during the performance.

87% of parents said they believe their children grew or learned through the experience.

96% of parents said their children had a positive interaction with a person they didn’t know.

96% of parents said they would like to come to another sensory-friendly performance.

The comments of parents and grandparents reveal even more about what this effort has accomplished so far. Here are a few of the many comments we received:

  • A VERY BIG thank you for doing this for our family. Your very gifted performers may never realize what a great thing they did but we very much appreciate it. Please tell them thank you and please tell them not only did they entertain but they also made a difference to a little boy and his parents.
  • We live 5 minutes away. We’ve never come to see a show due to the price and the risk of our autistic son behaving poorly. The $5 ticket and sensory adjustments allowed us to enjoy a theater show. Thank you!! It was memorable.
  • It was great being able to take my child to the theatre without worrying how he may behave in that moment. He did great but you never know and being in an environment where it was okay was beyond comforting to me as a parent. Thank you!
  • It is wonderful to know that these children and young adults can enjoy the same theater experience as others, it is so difficult to find activities for families with special needs – it was by far outstanding.
  • Thank you. We spend lots of money on various therapies for my son. We have 3 children total..and $20 for a ticket for each child plus an adult is just not in our budget. The lower price allowed all to enjoy! Thank you so very much.
  • Thank you to all involved in sponsoring this event for “special” families! It’s wonderful to have some family time at a place where it’s ok to be special.

In general, social media posts about sensory-friendly are generating the most response. A post about a major gift from the Michael Young family generated 127 likes and a number of comments.  The first sensory-friendly post generated 135 comments and a myriad of shares.  Clearly, this messaging is resonating with people.

Michael Young Family with Stuart Little

(Photo by Karen Almond.)

The cast also has felt personally rewarded by the experience. Randall Scott Carpenter, who played Stuart Little, said about the experience of presenting a sensory-friendly show, “This has just been the best experience!  Thank you guys for giving me the chance to be a part of this special outreach.”

We also have received several solid recommendations for improvements. We plan to hold an advisory committee meeting soon to discuss these and other recommendations:

  • The pre-show activities were too close to each other for our first performance, and so we spread them out more for the second.
  • Several parents wished for an intermission even for an hour-long show.
  • Several parents voiced concern about scary themes. Recommendations included providing specific information in the social story about scary themes in the play, and avoiding shows with scary themes when choosing the shows for sensory-friendly adaptation.
  • Some parents stated that a 4:30 p.m. performance is too late for their kids with developmental disabilities.

October’s Rapunzel! Rapunzel! A Very Hairy Fairy Tale was our third and last sensory-friendly performance of tis calendar year. We had planned from the beginning of the effort to raise the ticket price to $10 for the third show. We made a special effort to help our audience understand that $10 per person is still significantly less than our normal ticket price. So, we are hopeful that people will move from the introductory rates we offered to a price that enables the program to be more sustainable for the long-term. We believe that with continued local community support, we’ll be able to hold that price going forward. We know that price will be difficult for some, and we will provide scholarships as long as funding allows.

We held a fairy tale-themed fundraiser in conjunction with the play to raise additional funding to keep our Inclusion Project alive in 2015. We are so excited that a local church donated its recent Sunday morning offering to next year’s performances, and we received a significant donation from the foundation of former Texas Ranger player Michael Young. We also are being very proactive with our grantwriting efforts, including a request for multi-year support from a local funder focused on children. We’ve received a second grant from Autism Speaks for the coming sensory-friendly season.  The project means so much for so many, and we have our fingers and toes crossed that we are able not only to keep Inclusion going, but to expand it in the coming years.


NANCY 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 decision-makers 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.


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Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience  engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.