Sensory-Friendly Performance Initiative at Dallas Children’s Theater Receives Long-term Support

by Sandra Sessions-Robertson

in Audience (R)Evolution

Post image for Sensory-Friendly Performance Initiative at Dallas Children’s Theater Receives Long-term Support

(Audience members delight in meeting actress Noelle Stanley from Rapunzel! Rapunzel! A Very Hairy Fairy Tale. Photo: Charles T. Wicker. This post is a part of the Audience (R)Evolution grant program and blog salon.)

Dallas Children’s Theater’s pilot year of making theater accessible for children with developmental disabilities is complete, but I am so thrilled to tell you that this is really the beginning of the story!  This past year, 833 children on the autism spectrum and with other sensory differences and their families were embraced with warm welcomes, a light and happy environment, and opportunities for creativity and growth through our sensory-friendly performance initiative. One performance each of regular season productions of Go, Dog. Go!, Stuart Little, and Rapunzel! Rapunzel! A Very Hairy Fairy Tale were presented with lowered sound levels, house lights left dim but not off, and a range of other performance adaptations to make theater enjoyable for our special audience members. A culture of acceptance and special areas for quiet, when needed, made them feel at home.

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If you attended these performances, you might have noticed that one young man recited out loud in unison with the actors many of the lines of the book on which a play was based. You might have noticed that a young boy laughed loud and long when one of the characters threw him a ball. Perhaps you noticed that a young girl stood up and sat down, while another rocked back and forth often during a performance. Some exited the theater for a breather and returned a little later. And you would have noticed that everyone supported and accepted these behaviors without question. Because of this understanding and compassionate environment, we exceeded all of our measurable objectives, including goals for the children’s comfort during the performance, children interacting with a person they didn’t know, and children’s experience of learning and growth. Final pilot year outcomes are provided below:

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.

95% of parents said they believe their children were comfortable during the performance.

88% of parents said they believe their children grew or learned through the experience.

90% of parents said their children had a positive interaction with a person they didn’t know.

98% of parents said they would like to come to another sensory-friendly performance.

(Above: Actor Zak Reynolds as Sir Roderick listens to an audience member describe her favorite part of the play. Photo: Charles T. Wicker)

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(M.Denise Lee modulated her evil laugh as Lady Za Za for the sensory-friendly performance. Photo: Patty Bates-Ballard)

Our ability to dive into this project wholeheartedly with national partners, thanks to the TCG/Doris Duke Foundation grant, and our ability to document it fully, thanks to a grant from Autism Speaks, paved the way for us to accomplish something incredible. Drum roll please….. We just learned in February that Dallas Children’s Theater was selected by the Crystal Charity Ball to receive a three-year $564,000 grant to expand sensory-friendly performances, purchase helpful equipment, offer dedicated and inclusive classes, and ultimately produce a play featuring both children with developmental disabilities and children who are typically developing. The funding also allows us to return to a ticket price in 2016 that will enable the maximum number of people to take part in this new DCT offering.

We charged $5 a ticket for our first and second sensory-friendly shows and had more than 300 in attendance at each. We had planned from the beginning to raise the ticket price from $5 to $10 for the third show in our sensory-friendly pilot year. We made a special effort to help our audience understand that $10 is still significantly lower than our standard ticket price, and we said that we were hopeful that families would be able to move from the introductory rates we offered to a price that enables the program to be more sustainable for the long-term. While the audience for our third sensory-friendly performance was sizable –194– it was significantly smaller than our first two show audiences. We believe the increased ticket price played a role in the smaller turnout. We had become concerned that the price increase would continue to have an impact on participation. We are thrilled that Crystal Charity Ball funding will allow us to restore the $5 ticket price so that more families can afford to provide this live theater experience to their children.

Why are sensory-friendly performances important? For the 100,000+ children in Dallas on the autism spectrum and with other developmental disabilities, and their 100,000+ siblings, and their 100,000+ parents, going to events in public spaces can be overwhelming. For children who have developmental disabilities or sensory sensitivities, a buzzing light overhead can sound like a roaring lion; the lights going dark in the theater can feel like being trapped in a cave; flashing lights can send small bodies into uncontrollable convulsions. When children with different sensory needs get overwhelmed, they often react by shouting, crying, or running away. These reactions often are not understood by the general public, and negative comments and stares are common. When parents prioritize their child’s health and safety, their families often miss out on, and really are excluded from, many community events.

Cara Gravely French, the Crystal Charity Ball member assigned to research DCT’s application, told us that the Sensory-Friendly Initiative is appealing in many ways.  “DCT is a dream come true for families with developmental disabilities,” she said. “There are not many places these families can go together and feel like they fit in, or feel understood. DCT offers a safe, accepting place for children with developmental disabilities and their families to experience a family outing together. Everyone in the family can reap its many benefits! Parents don’t have to worry, and the children grow socially and cognitively,” French said. She stressed that DCT is the only live theater in our community producing sensory-friendly versions of their productions, offering critical brain stimulation through the movement, emotion, and cooperative learning. “This program is beneficial to both children with developmental disabilities and typically developing children,” French said.

image 66(The Dallas Children’s Theater presentation team. Left to right: Sandra Session-Robertson, Nancy Schaeffer, Robyn Flatt, Kory Ballard, Patty Bates-Ballard, Sharron Hunt, Carol March, Karen Travis. Photo: Aaron Rodriguez)

 As a fundraiser, this project had all of the right components:  a new potential audience with an unmet need, the first-year funding to really test and market the program and to establish goals and measure outcomes, and the ability to connect and learn from national peers.  We were given permission to make mistakes and to adjust them for the overall betterment of the program.  The  reasonable time frame to truly pilot our work was a precious gift.  Based on the immediate positive response to the effort, we were able to build a case for sustainability of the program.  This one-year grant has led to an additional three-year grant for the program, and now we are building a plan for year four and beyond.

None of the exciting expansion plans would have been possible without the seed funding. This experience absolutely reinforces my fundamental belief that the best, the most lasting work is that which benefits from time and resources. The TCG/Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Grant afforded us that, and we are eternally grateful.

Now we are sharing our experiences with others. Recently, Dallas Children’s Theater hosted a half-day Infusion & Inclusion workshop that brought together other arts and cultural groups and local DCT partners such as Autism Speaks, Children’s Health, the University of North Texas, and others. Thanks to a supporting first-year grant from Autism Speaks, we were able to give each of them the detailed back story of how we brought this project from a vision to reality for our organization.  How wonderful it was to share our learnings and our successes. How wonderful it was to have so many others desiring to serve the underserved population of children with developmental disabilities and their families. Now that is what seed support is all about!

image 44(The Infusion & Inclusion Workshop at Dallas Children’s Theater Photo: Patty Bates-Ballard)

image 55Sandra Session-Robertson is Senior Director of Communications and Philanthropy at Dallas Children’s Theater. She worked for 25 years in public broadcasting in various roles including Senior Vice President of Leadership Giving and Special Projects for KERA in North Texas; President and CEO of KSMQ Public Television based in Austin, Minnesota; and Associate Vice President and General Manager of WCEU-TV Channel 15, a PBS affiliate in Daytona Beach, Florida. Sandra graduated from The University of Texas in Austin with a Bachelors degree in Journalism and, she also has a Masters of Education from the University of Florida Gainesville. She has been called upon to serve as Mistress of Ceremonies for numerous community events, has hosted/produced television shows, and has done a modest amount of stage work.


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.