The Nuts and Bolts of Offering Sensory-Friendly Experiences to Your Audience
Over the past few years, the topic of accessible theatre has risen to the top of our collective conversation. How do we, as an industry, include more performers of all abilities? How do we create a better and more accessible environment for all audience members? This evening’s (9/29/16) panel, Access & Activism in Theatre, will focus on the progress and challenges in the theatre community around access and inclusion for artists, administrators, and audience members. In today’s companion article we are excited to feature McCarter Theatre of Princeton, New Jersey, and their Relaxed Performances program. The McCarter has committed themselves to this initiative for the past several years, making slight modifications to productions in order to make the experience accessible for audience members with sensory differences. Read below to learn more, and get ready to be inspired. —Courtney Kochuba, #IdentityWeek curator, Samuel French
The work of making the theatre field more inclusive and equitable for people with disabilities is a complex and long-term project. Like any kind of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) work, it can feel simultaneously like the most important priority for sustainability of an organization and like an issue so large that it can be daunting to take the first step.
I was asked to write this piece because of one particular program that McCarter has done for the past several years: our Relaxed Performances (RPs). These performances, modified slightly to make the experience accessible for audience members with sensory differences, are growing in popularity at regional theatres, and I am fairly often approached by colleagues looking to understand what it takes to implement them. But when Sam French asked us to write the accompanying piece for their panel on Access and Activism, I have to admit that I felt under-qualified to address the larger trends in the field—issues of casting, inclusive rehearsal room practices for actors and designers with disabilities, the need for a body of written work that explores characters with disabilities with nuance and complexity, the ablest structures that exist in a workplace that are so ingrained as to be invisible to those of us with the privilege not to notice them, and the ways in which all of these things combine to make the theatre and unintentionally exclusionary place for artists and audience members with disabilities. There are people doing incredible work on all of these fronts in the field. Among many others, I urge you to check out the work Dog and Pony DC and Playpenn have recently done to create inclusive practices with deaf actors. I highly recommend looking into the community-based work Joan Lipkin, artistic director of That Uppity Theater Company, has been doing for over twenty-five years. And for a deep training and discussion on the nature and outcomes of ableism in an artistic work place I hope you'll look into the EDI learning opportunities provided by Carmen Morgan of ArtEquity.
While acknowledging that the complexity and scale of the conversation goes well beyond inclusive performances, I certainly believe that offering RPs at your theatre is an effective and achievable step towards full inclusion and access.
In a field where we always worry about dwindling audience attention or the power of the arts to make change, these performances are some of the most joyful, moving, and artistically satisfying you will ever see.
What is a “Relaxed Performance?”
A Relaxed Performance is a performance in which certain production elements such as light and sound cues are adjusted slightly to even out or soften the sensory experience of the show, or removed altogether. A relaxed performance may also offer accommodations outside of the show itself, such as a relaxation/quiet area, an activity area, family/non-gendered bathrooms, a live-feed of the show in the lobby, and online pre-show materials like a social story (a sort of story-book for individuals with autism about what to expect in seeing the show) and FAQs for parents and caregivers. Ushers for these performances receive some special training, and often autism specialist volunteers are on hand in the house and lobby to support families who need it. Audience members are welcome to bring snacks, toys, and fidgets (objects that can help soothe and focus individuals on the autism spectrum) into the theatre with them, and are welcome to exit and return to the theatre whenever they need to.
Most importantly, a Relaxed Performance is a true judgment-free zone. The theatre staff models that everyone is welcome and released from the traditional expectations about sitting still and staying silent. Everyone is free to respond, move, speak, or self-sooth in whatever way they need to enjoy and experience the performance.
When we first set out to offer Relaxed Performances at McCarter five years ago, we were fortunate to have excellent guidance from the staff of Theater Development Fund (TDF), which works with Broadway shows to offer Autism-friendly performances. We learned many of their strategies through discussion and meetings, but the single most valuable thing we did to prepare ourselves for putting on a Relaxed Performance was attend one of theirs. That experience was an important turning point in our understanding of relaxed performances as an access program. RPs are often thought of as performances that have been significantly modified or shortened, but an essential component of RPs is that they are executed at the highest artistic level—as they would on any other night—with slight technical adjustments that soften the sensory experience. It’s important to remember that RPs are about access and inclusion not only for the individuals with sensory sensitivity, but also for their family and caregivers. These performances are about creating a space where a parent, a child with sensory sensitivity, and their neuro-typical sibling can all have an incredible artistic experience.
What is the difference between “Relaxed” and “Autism-friendly” or “Sensory-friendly” performances?
The first year that we offered this program at McCarter, we used the term Autism-friendly performance. And indeed, the majority of families and groups who attend these performances do so with an individual on the autism spectrum. But it was important to us to use the most inclusive term possible and to make sure that parents and caregivers knew that anyone who needs a relaxed atmosphere was welcome regardless of their medical diagnosis. The term Relaxed Performance is more common in the UK where this kind of programming is also becoming popular, but we are part of a consortium of theatres in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware that have all decided to use this terminology as a way to spread awareness of the availability of these performances with consistent language.
How do you “relax” the production elements?
At McCarter, we have been pleasantly surprised by how little actually needs to change to make a performance accessible and enjoyable to those with sensory sensitivity. We always make our best guess about what will need to be adjusted, then bring in a community partner to watch a preview performance and offer their feedback. (Our primary community partner is Eden Autism Services, which also provides training for our ushers and volunteers on the day of the performance—huge gratitude to them!) This feedback has been invaluable, as sometimes they dismiss things we were worried about, and other times they point out sounds, pitches, or moments that we wouldn’t have known were sensory triggers. Often, the very simple shift of keeping the house lights at a 30 percent glow during the show will be enough to soften the effects of all other light cues during the performance. At McCarter, we have excellent sound engineers who live-ride the actors’ microphones and pull down the volume slightly when an actor is yelling. This is important because it allows the actors to give a fully invested and committed performance, trusting that the folks at the sound board will modulate volume for them. Some elements that we have removed completely for Relaxed Performances include strobe lights, onstage gun shots, a very high-pitched “waterphone” instrument, and an interactive moment of throwing things at a puppet that flew over the audience. For each relaxed performance we schedule a half-day of technician time and two hours of actor rehearsal to set any of the changes.
What does it cost to do?
There are some small upfront costs to set up the relaxation and activity areas (mostly beanbag chairs), and the consumables for each performance (fidgets, coloring books, glow sticks), but many of those items can be donated from local toy stores. We also like to buy pizza and t-shirts for the volunteers from our community partners. But those are really the only material goods we’ve found we needed to offer a great experience. The largest potential cost, of course, is dedicating a performance date where you might otherwise sell tickets to the general public as a Relaxed Performance. While TDF routinely sells out Broadway houses with families traveling from all over the country to attend, we have pretty consistently found that our houses are in the 200-300 person range. In our 360 seat theatre, that feels great. In our 1100 seat theatre, that is a lot of unsold inventory. We chose to address this issue by offering relaxed performances on evenings where there wouldn’t otherwise be a show but that didn’t bump the actors into a 9-show week (which usually meant Tuesday nights.) Adding this dedicated performance did create some additional expense to pay for the crew and front of house staff for the show, but it didn’t significantly change the weekly operating cost of the production overall. Other theatres, such as Dallas Children’s Theatre (a leader in this work) have dedicated existing performance dates as RPs, and sought significant funding to underwrite the difference between the income from an RP and the potential income of a sold out house for that show.
What is the biggest challenge?
Marketing. The first year that we offered a relaxed performance, we leaned heavily on community partners to spread the word and bring audience members to the performance. They did their best, but these autism service providers are experts in providing services, not in marketing performance events. In the second year, as we were deciding whether to offer another RP, the biggest question was whether we could take on the significant work of marketing and sales within our marketing department. We have found that it is absolutely not enough to include the RP date and information on general marketing for the production, but rather that we need to market the RP as if it were a one-night special event, separate from the production. We’ve found success through targeted social media ads, newspaper articles, and hardcopy information stuffed in bags at events for families affected by autism.
It took McCarter a few years to adjust to thinking of the marketing resource for these performances as a different framework for ROI—one that has more to do with mission, access, community-building, and potential for contributed income to subsidize the work than with financial return from ticket sales.
What is the biggest reward?
Even if you are not considering programming RPs at your theatre, do yourself a favor and attend one. In a field where we always worry about dwindling audience attention or the power of the arts to make change, these performances are some of the most joyful, moving, and artistically satisfying you will ever see. I’ll never forget watching parents hold their children and each other while the cast of Into the Woods sang “No one is Alone.” I’ll never forget Sunny Raskin from the Live Muppet Movie Sing Along extending her dance break two, three, four times, while a little girl with developmental delays gazed up at her rapt, calling out “More! More!” The feedback we hear from parents who have brought their children is also a potent reminder of how theatre can bring people together. “As someone who loves going to the theatre, it was amazing to feel that my son was welcome to experience the show on his own terms, however he felt comfortable,” wrote one parent on a post-show survey.
At McCarter, we are thrilled to be working with a cohort of six theatres in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, supported by a TCG Audience Revolutions Grant, to build best practices, awareness, and demand for RPs and other theatre programs for individuals with autism. As a theatre that offers both produced and presented work, we are also exploring the potential for offering RPS of music, dance, and touring children’s performances, and will offer an RP with children’s singer songwriter Laurie Berkner this April. Some theatre companies, such as Trusty Sidekick, are creating new works specifically for audiences with diverse sensory challenges. Several theatres around the country that offer RPs (including People’s Light, the amazing coordinating theatre for the cohort) also offer classes, residencies, or blended cast performance projects as part of a larger initiative around inclusion. I suspect that as parents and caregivers begin to see theatres as places that are actively welcoming and engaging with their loved ones, those programs will grow.
I’m happy to speak with anyone who is interested in more nitty-gitty details, but I want to give the last word here to another parent of a son with autism. In a note to the theatre, he wrote: “I never thought I’d be able to share my love of theatre with my son. Tonight I did. He usually doesn’t say much, but after one scene he said, ‘That was incredible!’ My sentiments exactly!”