Good news for families: Relaxed theater serves autistic kids

“The Cat in the Hat” will be on stage at the Victoria Theatre on April 8 and 9. A sensory-friendly performance is slated for 2 p.m. on April 9. SUBMITTED PHOTO

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“The Cat in the Hat” will be on stage at the Victoria Theatre on April 8 and 9. A sensory-friendly performance is slated for 2 p.m. on April 9. SUBMITTED PHOTO

As a mother of an autistic child, Ashley DeBeer says she would never — ever — have taken her son to any kind of public performance.

"You're always hesitant to take your child to something like that because you never know how he is going to react," she explains. "Teddy gets amped up if there are loud noises or bright lights and in order to calm himself, he'd need to be walking around. Sometimes he flaps his hands or jumps up and down. He does things that aren't conducive to sitting quietly in a theater." Like a lot of other kids on the spectrum, she says, her son faces sensory processing disorder.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the name for a group of developmental disorders that include a wide range of symptoms, skills and levels of disability. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network estimates that one in 68 children in the United States has been identified with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. According to a 2009-2010 National Survey of Children with Special Health Care Needs, it’s estimated that 483,467, or 17.8 percent, of Ohio’s children have a special health care need.

Making a difference

The DeBeer’s family life changed dramatically when they heard about the “sensory-friendly performances” at The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati and decided to take 4-year-old Teddy to one of the shows.

"He loved it!" says the delighted mom, and they've returned to see two other productions. "It was a totally stress-free environment for us — some kids talked, some walked around, some families even brought babies who cried and it was no big deal."

With their lives restricted in so many other ways, DeBeer says it’s “a really big deal” to have something they can do that’s totally judgment-free. “The worst thing families like ours can do is to isolate themselves,” she says.

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With World Autism Awareness Day coming up on Sunday, April 2, the good news for families like the DeBeers is that cities in our area are reflecting a growing trend by hosting what’s also termed “relaxed” performances for those with autism and other developmental disabilities.

The Victoria Theatre Association will be staging its first sensory-friendly show — "The Cat in the Hat" on Sunday, April 9, as part of the Morris Furniture Company Family Series and has also scheduled a sensory-friendly performance of "Journey to Oz" for its new 2017-2018 season. Cincinnati Children's Theatre will stage a relaxed production of "Tarzan the Stage Musical Based on the Disney Film" on Monday, April 1,0 and Columbus Children's Theatre is planning two sensory-friendly performances of the two-act play, "Crash," on Friday, April 12, and Friday, April 21.

What’s different?

What’s so unusual about a sensory-friendly performance? For starters, you won’t hear loud or jarring sounds during the show or see bright or flashing lights on stage. The auditorium won’t be totally dark — instead the house lights will be kept at a low level. Kids can come and go as needed and there’s plenty of space for them to move around. There’s a designated quiet area for those who need a break and time to refocus. If children talk during the show, they won’t ever be hushed.

“The actors do not change the script or their performance and they treat this performance as any other performance—ensuring a high-quality experience for any — and all — of our audience members,” explains Samantha Johnstone of Childplay, the touring company that’s bringing “The Cat in the Hat” to the Victoria Theatre.

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Jon Gentry, who plays The Cat, says he might tone down certain vocal noises at a sensory-friendly performance or adjust a piece of the set if it makes a particualrly loud noise. He says he always takes the size of the theater and the stage into consideration when he performs. “For instance, characters often seem larger or more menacing or louder in a small venue than a large one where distance can have a softening effect,” he explains.

Getting it right

One of those involved with promoting the special performances throughout Ohio is Centerville native and Muse Machine alum Ryan Scarlata who currently serves as associate artistic director of the Columbus Children’s Theatre. (CCT’s executive director is former long-time Muse Machine staff member Susan Pringle.)

After attending Wright State University for Musical Theatre, Scarlatta transferred to The Ohio State University where he studied directing. In 2015 he began working with VSA Ohio — the state organization on arts and disability — as a member of their Arts and Autism Advisory Council.

"In partnership with the Ohio Arts Council, we set out to create resources to increase arts accessibility for families, and to provide cultural institutions and teaching artists with information on how to increase accessibility in their programs," Scarlata explains.

Scarlata says his Columbus theater has been doing sensory-friendly performances since 2010 when an audience member who’d heard about the performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., asked the company to consider it. “From there we consulted and partnered with Nationwide Children’s Hospital to launch our first SFP,” says Scarlata. “Over the years we have grown from doing one or two per season to offering 12.”

Clinical psychologist Jennifer Smith of Cincinnati Children's Hospital helps theaters and other arts organizations create a sensory-friendly environment for children with special needs. "Over the past few years, the SOAR program (Starting Our Adventure right) has developed partnerships with several performing arts organizations in our local area including Cincinnati Ballet, The Children's Theatre of Cincinnati, Cincinnati Opera, and now the Victoria Theatre," Smith explains.

In addition to providing advanced training to the staff and adjusting the theater for its special visitors, Smith and her team have developed written materials that help prepare parents and children for the visit. On the day of performances, her team arrives to help facilitate the experience for everyone.

Important movement

Scarlata says he’s often heard from theater patrons that a sensory-friendly performance is one of the only events their entire family can attend together. ” For some, it’s stepping stone toward attending regular performances while for others it’s where they feel the most comfortable,” he says.

In the beginning, he admits, introducing the special performances was intimidating. "We became overly cautious about the work and lost some of the artistic integrity," he explains, adding that he's found that to be a common entry experience for many organizations.

These days, thanks to continued training and the development of relationships with national colleagues in the field, he says they’ve learned the techniques for creating an inclusive environment focused on maintaining a high quality of artistic integrity. “Our successes with the program grows with each production,” Scarlata adds. “Audiences are so grateful and incredibly positive.”

In the beginning

Gary Minyard, vice president of education and engagement for the Victoria Theatre Association, credits New York’s Theatre Development Fund for getting the ball rolling. “They had been working with children on the autism spectrum and the families felt uncomfortable attending a typical Broadway performance,” he says. “So the TDF worked with Disney’s theatrical group to create a sensory-friendly performance of ‘The Lion King.’ Since then they’ve done special performances of “Wicked,” and “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.”

When he lived in Phoenix, Minyard created a theater summer camp that blended all kinds of children — including those on the autism spectrum. “They all spent the week working together, building shows, we did a lot of mask and puppetry work and it was a very successful camp for all of the kids,” he recalls. “So I’ve always tried to find avenues for young people who otherwise would not feel comfortable participating.”

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For the VTA’s first venture, he chose “The Cat in the Hat” because it’s a familiar story with familiar characters. “Children may recognize the characters from the book and we didn’t want to show them something that is fearful,” he says, adding that a “character sheet” inserted in the program will pair pictures of the book’s characters with photos of the costumed actors playing those particular parts.

Elizabeth Redmon, president of the Dayton Autism Society, met with the Victoria staff about a year ago to talk about the possibility of sensory-friendly performances. “I love that this is coming to fruition and we are hoping many of our families go to the show,” she says.

Redmon says these shows present a rare opportunity for families to experience theater with their children on the autism spectrum. " The judgment-free environment is something we as a community should strive to maintain, but as a parent of a child with autism knows, that judgment is everywhere. It can make a family limit their exposure to large crowded spaces with people who would not understand the outbursts or sensory overloads that can happen throughout a play."

Minyard says there are no reserved seats at the upcoming show so families can choose the spot in the theater where they believe their child will be most comfortable. “The lights will be up — some kids may need to stand, dance, move. Families may be coming and going,” he says. ” My hope is that we start to have families coming to our theater who otherwise felt they were unable to. My hope is that this will become something normal.”


National trend reflected in Dayton, Columbus, Cinci productions

HOW TO GO: (DAYTON)

What: "The Cat in the Hat"

When: 1 and 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 8. Sensory-Friendly performance at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 9. The 4 p.m. performance on April 8 will be sign interpreted and audio interpretation is available upon request.

Where: Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St., Dayton

Tickets: $15 at Ticket Center Stage, (937) 228-3630.

Sponsored by: Morris Furniture Company Family Series.

RELATED PROGRAMMING: Kids can make their own character mask at a hands-on workshop from 2:15-3:45 p.m. between performances. Cost is $5 per child. Call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or 888-228-3630

HOW TO GO: (CINCINNATI)

What: "Tarzan the Stage Musical" based on the Disney film. Produced by the Children's Theatre of Cincinnati.

When: April 1-2, 7-9. Sensory-friendly shows at 12:30 p.m. on Monday, April 10.

Where: Taft Theatre, 317 E. Fifth St., Cincinnati

Tickets: For the reglar shows tickets are $10-$30 depending on seating location and can be purchased through Ticketmaster. Tickets for the sensory-friendly performances are $7 and must be ordered via a form on the website, www.thechildrenstheatre.com. Note that there is limited wheelchair seating.

HOW TO GO: (COLUMBUS)

What: "Crash," a two-act play based on the novel by Jerry Spinelli. Recommended for ages 8 and up.

When: April 6-23. Sensory-friendly performances are slated for 7:30 p.m. on Wed., April 12 and 1 p.m. on Friday, April 21.

Where: Park Street Theatre, 512 Park Street, downtown Columbus.

Tickets: All tickets to sensory-friendly performances are $8 for adults and children. Regular shows are $12-$25. There are free refunds and exchanges for sensory-friendly performances only. Tickets are available at the door or by calling CCT's ticket office at (614) 224-6672.

For more information: www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org

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