Sparking imagination, creativity, inspiration – the joys of theater are endless. Although, for some families who have loved ones on the autism spectrum, attending this spectacle can seem to be out of reach. Performance spaces can be dark, quiet and an uncomfortable or challenging environment. This is the reason many theaters around the nation are beginning to host sensory-friendly performances, so everyone can enjoy the opportunity of seeing a live theater show in a welcoming and supportive environment.
For the first time, the Mounds View Community Theater, in partnership with the Ramsey County Library-Shoreview and the Autism Society of Minnesota, will be featuring a sensory-friendly performance of their summer production, H.M.S. Pinafore.
MVCT will offer special accommodations during a matinée performance to take place on Saturday, July 22, which will be suitable for those with memory loss, those on the autism spectrum, or other disabilities, and their families.
The idea to form a partnership came about when the Ramsey County Library of Shoreview held an event featuring author Tahni Cullen who came in to speak about her book, “Josiah’s Fire.” The true story shares Cullen’s son’s experience with non-verbal autism and the miracles and beauty that can come from this diagnosis.
“One of the things that Tahni talked about was how much it meant to her family to be able to go to places with their son and not have to worry,” said Shoreview Library manager Carol Jackson. “Just knowing that they are in a really comfortable and non-judgmental environment.”
The library and MVCT have had many coordinated efforts in the past, and the idea to host a sensory-friendly community theater performance was a no-brainer.
“I couldn’t believe of quickly they [the MVCT Board of Directors] said yes!” Jackson said. “We are all very enthusiastic about bringing this to the community.”
What is sensory-friendly?
An open and welcoming environment, a dedicated sensory-friendly performance is accessible for anyone to enjoy.
The special performance reduces loud and surprising sounds, as well as refrains from using flashing or strobe lights. House lights also remain on during the show, and audience members are welcome to talk and move around as they please. Sensory-friendly performances also feature quiet rooms that are available for anyone who needs to take a break from the show. There are often noise-canceling headphones and fidgets provided as needed for audience members that need additional sensory support.
AuSM education and programs specialist Lucas Scott teaches training sessions to community organizations and helps people to understand more about the autism spectrum and strategies for inclusion.
According to AuSM, autism currently has a diagnosis rate of one in 68 and is the fastest growing developmental disability in Minnesota. The organization encourages everyone to learn more about autism, as well as take proactive steps toward acceptance and inclusion.
Scott will be teaching the MVCT performers and volunteers to prepare them for the sensory-friendly show.
Scott said these training sessions teach different elements of autism and various strategies that help people understand the needs of individuals with disabilities.
“This [theater] training will be much more focused on the specifics of theater and a little more weighted toward the sensory elements,” Scott said. “We’ll focus on that aspect and the need for routine and the anxiety that can come up.”
He said the need for routine is a large part of sensory-friendly performances because those on the autism spectrum may become anxious if something unexpected occurs. Because of this reason, sensory-friendly performances typically provide social narratives or pre-visit materials, so families can familiarize their loved ones with what will be happening in the show and know what to expect.
Sensory-friendly performances are also suitable for those who suffer from dementia or alzheimer’s, as the entire performance is an open experience and disruptions are never an issue.
All are welcome
Jackson said the most important aspect of hosting a sensory-friendly performance is providing a non-judgmental and welcoming environment.
“That’s what we are really working toward. We really want to make everyone feel welcome and have lots of volunteers,” Jackson said. “We want people to know that whatever they need to do during the show is just fine, if there are vocalizations or if you need to get up and leave. It’s just all about making sure that it is as comfortable as possible.”
MVCT house manager Carol Mills said that bringing arts to the community is part of the MVCT charter.
“They are part of our community that have been left out for a very long time. Why not make it accessible and bring this to everyone who might enjoy theater,” Mills said.
Jackson added that it is important to the Ramsey County Library to provide for everyone in the community.
“We are just looking for as many ways as possible to serve the widest, broadest community and to be as inclusive as we possibly can with all of our programming,” Jackson said. “This partnership is such a lovely step and this is such an exciting opportunity for all of us and to see how community theaters can take this on as we go through this process.”
Since the new Shoreview Library opened in early 2017, it has been including events and programming that are geared toward sensory-friendly aspects. This includes providing a comfortable and quiet room with sensory-friendly materials, movie days, hosting therapy dog days and similar events.
As an actor, MVCT performer Anissa Lubbers said she loves the idea of a sensory-friendly performance.
“I think its great to get as many people to come and see the show in as many different ways as possible,” Lubbers said. “I’m a mother of two, so I’m very in favor of anything that encourages kids to come to the theater and enjoy it and to create a love of getting them on stage as well.”
MVCT will be presenting H.M.S. Pinafore from July 14-30.
A comical musical, H.M.S. Pinafore takes place aboard a ship and tells the tale of the captain’s daughter who is in love with a lower-class sailor, although she is intended to marry a lord of admiralty.
Show producer Bruce Cameron said the audience can expect twists and discover the superficiality of class structures.
“It pokes fun at the social structure and political structure of things in Britain in those days, but it does it with a fun, feathered touch that isn’t vicious or mean as far as how people are portrayed,” Cameron shared.
The show is directed and choreographed by Joe Chvala, a popular and well-known director in the Twin Cities area.
The show will take place at the Irondale Fine Arts Theater, 2425 Long Lake Road in New Brighton. Tickets are available for purchase on the MVCT website at www.mvct.org or by calling the ticket reservation voice mail at 651-638-2139. Tickets are also available at the open box office, as well as one hour before each performance. Visit www.mvct.org for more information.
The sensory-friendly performance will tWake place on Saturday, July 22 at 11 a.m. The special performance costs $8 per ticket.