Holly Regan sat with her son in a lightened theater last year, watching a Four County Players production of A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was a special performance, and not just because of the time of year; it was a sensory-friendly production put on for people like Regan’s son, Jimmy Seidl, who’s autistic.
The show was in partnership with the Autism Theatre Project, an effort of the University of Virginia. While the name is very specific, Executive Administrator Jaclyn Lund emphasizes the program supports sensory-friendly theater in a nonjudgmental environment that is geared toward anyone with special needs. These productions are performed as written, but with special accommodations.
“We work with area theater groups to make the performances more accessible by doing things like shortening performance length, adjusting light and volume levels so they’re not overwhelming and providing a sensory-friendly break room for anyone who needs a quiet room during the show,” Lund says.
Regan says these types of modifications make all the difference for her family. At a traditional performance, she worries about her son’s potential outbursts disturbing others. Her choices are to leave him out of family outings, or take her chances and hope for the best.
“We usually bring two cars, in case one of us has to leave with Jimmy,” she says. “I invest a lot of money in live performances, and I worry about what’s going to happen if he starts acting out.”
For that very reason, performances in conjunction with the Autism Theatre Project are free for any family attending with someone who has special needs.
“A lot of families can’t go to the theater because of social and financial pressure. We offer a judgment-free environment, and we reduce the financial stress,” Lund says. “By offering free tickets, if someone’s having a bad day, there’s no pressure to attend. They haven’t lost anything.”
Most local groups have worked with the Autism Theatre Project to put on sensory-friendly productions, whether by adding an additional performance night, or by tweaking a matinee to accomodate special needs patrons. Regan says she hopes area theater groups might offer a sensory-friendly dress rehearsal, which she says would be a “win-win” for all involved.
“It gives the performers a chance to work in front of an appreciative audience, and it gives my family an opportunity to attend a show without worrying that my son will disturb a paying crowd.”