Q&A Spotlight: Sensory Friendly Performing Arts

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Sensory friendly performance

Photo Credit: Pixel Dust Photography

Performing arts geared for audience members with social and cognitive disabilities — including those on the autism spectrum — are making news recently. On a practical level, this often involves modifying sound and lighting to minimize the likelihood of startling the audience. Other factors to consider include funding, promotion and training. To learn how one of the nation’s flagship family theatres, Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) in Minneapolis, is serving this need, we caught up with Deborah Girdwood, Director of CTC’s Access & Special Programs.

YPP: How does CTC promote Sensory Friendly performances?  

Girdwood: They are posted on our website and announced to all CTC audiences. To reach new families, we advertise in publications of AuSM (Autism Society of Minnesota); they help promote our shows and lead our marketing efforts through e-mails and social media. CTC also participates in community events targeting this community, such as the Fraser Walk for Autism and AuSM’s annual Steps of Hope walk-a-thon. This year we’ll partner with AuSM to pilot early-childhood classes for families with newly diagnosed young children.

YPP: How is attendance?

Girdwood: We held four performances since we launched the program and attendance was good, but we’re still trying to spread the word. Many parents of children on the autism spectrum do not know we offer these special performances. We’ve gotten great feedback from those who attend and we hope for more word-of-mouth publicity.

YPP: How are these performances funded?

Girdwood: We received a grant from MN State Arts Board to develop and launch Sensory Friendly programming last season. Funding supported a consulting partnership with AuSM to train CTC’s full staff, create new resources for audiences and develop our business model with the production and audience services teams. To sustain the program, the model must be similar to traditional performances; we depend on both ticket revenue and public funding. To serve a wider range of income levels, CTC offers economically accessible tickets through our subsidized ACT Pass program, designed for low-income households and youth and family service organizations. Under this program, we allocate a greater number of accessible tickets for Sensory Friendly performances. CTC devotes extra staff time to plan and coordinate these performances – from additional production meetings and doubling the ushers to targeted community outreach and ongoing training. All of these activities require resources and fundraising to support.

YPP: What resources are helpful?

Girdwood: The Kennedy Center published a useful guide that we consulted in designing our program. AuSM does frequent education and community training, and customized their autism skills-building workshops for our needs. There were multiple offerings over the course of a year: Autism 101 for company-wide awareness; audience training for Front of House staff; one for production staff on how people with Autism Spectrum Disorders experience shows and how accommodations make an impact; training for experienced Teaching Artists specifically on theatre classroom management and support; and training for Teaching Artists in our summer camp program (including high school and college interns with less experience).

Sensory friendly performance

AuSM volunteers at the ‘Sensory Support Station’ in CTC’s lobby. Photo Credit: Pixel Dust Photography

YPP: What advice would you give another performing arts organization?

Girdwood: Efforts like Sensory Friendly performances must be embraced by an entire organization to be successful; CTC places an institution-wide priority on inclusion. Additionally, our partnership with AuSM has been vital in helping us understand how to change our productions so they are enjoyable and not anxiety-inducing. We have a greater understanding of how theatre and the arts are important for children with ASDs. It’s gratifying to hear how much families appreciate participating in rewarding, fun experiences that neurotypical families take for granted.

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