A (third person) note from publicity director Becca Ehlers:
Theatres all over Chicago offer accessible programming – touch tours, ASL, open captioning, etc. However, sensory-friendly shows are still extremely rare. At this time, Chicago Children’s Theatre, Lifeline Theatre, and Blue Man Group are the only groups offering them.
Lifeline Theatre began offering sensory-friendly performances in fall of 2015. I spoke to Erica Foster, Operations Director at Lifeline Theatre, to learn more about how Lifeline developed the program.
According to Ms. Foster, Lifeline’s move towards more accessible theatre began two years ago, after attending a workshop by Jackalope Theatre on storefront theatres adding touch tours (a pre-show presentation that allows visually-impaired patrons to physically interact with costume and set pieces, to enhance their experience of the performance). Lifeline Theatre saw all the ways in which they could become more accessible, and formed a three-year plan to increase all access programming.
Initially, the prospect of adding sensory-friendly shows seemed “scary,” said Foster. “We’re not trained to respond to a meltdown” or other issues that may come up.
So they got some outside help. PACTT: Connecting People with Autism to their Communities has become a major resource for Lifeline. Lifeline initially went to them for advice on how to prepare for audiences with autism and other developmental differences, and how to respond if anything comes up during a show, but PACTT has become a big part of Lifeline’s sensory-friendly performances. PACTT previews the shows to give feedback on potential changes to make, as well as helping out during the performances, usually sending four volunteers to assist during shows.
Of course, it’s been a learning process, for Lifeline and for PACTT. During the first sensory-friendly performance Lifeline did, for Mr. Popper’s Penguins, an audience member became so excited about the penguin puppets being used that he ran onto the stage, through the backstage area, out into the lobby, and back to his seat. Now there’s a spotter by the stage.
While we talk a lot about sensory-friendly theatre, what does making a show sensory-friendly mean? To put it simply, Foster describes it as “taking the edge off of everything,” rather than removing every potential sensory trigger. All sound is brought down by 20% and house lights are left up to help balance out the lighting effects. Because everyone has different sensory needs and different triggers, Lifeline puts together a scene-by-scene guide for parents and caregivers that notes any moments that could be triggering to the audience member (loud noises, a dramatic lighting change, etc).
Of course, some moments in the shows may need to be altered, but one of the biggest surprises for Foster has been how few changes need to be made. “If I think we’ll need to change fifteen moments, the experts come in and tell us we’ll need to change two.”
And while Lifeline has become more confident with each performance, so have their audience members. A quiet area is provided during the show for anyone who needs a break, but as kids come back and are more comfortable with the space, the need for the quiet area has drastically decreased.
Lifeline is currently averaging about 40 people per sensory-friendly performance, which is about half of the house capacity for the theatre and allows audience members the freedom to move around a bit or maintain personal space.
From Lifeline’s experiences, it seems that the demand is there and the results are attainable. So why are sensory-friendly performances so rare?
Foster attributes it to misconceptions about sensory-friendly performances. “There’s a lack of awareness…about what they really are and what they really take.” Another issue, she notes, is a perception that you have to “remove the theatrics” for a sensory-friendly performance – something that Lifeline has found not to be the case.
This season, Lifeline’s sensory-friendly programming has been for their KidSeries shows, with the goal of focusing on shows that would be engaging for a wider developmental range. However, they will be adding a sensory-friendly performance for one of the mainstage shows in their 2016-2017 season, A Wrinkle in Time.
While experiencing live theatre is something no one should have to miss out on, Lifeline is especially invested in the ways that sensory-friendly shows allow for families to bond. Going out as a family can be difficult when a member has special needs; by providing sensory-friendly programming, Lifeline hopes to offer “an experience for the whole family without judgement.”
Thank you to Erica Foster for all of her help, and thank you to Lifeline Theatre for all of the amazing work you do.
For more information on Lifeline's accessible performances - http://www.lifelinetheatre.com/accessibility/
For more information on bringing accessibility into theatres, contact the Theatre Development Fund - https://www.tdf.org/