Opening Doors: Best Practices for Developing Sensory-Friendly Programs

Going into the Theatre for a Sensory-Friendly Performance at Imagination Stage

Going into the Theatre for a Sensory-Friendly Performance at Imagination Stage

In part 1 of Opening Doors, I reflected on sensory-friendly programming through my personal experience at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. These performances create an incredible opportunity for arts organizations to include individuals and families from around their communities. Yet effective implementation requires time and in-depth planning with staff and community partners.

Philip Dallmann, ATI Coordinator for TDF Accessibility Programs, recommends planning a sensory-friendly program 6 months to 1 year in advance to allow time for fundraising and building an audience. Throughout the planning process, program directors work with community representatives, consultants, and other organizations to understand implications and requirements for programs, and determine the aspects and training that best serve their unique community.

While each organization adjusts strategies to fit their needs in a different way, sensory-friendly program directors and artists from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Imagination Stage, The Kennedy Center, and TDF’s Autism Theatre Initiative, regularly mention the following best practices:

  • Retaining artistic quality
  • Building the budget into overall goals
  • Selecting focused or public performances
  • Preparing families and children prior to the event
  • Developing a strong support group

Behind the scenes of Theatre Development Fund's Autism Theatre Initiative

Retaining Artistic Quality
The majority of sensory-friendly changes occur in the audience as opposed to on the stage. For instance, the audience sound levels will be lowered and the house lights will be kept on but dim. Making minimal adjustments to the actual performance sustains the integrity and quality of the work, while still providing a more comfortable environment for families with autistic children, explains consultant Roger Ideishi. The staff at Imagination Stage borrowed the concept of “glow-sticking” from Broadway shows such as The Lion King, which involves stationing volunteers around the auditorium to hold up a glow stick if an element in the show is going to be surprising. This warns the audience so children can hide their eyes, cover their ears, or leave the auditorium if necessary.

Building Budgets into Overall Goals
One concern for organizations is the financial expense of sensory-friendly programming, including additional time, materials, and rehearsals. It is also important to recognize that these families already face constrained budgets and discounted tickets may be the only way the entire family can attend. Many organizations have found that funding and grants are readily available for accessibility and inclusion programs, which helps support ticket subsidies. Imagination Stage budgets their sensory-friendly shows so that they do not count towards revenue, but reflect their purpose as a mission-driven activity. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre builds its sensory-friendly programs into its overall goals for a particular show, then spreads expenses across departments and seeks funding for work with the Autism populations.

Selecting Focused or Public Performances
Some companies suggest targeting the specific audience for the performance while others chose to open events to the general public. In its first year, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre focused exclusively on the autism population with its Autism-Friendly Nutcracker. This introduced challenges with controlling ticket sales and balancing promotions, but allowed for focused program development. This year, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre opened performances to the public by adapting prior communication wording and keeping messages simple to welcome anyone who prefers this sensory-friendly type of performance. Ideishi explains that the audience is made aware of the different aspects they will encounter during the performance, and that children may be moving, making noises, or using communication devices. As long as patrons understand these alterations, they can still purchase a ticket.

Preparing Families and Children Prior to the Event
Supplemental materials help families and children know what to expect and add a level of comfort to this new and unfamiliar experience. Social stories, told from a first person perspective introduce the elements of going to the theatre and “tip sheets” with environmental mapping help families locate bathrooms, water fountains, exits, quiet spaces, and “escape” routes. TDF provides a guide for attending sensory-friendly performance attendees, and Imagination Stage produced a video tour to prepare children for visiting their theatre. Another popular strategy is a “meet your seat” day prior to the show where families can come and adjust to the theatre space in their own way. The Kennedy Center, knowing the importance of adjusting to the venue, but constrained by scheduling, is exploring options for personalized, docent-led “meet your seat” tours where families can visit at their convenience. A new online feature enables Kennedy Center visitors to customize pre-visit stories for different spectrum levels.

Developing a Support Group
A supportive community is key for sensory-friendly program development, and there is an apparent benefit for organizations in cities where inclusion in the arts is already supported by a collective group. Pittsburgh is particularly supportive of cultural art enrichment and inclusion programs backed by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, and organizations regularly work together to schedule programs and share information. The Kennedy Center sends a monthly e-blast featuring all sensory-friendly programming in the DC metro area, which in turn helps build awareness while enabling them to work with colleagues and understand what is best for the community. Organizations often work with an advisory group consisting of professionals in the local community and cultural industry. The advisory panel might consist of occupational therapists, special educators, members of local autism advocacy groups, parents of children on the spectrum, and individuals on the autism spectrum. ATI works with a consultant who is a 16-year-old boy with autism. He previews the shows and suggests modifications, bringing the exact perspective needed to adjust programs and speak first-hand to both communities. Read his story reported by The New York Times.

While these best practices provide some general guidelines for successfully offering sensory-friendly performances, each organization’s implementation will be somewhat different. One of the most important aspects of a successful program is the people involved. Staff, volunteers, and artists have particularly important roles to play, and in my next post, I will explore how they can help make sensory-friendly performances a success.

Has your organization developed sensory-friendly programming? Join in the discussion below and share the best practices and important considerations you have identified.