Sensory-friendly performance expands accessibility at The Theatre School

Charlene Haparimwi and Kristin Mathews
May 25, 2017

Glittering costumes, catchy songs and colorful characters in the play "Cinderella: The Remix" were made to appeal to kids. But for children on the autism spectrum, sometimes noise and bright lights can be overwhelming.

On May 13, 2017, The Theatre School at DePaul held its first sensory-friendly performance, adapted to welcome children on the autism spectrum and others with sensory sensitivities. Theatre manager Leslie Shook and director Coya Paz Brownrigg coordinated with special education faculty Anne Butler and Linsey Sabielny to modify "Cinderella: The Remix," an urban twist on the classic fairy tale.

Faculty discuss sensory-friendly performance

College of Education faculty Linsey Sabielny and Anne Butler talk to Theatre School students about the different ways children with autism and other special needs might react to a theatre performance and how to welcome them. (DePaul University/Diane Smutny)

"Kids with autism deserve the chance to experience the magic of theatre," says Butler, an instructional assistant professor in the College of Education. "With a lot of planning and just a few modifications, we were able to give children with sensory sensitivities the opportunity to see a play with their families."

Sign-language interpreting and audio description with touch-tours have been part of accessibility efforts at The Theatre School for some time, but Shook was eager to do more. She has been involved with accessibility advocacy for some 36 years, including her work with the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium.

"Last year at a CCAC workshop about autism-friendly performances, there was a parent who was talking about the lack of opportunities for his children," Shook says. "He said, 'If you offer something, just tell us and we'll show up,' and that was so encouraging."

Shook reached out to Butler and Sabielny in the College of Education, who volunteered their expertise and brought their graduate students into the project.

"We noticed that the teacher guide was not adapted to meet the needs of students in special education and was not necessarily instructional," Sabielny says. "We had the idea of adapting the guide for special educators and their students to help teach the themes presented in the play."

DePaul students developed lesson plans, made the instruction more accessible to students of all learning needs, and created engaging activities to supplement the content. They also suggested creating a safe space in the theatre, which included adding taped arrows in the aisles to direct children and their families to a quiet room and washrooms.

Quiet room

The crew test out the quiet room, created especially for the sensory-friendly performance. The space gives children with sensory sensitivities a place to take a quick break. (DePaul University/Diane Smutny)

To get started on the quiet room, Shook and her student assistant Sarah McElroy assembled a puzzle rug and bean bag chairs where children could take a break. "I asked if we should have some books in there, but the education faculty said not to make it too entertaining, or the kids won't want to come back to the performance. We added some Nerf balls instead," Shook says.

The team met with the student crew at their company meeting to give them plenty of notice about the changes they wanted to implement. There are a number of ways to make a performance sensory-friendly, Shook explains, such as adjusting sounds, lights and space.

"We dimmed the house lights half way in the theatre instead of going all the way dark," Shook says. "If there were any loud sounds, strobe lighting, or effects that might be a little challenging for someone on the autism spectrum, we warned them that it was about to happen, or did not do it quite as loudly or brightly as it might have been done."

The Theatre School student cast and crew were eager to help, from the actors to stage managers and light and sound designers. Many found the changes weren't all that complicated.

"I was surprised at how few changes we had to make in order to create a sensory-friendly environment, which makes me hopeful that more theatres will begin to do sensory-friendly shows," Paz Brownrigg says. 

When asked whether The Theatre School would continue collaborating with the College of Education to create sensory-friendly performances, the answer was a unanimous yes.

"I love that we were given the opportunity for this collaboration because of the ultimate benefit for children with disabilities and their family members," Butler says.

For Paz Brownrigg, the whole project felt very DePaul.

Cast

The cast rehearse a modified scene in "Cinderella: The Remix" for a sensory-friendly performance. Some loud sounds were eliminated to make the performance more accessible. (DePaul University/Diane Smutny)

"I was very excited to have the opportunity to be a part of this initiative," Paz Brownrigg says. "I am passionate about theatre and accessibility, and given the resources and Vincentian mission of DePaul University, it makes sense that we would make the effort to create offerings that welcome people who have different needs as audiences."

"Cinderella: The Remix" is part of the Chicago Playworks for Families and Young Audiences series at DePaul, the oldest continually producing children's theatre in the Midwest. It was founded at the Goodman Children's Theatre in 1925, and this latest effort adds to its legacy of making theatre accessible to children from diverse backgrounds in Chicago

Tickets for the last regular performance of the play on Saturday, May 27 (not a sensory-friendly performance, but still dazzling) are available at http://theatre.depaul.edu