Improving Access: Hosting Our First Sensory-Friendly Performance at Ford's Theatre
August 25, 2017: I remember the date so clearly. Kristin Fox, our Deputy Director and Director of Programming, asked if a Sensory-Friendly performance was something we should be doing along with all of our other access efforts, and should we try it for The Wiz. My answer was, “Let’s do it!” Sensory-Friendly performances are designed to create a theatre experience that is welcoming for individuals on the autism spectrum or those with other sensory sensitivities who might benefit from an adjusted environment.
Once we had the green light from the rest of our management team to move forward with a Sensory-Friendly show, we chose a date and started our research. Many of us started making calls and sending emails to everyone we could think of who had worked on Sensory-Friendly programs, including our friends at Come From Away on Broadway. We had email exchanges with local D.C. museums and theatres including Imagination Stage, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the Smithsonian Institution.
We made numerous phone calls as well, which eventually led us to two important pieces of information: 1. We should have a conversation with the Theatre Development Fund (TDF), which presents Sensory-Friendly performances on Broadway (with a useful Planning Guide for theatres) ): and 2. We needed to talk with Roger Ideishi and Diane Nutting. Once we decided to work with TDF, Diane and Roger, our team started venturing out to local and non-local theatres to experience what exactly a Sensory-Friendly performance is first hand.
Working with Consultants
The guidance of Roger Ideishi and Diane Nutting was critical to the success of our Sensory-Friendly performance. Roger works at Temple University in their Program for Occupational Therapy and has years of experience working with both museums and theatres to develop Sensory-Friendly experiences. Diane Nutting was instrumental in piloting Sensory-Friendly shows at Imagination Stage and has ventured out on her own in the consulting world. I like to call them the “SF Dream Team” because they both come with so much knowledge, but they have different approaches, which provides a great balance. Roger and Diane guided us every step of the way, helping us with pre-visit material development, teaching us about autism and how individuals with autism may experience the world, talking about experiences they learned from over the years and being available to answer every question we had.
Diane led Box Office Training for the designated staff that would be selling tickets. We promoted ticket sales via phone and in person, because we wanted to engage directly with patrons, help set their expectations and ensure they understood where their seats would be.
Pre-Visit materials are created to help patrons prepare for their visit. We decided to put together a few useful materials we shared in advance to ticketholders, which were also available on our website.
You can find our pre-visit materials for The Wiz here:
Adaptations to the Performance
In preparation for our rehearsal with the cast of The Wiz, our sound and lighting engineers made advance adjustments to several moments in the show. We adjusted the show’s sound levels and sound effects so that sudden bursts of sound were introduced more gradually. Lighting and video moments were modified to soften the effect and strobes and lights that were designed to “sweep” into the audience were dialed back.
We decided our main house lights would be at 42% percent. With the house lights up a little bit, we didn’t need to make too many adjustments to the overall production.
There were other logistical adaptations we planned that weren’t necessarily changes to the show, but adjustments to the environment to be more welcoming to our audience. We found out later how important these were to our patrons, and I have shared some of their feedback:
- Take-A-Break Spaces available for patrons on both the orchestra and balcony levels. Break spaces have sensory comforts and fidgets for those who might need to leave and return to the theatre.
“The sensory pillows were a favorite of the child with me.”
“The bean bag chairs were great and I loved that they had the little pillows for the kids to play with.”
- Staff with glow sticks were present in the front of the orchestra and the balcony to notify patrons that a surprising moment was coming so they could prepare.
“Loved when the staff signaled a change or something new about to happen with the glow sticks.”
“The BEST thing was the light up wands to warn of any scary or loud parts. I knew exactly when to help my son due to warning.”
- Patrons would be encouraged to move around and be comfortable in our space and in the aisles.
“The main benefit for us was the freedom to move around the theater as needed.”
- We had noise canceling headsets at the box office available for anyone who wanted to borrow them.
“The sound reducing headphones made him comfortable…”
- We trained staff on site to assist as needed with any audience members who needed attention.
Three days before the Sensory-Friendly show, our consultants were on site and conducted training with the cast and staff and assisted with our rehearsal to make the modifications to the show. Roger and Diane provided a great introduction to autism to the cast, crew and musicians and explained why offering this kind of experience is so important and necessary.
They worked through specific points in the show they determined needed adjustment based on their preview of the show. The actors were taught how to “scoop” into a song: instead of going from quiet to loud, they would gradually get louder.
Day of the show
We really wanted to create a safe and welcoming environment for our audience, so we made sure that all staff on site this day were aware we were having a Sensory Friendly show and provided them a one sheet with what they could expect from this audience that may differ from other audiences.
The day of the show proved to be very emotional for the staff, volunteers and everyone onstage and backstage. Watching families come to our theatre for the first time and be able to enjoy a show together, dance in the aisle and be their authentic selves was such a gift to watch. Needless to say, our first Sensory-Friendly show was a huge success with an 88% attendance rate and almost 100% retention rate! We are all really proud of the work we did and are excited for future Sensory-Friendly productions at Ford’s Theatre. Here is what some of our guests shared from that day!
“Appreciate the opportunity to make live theatre accessible to my child. To be able to see it as a family is very important for us. To have the shared experience of live theatre is a gift.”
“This has opened up my eyes and showed me a way to expose him to the arts and more surprisingly how much he enjoyed the experience.”
“What the Ford’s Theatre did brought tears to my eyes. For the first my entire family of 5 was able to see a play together.”
Allison Alonzy is Associate Director of Visitor Operations at Ford’s Theatre and currently leads the internal Access Committee.