Creative Approach

Above: The Grand’s Sensory-Friendly Shows began in 2018 and welcome children and adults of all ages and abilities. Photo courtesy The Grand.

Sensory-friendly performances are one of many ways arts organizations are making shows more accessible

By Ken Mammarella

Eight-year-old Gus Mask has grown comfortable watching live performances, thanks to several years of being in the audience for sensory-friendly performances at the Grand in Wilmington.

“I like taking him to a place where their behavior is not a negative reflection of who they are,” says his mother, Stella Mask. Both have autism. “I can definitely see the impact of his early access and exposure to theater.”

Johnny Urbanski, who’s 18 and also has autism, has experienced “magical moments” during the Grand’s sensory-friendly performances. His mother, Katie, was thrilled when he started singing along with Dan Zanes at the Grand, because her son was nonverbal until he was 9.

Although the Grand’s series is best known for families with members on the autism spectrum, its nonjudgmental programming is open to all. “It’s an inclusive environment,” says Pam Manocchio, the Grand’s executive director. 

Experts agree such programming helps people with anxiety, stress, Down syndrome and migraines, among other conditions. It’s also beneficial to people who use a restroom frequently or cannot sit for long periods also benefit.

But sensory-friendly productions are just one way that local arts groups make offerings more accessible to people with special mental and physical needs. The Brandywine River Museum in Pennsylvania, for instance, partners with ARTZ Philadelphia to host art discussions and other programs for people with dementia and their care partners. And some productions are innately welcoming, even if they’re not conceived for special needs.

 “The Pillow Plays at the Wilmington Drama are really fantastic,” Urbanski says of the shows, which recently marked 20 years of young people performing for younger audiences (who are invited to bring pillows and stuffed animals with them, hence the series’ name) in a casual atmosphere in the league’s lobby.

Since 1993, AbleArts has approached accessibility from the other side of the curtain, creating productions that feature performers with and without disabilities. After restructuring and a five-year hiatus, it resumed live shows last year. 

“We are small but mighty and trying to make a comeback,” says Jill Mackey, the local nonprofit’s stage director.

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act plays a big part in accommodations. It requires many things, with a key one being wheelchair access for new buildings and when renovations occur in older ones. The Music School of Delaware, for example, will implement wheelchair-accessible seating when it renovates its concert hall, according to President Kate M. Ransom.

A Welcoming Environment

In 2007, AMC Theatres and the Autism Society created sensory-friendly showings of films, at the request of a Maryland mother of a girl with autism. At their simplest, the sound from the screen is turned down, and the lights in the house are turned up. 

“Additionally, audience members are welcome to get up and dance, walk, shout or sing — in other words, AMC’s ‘silence is golden’ policy will not be enforced unless the safety of the audience is in question,” the society’s website says.

The idea spread nationwide, and AMC offers sensory-friendly showings several times a month at Painters Crossing and the Dover Mall. Regal, which operates multiplexes in Peoples Plaza near Glasgow and the Brandywine Town Center, runs a similar program called the My Way Matinee. 

The Grand began its Sensory-Friendly Family Shows in 2018, and they “welcome children and adults of all ages and abilities to enjoy the experience of live entertainment together.” Manocchio says there are usually about three shows in the series each season, and they hope to grow the number.

They’re partly supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, so NEA Chairman Mary Anne Carter visited the Grand in 2019 to publicize the first grant, for $15,000.

The series is more involved than more light and less sound. There’s open seating. Digital devices may be used with headphones. Fidget toys are welcome. Noise-cancelling headphones, quiet spaces, ASL interpreters, gender-neutral and family restrooms are available. Personal tours are available beforehand. A downloadable social story helps patrons prepare for their visit. 

The social story for the Jeff Boyer Big Bubble Bonanza, which the Grand hosted in May 2022, is a 12-page guide, in child-friendly language, of what the show entails and when (and why) to applaud. The Grand’s last sensory-friendly show this season is Fred Garbo’s Inflatable Theater, on April 30.

The Delaware Theatre Company offers “relaxed performances” and “open inclusive performances.” 

“These types of performances are designed to create a theatre experience that is welcoming, judgment-free and inclusive of audience members with a wide range of sensory, learning and communication differences, including individuals on the autism spectrum, those with developmental differences, individuals with dementia, families with young children or anyone who might benefit from this relaxed environment,” says Johanna Schloss, director of education and community engagement.

At both, the theater offers a lot of what the Grand does. Patrons can use fidget toys and digital devices with headphones. Noise-cancelling headphones, soft earplugs, a quiet space and a social story are available. “The atmosphere is a welcoming, shush-free zone, and patrons are allowed to laugh, speak out loud, and otherwise respond authentically to the performance during the show.”

At a relaxed performance, tickets are general admission, and audience members can move around. The house lights remain low, and potentially jarring sound or lighting effects might be adjusted. A touch table in the lobby might include props and costumes to examine. “Etiquette norms are relaxed.”

An open inclusive performance “integrates audiences in this experience,” she says. “It allows people to feel comfortable and still see the show as it has been directed in a traditional theatre environment that is still welcoming and judgement-free.”

A Work in Progress

“Winterthur has been investing a significant amount of time and resources for the last several years to ensure we’re as welcoming as possible to visitors with unique needs,” spokesman Jason Brudereck says. “While we’ve made much progress, we recognize we still have more to do.” 

The museum this spring will offer interpretive aids for those with low vision and will soon begin sensory-accessible programs. It has partnered with Art-Reach (a Philadelphia nonprofit advocating for the full spectrum of society) and Access Smithsonian (on accommodating visitors with disabilities). 

Its accommodations already include labels for hearing-challenged guests, ASL interpretation, quiet spaces, low-level lighting, gender-neutral and family restrooms and hearing-assist devices.

The Brandywine River Museum hosts sensory-friendly events throughout the year and offers downloadable social stories and sensory-friendly museum packs with social stories, fidget devices, noise-cancelling headphones and activity suggestions.

And the Delaware Children’s Museum is planning sensory-friendly playdates geared towards those on the spectrum, says Joe Valenti, marketing manager for the Riverfront Development Corp. “The museum always offers sensory-related activities in their Studio D art studio. The activities are available to every guest, but specifically benefit those with sensory issues.”