Sen­sory-Friendly The­ater

Sen­sory-friendly per­for­mances ac­com­mo­date all au­di­ences


Seven-year-old Kee­gan McNulty of Franklin Lakes en­joys go­ing to the movies and to the­ater per­for­mances. His fam­ily loves go­ing with him. That is note­wor­thy be­cause Kee­gan is autis­tic and it would be dif­fi­cult for him to sit through and en­joy those shows with­out the ac­com­mo­da­tions made by sen­sory-friendly per­for­mances. A num­ber of venues in the area present films and per­for­mances spe­cially adapted to en­sure that chil­dren with autism who are sen­si­tive to new rou­tines and loud noises, among other things, can en­joy the shows with their fam­i­lies.

So far, Kee­gan has seen two movies at AMC Loews Wayne 14, as well as two mu­si­cals: The Lit­tle Mermaid at Paper Mill Play­house in Mill­burn, and Spi­der-Man: Turn Off The Dark at the Fox­woods Theatre in New York City.

“I am so ap­pre­cia­tive of the or­ga­ni­za­tions that make sen­sory ac­com­mo­da­tions to per­for­mances for our chil­dren,” Kee­gan’s mom, Stephanie, says. “They al­low our chil­dren and us (as a fam­ily) to ex­pe­ri­ence such fab­u­lous com­mu­nity ac­tiv­i­ties that they would other­wise never en­joy.”

Son­ali Ganti, di­rec­tor of com­mu­nity out­reach for Car­ing Kids, an or­ga­ni­za­tion af­fil­i­ated with the Mill­burn-Short Hills PTOC, has an 11-year-old son with autism. She lives in Short Hills and pro­posed sen­sory-friendly shows at Paper Mill Play­house a cou­ple years ago. She is thrilled with the re­sponse.

“They went above and be­yond,” Ganti says.

Ac­cord­ing to Lisa Cooney, di­rec­tor of ed­u­ca­tion at Paper Mill Play­house, once the idea was pro­posed, the play- house con­tacted ex­perts, in­clud­ing Autism NJ and Rut­gers’ Dou­glass Devel­op­men­tal Dis­abil­i­ties Cen­ter. They also brought in the Push­cart Play­ers, a the­ater com­pany that was open and able to amend its per­for­mances to be sen­sory friendly.

The first step was to make the shows shorter in du­ra­tion. The per­for­mances are just one hour with an in­ter­mis­sion. In ad­di­tion, the lights are never turned all the way off, and the sound is low­ered.

“Just as im­por­tant as low­er­ing the sound,” Cooney says, “is keep­ing it steady so that there are no jar­ring noises to up­set the au­di­ence.” There is also a lib­eral pol­icy about talk­ing and walk­ing around. “Kids just en­joy be­ing here, but it is the par­ents who bring kids who re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate it.”

The the­ater sup­plies a pre­view book ti­tled “This is My The­ater” to help pre­pare chil­dren ahead of time. There are also vol­un­teers to as­sist fam­i­lies at per­for­mances. And per­haps most im­por­tant, Paper Mill Play­house holds an open house called “Meet Your Seat” on a day be­fore the per­for­mance. Anx­i­ety is re­lieved for the chil­dren when they can see the space ahead of time. Up­com­ing pro­duc­tions are

Seussi­cal on April 25 and Dis­ney’s

Aladdin Jr. on June 14. An­other venue for spe­cial shows is the Theatre De­vel­op­ment Fund. TDF started the Autism Theatre Ini­tia­tive in 2011 to make Broad­way shows ac­ces­si­ble to chil­dren and adults on the autism spec­trum, along with their fam­i­lies. Ac­cord­ing to the TDF web­site, ac­com­mo­da­tions in­clude re­duc­tion of jar­ring noises and lights. There are also quiet ar­eas and an ac­tiv­ity area.

While McNulty is in­cred­i­bly pos­i­tive about both the­ater ex­pe­ri­ences, she says there are two “best things” that helped Kee­gan at the the­ater per­for­mances. First was the “so­cial story” sup­plied through an on­line link – a book with pic­tures that pre­pares the­ater­go­ers ahead of time.

“They both in­cluded pic­tures of the the­aters,” she says, “so we could read about and see where we were go­ing. We printed them and read them a few days prior to go­ing. This gave Kee­gan a com­fort feel­ing of fa­mil­iar­ity once we walked into the site. We also brought them so we could tran­si­tion be­tween ar­eas...and wait­ing.”

Just as im­por­tant, McNulty says, “The staff at both places was so sweet and greeted us all upon ar­rival. The first thing they handed us was a sen­sory item (squeezy toy) to keep Kee­gan’s hands busy and give him some fo­cus as we walked through the crowd of people.” Ganti echoes that sen­ti­ment. “Ev­ery­one is so kind and so help­ful,” she says. “The vol­un­teers are very well-trained and sen­si­tive to the chil­dren’s needs. The Paper Mill Play­house does an amaz­ing job.”

The Union County Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter is an­other the­ater that of­fers sen­sory-friendly per­for­mances. In March, there is a per­for­mance of the New Jersey Bal­let’s Sleep­ing Beauty, and in May, the pup­peteer Jim West will present Ae­sop’s Fables.

AMC The­atres, mean­while, in con­junc­tion with the Autism So­ci­ety, of­fers a sen­sory-friendly movie ex­pe­ri­ence one Satur­day a month at some the­aters na­tion­wide, in­clud­ing the­aters in Wayne and at the Pal­isades Cen­ter in West Ny­ack, N.Y.

Watch­ing a film or per­for­mance in a friendly and judg­ment-free en­vi­ron­ment is a won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity for fam­i­lies.

“We have brought Kee­gan’s grand­par­ents to the the­ater per­for­mances,” McNulty says, “and they loved watch­ing Kee­gan’s ex­cite­ment watch­ing Ariel sing live on stage and Spi­der­Man fly over­head.”

“Ev­ery­one helps each other,” Ganti says. “These shows bring people in and it ben­e­fits ev­ery­one. It means a lot to our fam­ily.”

EN­JOY­ING THE SHOW Paper Mill Play­house sup­plies vol­un­teers, a pre­view book and pro­duc­tion ac­com­mo­da­tions for its spe­cial per­for­mances.

AP­PRE­CIA­TIVE AU­DI­ENCE Kee­gan McNulty, 7, ar­rives at Paper Mill Play­house for a sen­sory-friendly per­for­mance his whole fam­ily en­joyed.

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