People with autism or other developmental differences can now experience Hope Summer Repertory Theatre in more welcoming, safe and comfortable ways thanks to new resources that make theater-going more sensory-friendly. A year in the making by HSRT Associate Managing Director Reagan Chesnut ’08, the initiative clearly sends the message that live, immersive theatre is accessible for all.
“Accessibility for theatre has always been something that’s really important to me,” says Chesnut. “I have family members who have autism and sensory-related disabilities so I was trying to figure out how to pull them into this world that has dark lights and loud noises. Creative play is so important to the human spirit so being able to come see theatre is very important. For any and everyone.”
Chesnut researched to create tools that would help those with autism and developmental differences. She also consulted with Benjamin’s Hope, a Holland-based “live, work, play, worship” organization designed to address the multifaceted needs of adult individuals and families affected by autism and other intellectual and developmental differences. The result is the creation of a three-prong approach to theatre accessibility: Sensory bags, “Going to the Theatre” social stories, and performance guides for use before and most HSRT productions.
Supplied by accessory giant, Vera Bradley, the sensory bags are equipped with supplies that help patrons adapt to live theatre. Inside each soft, quilted, durable backpack are noise-dampening headphones, a squeeze stress ball, fidget tool, weighted lap pad, and buttons that say ‘please don’t talk to me’ so a person isn’t approached for audience participation if they don’t want to be. Ten bags are available to checkout at the DeWitt Theatre for every performance of “Dragon Pack Snack Attack,” “The Wiz,” “Godspell” and “The Odd Couple” at no cost.
“Social stories” is a term used to describe documents that improve the social skills of people with autism and developmental difference. They tell a “story” of appropriate social interaction by describing a situation with relevant social cues, other’s perspectives and a suggested appropriate response.
Written in the first person, HSRT’s “Going to the Theatre” social story walks patrons through the theatre experience from beginning to end — what door to use, where the ticket office is located, who helps you find your seat, what an intermission is, and how to exit. Though this tool was specifically created for patrons with autism and developmental differences, “we’re hoping that it has an impact on other patrons,” says Chesnut. “Some people maybe have never been in the theatre before, and it can be nerve racking. Basically, we want to bring down any barriers to theatre and we’re trying to do that with this kind of outreach.”
Finally, performance guides walk patrons through the particular sights and sounds of each play with a detailed, chronological summary of the action using icons for sensory triggers. They have been customized for each particular play and indicate when loud noises will occur, or when the house will go dark or suddenly bright, or when anticipated applause or audience participation should happen.
“The hope is that people go to our website if they want to have a little bit more time to look over the social stories or performance guides prior to the play,” explains Chesnut. “But they are also printed out and available inside the sensory bags so patrons can follow along.”
In recent years, the movement toward sensory-friendly productions in and of themselves has created another opportunity to provide live immersive theatre that is accessible to all. Chesnut thinks that may be a consideration for HSRT in the future but she has one hesitation. “The one thing that [those productions] do is they separate,” she says. “They say, ‘these are the performances for patrons with disabilities and then there’s the other regular performances.’ That dictates how a patron with a disability is going to experience the theatre instead of allowing them to take control of their own experience. The goal for all of our tools and materials is to put that control back into the hands of the patrons so they are able to decide how they experience the theatre.”
Interested in going to HSRT, now in its 47th season? Check out ticket availability online.