How An Indiana Theater Made A Holiday Favorite Autism Friendly
The Indiana Repertory Theatre has performed “A Christmas Carol” for almost 30 years. But this year’s final performance starts a little differently.
The theater’s director of education, Randy Pease, takes center stage before the play begins to issue a warning.
“Because today’s story features ghosts and some frightening elements, we wanted to take a moment to share with you one especially striking sound cue,” Peas says to the audience before loud, ominous music resounds through the theater.
The music, and a bright flash of light, are the entrance cues for the ghost of Christmas future. That part of the play might be difficult to watch for someone on the autism spectrum who has sensitivity to light and sound.
The pre-show warning is one of several changes to the Dec. 26 performance made for audience members with autism. The Indiana Repertory Theatre calls this show a sensory-friendly performance, meaning it's for anyone with developmental disabilities or difficulty processing light and sound.
“We’re just looking to see families for whom this wouldn’t have been an option otherwise to come see it,” says Sarah Geis, youth audience manager for the IRT. She works behind the scenes to make a performance more accessible for audience members with autism.
A introduction to autism
This isn’t the IRT’s first sensory-friendly performance – or experience with autism. Last season, it staged “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." The Tony-winning show is about a boy who exhibits many of the symptoms of an autism spectrum disorder.
The IRT cast an openly autistic actor, Mickey Rowe, to play the lead role. The theater thinks it’s the first performance of the show in the country to feature an openly-autistic actor.
And it held a special performance geared for people with autism.
“After ‘Curious Incident’ we went, 'OK, what can we do for next season? How can we expand this program?'” Geis says.
“A Christmas Carol" was a natural fit.
“This is something we can take the whole family to,” Geis says. “And I think that was one of the bigger important things about making sure that we got this on the schedule – having those families who might want this as a tradition who might not feel comfortable bringing the whole family to a regular performance, and giving them that opportunity to enjoy the holiday spirit and enjoy this wonderful Christmas show with us.”
Creating a sensory-friendly experience
Making a sensory-friendly theatergoing experience starts before the audience even sees the stage. On the IRT’s website, there are guides Geis and her colleagues developed that explain what you’ll see from the moment you walk into the theater to when the show begins.
"These are the doors that I enter, here’s where the ticket office is, this is what I can experience at the ticket office,” Geis says.
Geis also created story guides, which are tucked into the program and include a short summary of a scene and a photo.
"We break it down, sort of from a theatrical term, beat by beat or moment by moment,” Geis says. “This is what happen in this scene, this is what happens in the next scene.”
Programs also note when there might be a loud sound effect or startling moment. And two staff members seated in front of the stage hold up glowsticks about 10 seconds before these scenes. Like when Jacob Marley’s ghost appears in a mirror accompanied by the eerie music.
That might seem like a spoiler. But it could be helpful for people with autism, who don’t respond well to surprises or deviations from routine, says Purdue University professor Mandy Rispoli. She's co-director of the Purdue Autism Cluster, faculty members who research autism-related issues.
“When things are out of their routine, then folks can feel a little more anxious or uncertain about what’s going to happen next," Rispoli says. "And that can lead to some challenging behaviors or some other sorts of behaviors to try to help cope with that new environment.”
That means the theater – a place of wonder with bustling crowds, swelling music and brilliant technical displays – can be overwhelming.
Accommodations to the performance
To make the theater itself friendlier to guests on the autism spectrum, the auditorium houselights, dimmed low, stay on for the whole “Christmas Carol” performance. And there are spaces outside the auditorium where they can watch the show with room to walk or make noise.
“If folks need to leave during the performance, they are welcome to at any time and they're welcome to return at any time,” Geis says.
The theater held two sensory-friendly performances of “A Christmas Carol” this season, one for the general public, and one for Indiana schoolchildren. About 600 students from around the state attended that performance. Geis says nearly half of the children who come to the IRT every year are seeing a staged performance for the first time.
For children on the autism spectrum, this first performance could shape how they react to future community events, says Shireen Kanakri, director of the Health Environmental Design Research Lab at Ball State University. She studies how different environments affect children with autism.
"Sometimes it’s not a matter the environmental factors around the kid, it’s more about the social interaction,” Kanakri says. “If they have a good social interaction, they might forget totally about what’s going on.”
The sensory-friendly performance is designed with special needs theatergoers in mind. But the performance isn’t limited to people on the autism spectrum. Nor should it be, Rispoli says.
“The best thing that families can do is to help get their own kids get involved and become involved as well, even if they're not affected by autism or any other disability,” she says.
Nikki Daluga-Gunenther, a St. Louis resident who was visiting Indianapolis for the holidays, says she has been to several sensory-friendly events with her daughter, Zooey.
The 5-year-old isn’t on the autism spectrum, and her mother didn’t know the performance of “A Christmas Carol” would be sensory-friendly. But Daluga-Gunenther says inclusivity is important.
“I think it’s so important that theater is an opportunity that everyone gets to participate in and see,” she says.
The IRT has several sensory-friendly performances scheduled for next year. Geis hopes the theater will eventually include one for each show through an entire season.
“Now when we say sensory-friendly within the building, everyone goes, ‘Oh yeah, that’s just something we do now,’” she says. “This is something that isn't scary or feels untenable.”
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a reporting collaborative focused on public health.