Traverse City News and Events

Dreaming Up A New Kind Of Performance

By Beth Milligan | March 23, 2018

When the cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream takes the stage Saturday afternoon at the Old Town Playhouse, they’ll be helping to make history at the Traverse City theater.

For the first time at the community venue, staff and volunteers will mount a sensory-friendly performance of a main-stage production – designed to “create a safe and nurturing environment for individuals on the autism spectrum and other individuals with sensory sensitivities,” according to the Old Town Playhouse. In partnership with the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD), theater staff and volunteers are customizing the show by lowering sound levels, brightening house lights, and offering a “fluid” environment where attendees are welcome to make noise or get up if needed during the show.

TBAISD Transition Coordinator Mimi Kinney works closely with students on the spectrum. She says because such individuals often struggle with communication and social etiquette, they’re frequently excluded from community events. “I think a lot of families are afraid to take their family member with a disability or sensory issue to a regular performance,” Kinney says. “This is creating an environment where they can practice and still move about or make a noise. It opens up an experiential learning piece about being an active community member. So much of the time we focus on work training or transitioning to adulthood (for individuals with disabilities), and we forget about the recreational aspect of going out in the community like any other person would do.”

Providing a familiar, consistent environment without sudden blackouts, jarring sound cues, or other surprising elements is a key aspect of offering a sensory-friendly show. Old Town Playhouse will open its doors at 1pm Saturday – an hour before an abridged performance of Shakespeare's magic-infused comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream begins at 2pm – so that attendees can tour the theater, touch props and costume pieces, and become familiarized with their environment. Following the performance, cast members will be available for a meet-and-greet with the audience at 3pm. Playhouse volunteers have been trained to accommodate any audience needs that may arise during the show, and cast members are prepared to handle disruptions.

“However (attendees) need to react or vocalize is welcome,” says show director Shelby Lewis. “For the actors, it’s a bit more of an improv situation. If someone vocalizes, it’s probably a compliment, because that’s how they express themselves. I think it’ll make for a really lively and vibrant experience for people, on stage and off.”

Lewis, who is working toward her master’s degree in theater education with an emphasis on disability inclusion and access, eagerly volunteered to mount a sensory-friendly performance after Old Town Playhouse Executive Director Phil Murphy expressed his interest in bringing such a show to the venue. “I raised my hand very quickly, because this is an underserved part of Traverse City’s community, like it is everyone else’s,” Lewis says. In preparation for the show, Lewis consulted with the Wharton Center in East Lansing – which also has begun regularly offering sensory-friendly performances – and attended a three-day American Alliance for Theatre and Education conference on best practices for disability inclusion.

Response to the program offering has been enthusiastic among individuals on the spectrum and their caretakers and families. “I think the families just appreciate the consideration being given by our community theater, because it’s not very often something is put in front of them that’s designed just for their kid or their family friend,” Kinney says. “It’s a feeling that they’ve been thought of for a change.” Old Town Playhouse volunteers say they hope sensory-friendly shows will continue to be offered going forward – at least once a season, if not more often.

“I would hope it could be at least one show within every run, because it can serve a lot of different constituents,” says Lewis. “It’s not only those on the spectrum. A lot of people might appreciate having the house lights up a bit, or could be sensitive to loud sounds, or have young families.” With census data showing close to 10 percent of Grand Traverse County’s population has some type of disability, Lewis says “it would make sense that at least” a similar percentage of events or performances could accommodate such individuals. “This is a huge first step,” she says.

Other Traverse City venues are also taking steps to welcome such audiences. Since 2016, the State Theatre has hosted a weekly “sensory-friendly family surprise” screening every Friday at 11am for 25 cents. “We turn the lights up, turn the sound down, have close captions on, and attendees can make noise and move about the theater,” according to the theater’s website. “We invite audience members to enjoy a positive, stress-free matinee at the movies.” While the program is on hiatus today and next week due to the theater’s spring break programming, it will return in April. The organization also tries to host a sensory-friendly morning screening at the Bijou by the Bay once a month, according to Creative Director Meg Weichman of the Traverse City Film Festival, which manages both theaters.

“The response has been steadily growing, the word’s been getting out about them,” says Weichman. “We’ve had as many as 80 people (attend a screening) in the summer.”

AMC Theatres also has a corporate partnership with the Autism Society to offer sensory-friendly film screenings at its venues across the country. The program has not yet reached Traverse City’s Cherry Blossom 14 theater, but Manager Bob Parsons says he’s hopeful it will in the future. “It’s something they’re really taking charge of and spreading it throughout the company,” Parsons says. “They’re breaking it out to more and more markets. It just hasn’t reached us yet.”

Kinney says she hopes other venues, events and festivals in Traverse City will consider offering inclusive and sensory-friendly access to their spaces. “This trend is something I am seeing and very hopefully we’ll see more of across the board,” she says. “People are starting to see the intrinsic value of these individuals as human beings, instead of just putting them in a corner and saying we’re not going to include them. If people would not be fearful of offering opportunities to people that may not be their typical participants, the benefit they would see would be amazing.”

RSVP and show information for the March 24 sensory-friendly performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is available online here. Walk-in attendees are also welcome at the performance. Photo credit: Tommy Valdez/Old Town Playhouse. 

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