Children’s Theatre Goes Sensory-Friendly

April 22, 2016
Niamh Rahman, Waisman Communications

Sometimes a theater performance is better with headphones and fidgets.

This may sound strange, but for individuals with certain disabilities, headphones and other add-ons, like fidgets, can make an event more enjoyable, instead of detracting from the experience. Using headphones can help tone down loud, potentially overwhelming noises, and playing with fidgets – unique toys for people with special needs – can help focus and manage stress.

Headphones and fidgets are just one of the few additions to the new sensory-friendly performances at the Waisman Center Children’s Theatre (WCCT). While the Children’s Theatre has always strived to be inclusive and accessible by having sign language interpreters at performances and ensuring wheelchair access, this year, in partnership with the Autism Society of South Central Wisconsin (ASSCW), the Children’s Theatre has incorporated new sensory-friendly measures into several of its shows to welcome a broader community.

The WCCT hosted its first-ever sensory-friendly show with a November performance of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” by Playtime Productions. The ASSCW worked with Badgers with a Heart (BWAH), a UW-Madison student organization dedicated to improving resources for children with autism, to help reduce the potential for sensory overload.

Danielle Tolzmann, president of the ASSCW, watched a dress rehearsal in advance of the performance at the Waisman Center to identify potential stimuli that could lead to sensory overload. In addition to the use of headphones and fidgets, Tolzmann suggested dimming the lights, muffling loud noises, lowering the volume of the keyboard and avoiding clapping during the performance to help children with special concerns feel more comfortable during the show.

For example, the performance of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” involved the loud banging of a mallet on a gong. For the sensory-friendly showing, actors toned this down by using a soft, fur-covered mallet instead.

Sam North, vice president of BWAH, explained that it is fairly easy to judge if a child is becoming uncomfortable. “We can determine what they need by whether or not they are touching their ears or messing with their hands. We let parents know we are here so they are able to wave at us if they want any assistance.”

“We also try to make it more accommodating for kids by having the lights dimmed,” North added. “But we don’t want it completely dark in the theater because that can be scary for some, well, all kids actually.”

Teresa Palumbo, senior university relations specialist at the Waisman Center, knows how important it is to offer sensory-friendly performances and the coordination it takes to make them happen. “It really is a collaborative effort,” Palumbo said. “We could not have done it without the insight from Danielle, the wonderful student help from BWAH and of course, the amazing performers.”

In addition to the high quality, interactive performances, Children’s Theatre shows are presented at a modest cost and are open to all members of the public. With the success of the November show, Palumbo worked with the ASSCW to add an additional sensory-friendly show to the spring season, April’s “Sleeping Beauty,” performed by Playtime Productions.

“Here at the Waisman Center we are always striving to do better,” Palumbo said.

The 2015-2016 Children’s Theatre series was sponsored by the American Girl Fund for Children and hosted by the Friends of the Waisman Center.