Note: This is an archival blog post from the now-defunct The Journey Through Autism Blog, by writer and entrepreneur Ethan Hirschberg. To read more of his work, click here.
This past Wednesday, August 22, I was invited to attend an event that really excited me. The event was a sensory-friendly, relaxed performance of “Legally Blonde: The Musical!” Put on by New Village Arts, this performance was the debut “relaxed” performance in their seventeen-season history. As someone on the Autism spectrum, I have rarely been able to watch live performances due to the many different overstimulating factors of theatre. I can only think of a handful of plays and musicals that I have attended. I’ve only gone because a couple of my friends were in the cast. After watching this “relaxed” rendition of “Legally Blonde: The Musical,” I have so much hope for the future of sensory-friendly theatrical performances.
When I asked about what inspired the creation of this sensory-friendly performance, Nadia Guevara (Associate Artistic Director) stated that the theatre “has a group of talented, neurodiverse performers that I have been lucky enough to work with” and that “like all artists, we thrive on seeing art as well as creating it, and I wanted to make sure that they could come see all of the shows.”
There was so much research that was done in order to make this show a huge success. According to Guevara, "For Legally Blonde, we made small changes that made a big impact. Part of the pre-visit strategy was to offer a "meet your seat" option - the chance to take a tour of the theatre and the seats at any time during box office hours. Additionally we offered a social story and a synopsis with pictures available online. In the theatre, we kept the house (audience) lights up dimly, so audience members were able to come and go as needed. Before the show began I explained that there would be singing, dancing and live music, so audience members were welcome to put on their headphones or "take a break" from the show as needed. We offered a room where audience members could take a break, surrounded by comfy rugs, bean bag chairs, and inflatables. For the show itself, we removed any "blackouts" (times where the stage goes completely dark), musicians adjusted some of their instrumentations, and our sound engineer modified the volume of the actor and band microphones. The performance itself was a blast. The actors, musicians, stage crew were very enthusiastic and excited. There was great energy, laughter, and applause from the audience, and smiles all around."
Hearing the cast members’ thoughts was also very interesting and informational in my opinion. When Trevor Rex (Actor and Dance Captain) was asked if he changed the way he usually performs in order to accommodate sensory needs, he stated "For me, the majority of my changes were vocal. I have a very full, loud voice, and while not shrill, it can definitely be overpowering when I’m not consciously thinking about it. At moments I knew there would be a good amount of people singing the tenor line, I pulled back dramatically. When speaking, there wasn’t too much that changed for me. That being said, the way other people changed the way they spoke affected how I reacted to what they were saying.” Marlene Montes (Actress) answered the same question similarly, stating "Yes, I did, however the adjustments were minor. I wanted to be true to my character and give the same show and energy to the audience. My approach was to simply change my intention & intensity with specific choices I made. For example, there are some moments where Paulette is normally vocally high pitched that I shifted into a lower register."
This amazing experience was not only beneficial for neurodiverse audience members; it also was an educative experience for the entire cast. When Nobuko Kemmotsu (Musician) was questioned on how this relaxed performance changed his perspective of special needs inclusion in the theatre industry, he said something that I will never forget: "It strengthened my belief that making accommodations for the purpose of inclusion is achievable. Words cannot describe how happy I felt when the performance ended and I heard the audience cheering in joy."
There are only a few theatres that offer sensory-friendly performances because it takes a lot of work. I cannot imagine the number of hours that the whole team put into researching and implementing tactics to make this relaxed performance a success. I want to give a big thank you to Nadia Guevara (Associate Artistic Director) for spearheading this extraordinary project that will (in my opinion) set an example for many future theatres to follow. I’ve been told countless times that theatre is an inclusive environment. This performance really made me a true believer of that.
I was able to enjoy a show without being overstimulated! I really appreciated how the audience was told in advance when things would get louder. People could wear noise-canceling headphones, they could vocalize, or stim. Best of all, there wasn’t judgement or offense taken by anybody! Audience members could get up if they needed a break. Thank you to all of the cast members and production team for a job well done! Thank you for giving me the opportunity to enjoy live theatre and for families to all be able to enjoy a performance together without worrying about being asked to leave, having to get up and leave, or having to leave a family member at home.
I encourage all theatres to have programs like this one. One “relaxed” performance during the run of each musical or play can truly make a huge difference in the lives of individuals with all special needs. If you know of any theatre who doesn’t have a program like this or wants to improve a preexisting one, please share this post with them. If any theatres would like advice on how to make performances more sensory-friendly and inclusive for individuals of all abilities, I would be happy to help; email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!