In October 2017, we held a sensory friendly performance of our fall play Charlotte's Web. Below is my outline of planning and notes about the experience for future productions.Background:I direct high school - a fall drama and a spring musical. When I selected Charlotte's Web for our fall play last year I knew I wanted to do something special. The theme of friendship/acceptance/
sacrifice/etc. tied in so nicely.PlanningAttached is my initial brainstorm document (Sensory Friendly Performance Brainstorm.pdf) that shows my various questions and concerns I wanted to bring to a committee I formed. I was incredibly lucky to have the principal of the Newark Education Center (BOCES) as one of my drama parents (her son was a freshman and in the cast). She was an excellent resource for my questions. I directed these questions to her. I also asked for parent volunteers to serve on the committee-several who had personal experience with Autism and sensory sensitivity in their own families. I was extremely fortunate to have their help as a sounding board and also for specific tasks for the day of the performance. I strongly recommend that you create a sub-committee of people to help.The Technical AspectsCharlotte's Web is a very gentle show to begin with...no singing or dancing like a musical, but I did have some sound cues, etc. Here are the adjustments that I made to the technical elements:
The EnvironmentOur auditorium is fairly large so I did not section off the space. You certainly could...make one a quieter zone and other area standing/walking zone. I didn't think it was necessary in ours due to size. However, here are some things we did do:
- Lighting - kept house lights up for the performance---I think 35% or 40%
- stage lights did go completely black for scene changes but only because house lights were left on
- my lighting operator actually created a second show file for the sensory friendly performance where he copied all of the cues and added the house lights, but we could have also just left the house submaster up. Whatever works for you!
- loud sound cues were removed (fireworks, thunderstorms), incidental scene change music levels were lowered
- actors wore microphones but levels were lowered and our sound board operator was on call to mute everyone if anything strange happened!
- there was nothing startling about our set or lights (no strobes, no real set changes bc we had a unit set, etc.)
- Made a social story available in advance as a PDF and Powerpoint presentation (available for download on our website and linked at the bottom of this page). One of my students created this and I was told it was one of the best people have seen!
- I had consistent and LOTS of signage throughout the space - including signs on front door, auditorium doors, signs pointing to restrooms, signs noting sitting area in lobby, signs to concession stand, etc.
- We created a front desk/ticket table (my Drama Club voted to make this a free event!) but we still gave out tickets to help us keep a headcount and also complete the experience of attending theatre.
- My parent who is the Principal of NEC sat at the front desk greeting students (she knew most of the families attending), gave out tickets, answered questions, etc. She also stayed in our lobby during the performance in our "resting space".
- At the front desk we had additional copies of the social story, additional copies of the show summary (also available online prior to performance - and below on this page), a basket of fidgets (I purchased these in advance).
- In our quiet zone (our lobby) we brought in some beanbag chairs, and some other type of chairs (again - borrowed from our BOCES classroom courtesy of the Principal!). Additional snacks were also available here.
- During intermission we had snacks in the cafeteria - Rice Krispie treats, fruit snacks, mini waters.
- I had extra parents serve as ushers for the event - 2 at the door, another 2-4 inside around perimeter in case anyone needed anything. These volunteers helped guide people in the auditorium. Audience members were welcome to sit or lay in the pit area (a few brought blankets). Wheelchairs were also welcome in the pit.
- All volunteers wore a lanyard with a volunteer tag (and most wore show t-shirts).
Preparing the cast and crew
- I came out and gave a short curtain speech. I typically have these pre-taped but in person was important for this event!
- I thanked everyone for being with us, explained that this was a "shush free" performance and that I was so excited to share it with everyone there. I think I made the usual announcements about exits, intermission, etc.
- I had our main closed for this.
- Then, I brought out the actors who played the barnyard animals one at a time. Even though my animals were not in animal makeup, I thought it was a nice touch to introduce the characters in advance - it's all about no surprises for the audience members.
- Some of the characters made a loud noise (like the geese) so I had the actors do that for the audience - again with a warning/explanation from me "Our goose and gander sometimes make very loud noises when they are excited. Goose and Gander, can you please show us what that sounds like now?" etc. Other characters had theme music that accompanied them so I introduced that music with the animal too.
- It was a good opportunity to practice applause too. When I connected with a group who had produced Shrek as a sensory friendly performance, the director said she had the audience practice applause and laughter. Again, Charlotte's Web is pretty tame compared to a musical!
- We rehearsed the curtain speech and "character parade" maybe once or twice (these are high school students).
- I also had the BOCES principal speak to the cast and crew about what to expect (which is really anything!) from our audience members.
- I talked about staying in character.
- I did not run a full rehearsal with the house lights on but you may want to do that especially if you are working with younger actors. My actors were all pretty experienced so I was less concerned, but it can be distracting. We ran one scene that everyone was in so they could all see what it would be like with lights on.
- I also asked if any of the actors were comfortable, would they come to the edge of the stage or into the pit after the performance to interact with audience. Not all of my kids wanted to do this but the majority did. I do not allow our actors in costume with audiences after a show so this was a little different for us.
- I also allowed audience members to explore the set with their parent/guest after the show too...they were not allowed to climb, but if they wanted a closer look...but again it was a unit set and very sturdy.
- We created flyers that went home with every student in our elementary schools, every student in Newark Education Center and every student in Midlakes Education Center.
- We also publicized the regular way (social media, print media etc.).
- I had (and still have) info on our website: https://www.
- I contacted Autism Up to 1) invite them to publicize our free performance and 2) invite them to have a table of info in our lobby. However, I never received a response from them. This is something I wish I would have followed-up on but as a director you know - time gets away from you! I would have liked to have some resource group materials out in our lobby...even it was just pamphlets not people!
- The experience was incredibly well received by our community. We had just under 100 people attend. Our Drama Club received several lovely notes later from people who attended remarking that it was a wonderful opportunity.
- I also made sure to invite the BOE.
- My students were very moved by the experience. It solidified the idea that theatre is for everyone.
- I would do it again, but it was a lot of work. Also, I feel like it has to be the right show.
- I think a musical would be very challenging. I got inquiries if we were holding a sensory friendly performance for our spring musical last year (Nice Work If You Can Get It). I think it would take many more adjustments than a play...for example I think I would have to cut it down to just a piano rather than a full pit. I also think it would require an additional rehearsal for my cast and crew to go through the show with all the tech and sound adjustments...it is basically like producing the show twice.
- Overall, this was an incredible experience. One that was a huge learning curve for me . I would like to do it again in the future.
Charlotte's Web Summary (If I had more time, I would have loved to do this summary with photos of our cast in costume and makeup!)