Sensory performances make theater accessible to a wider audience
BRUNSWICK — The mystery man has broken the fourth wall and made his way to the front row audience.
“OK guys, do any of you know what my secret is?” he asked the children sitting there.
“You are Jack’s father!” one blurted out.
It was a bit of a spoiler, of course, but last weekend’s production of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” by the Maine State Music Theater, was different in its take from traditional shows.
There were no spotlights, no curtains, no booming orchestra or actors on the microphone. The actors were not on stage, separated from those who had come to watch. The audience did not always sit in silence between applause.
But the magic was the same. Maybe even bigger.
“I think we sometimes get more out of them than audience members do,” said Curt Dale Clark, artistic director of the theatre, who along with creative partner Marc Robin adapted the musical from the English fairy tale.
The June 4 performance was the first of two sensory shows presented this season by the Brunswick-based professional theater company. The second – “The Very Fractured Tale of Robin Hood” – is next month.
They cater to children for whom a standard theatrical experience might not be suitable, such as children with autism spectrum disorders or other social or physical challenges. The Brunswick Theater is one of the only performing arts organizations in Maine to regularly produce such shows.
“I have been in the business for 25 years. I think we still have a ways to go,” said Cathy Dionne, executive director of the Autism Society of Maine. “It would be nice if we had many theaters doing this, if it became a natural part of their operations.”
Parents who attended the recent show largely agreed, but said they were grateful for the opportunity.
“If you look closely there are things you can find,” said Kerry Huckins of Windham, whose 8-year-old twin daughters Jordan and Ainsley were born with cerebral palsy. “But it was our first time to come to a show here, or something. I thought they did such a great job. Our girls had a wonderful time.
The interpreters too.
Lizzie Hall, who played the princess in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk,’ starred in three sensory shows and said each one was memorable. The Yarmouth native said the shows almost served as extra rehearsal for the actors, but they were so much more than that.
“The whole thing is very child-friendly and family-friendly,” Hall said. “So we can adjust the show and make it more interactive. It’s always a fun and really rewarding time.
Last weekend’s performance started with introductions.
Clark asked each actor to tell the audience their name, who they would be playing, and a bit about themselves, but then encouraged audience members to share their names as well.
From there, the cast and crew pulled out the costumes, sets, and props. They even let some children handle the beans which play a major role in the story.
Sensory performances take place in the Maine State Music Theater rehearsal room, not the Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus. Rows of seats are arranged at one end of the large hall, but there is no separation between the actors and the audience.
Rebecca Knight from Topsham attended with her husband, Robby, and children, Nova, 7, and Colton, 4. The youngest child was always sensitive to noises and sounds, Rebecca said.
“We thought it would be a great opportunity, and it was,” she said. “I really liked how they went through the production from start to finish. I think it made things a lot less scary for him.
Knight said the family went to the movies on occasion, but the music was often too loud.
“Usually one of us comes out (with Colton) and paces down the hall,” she said.
During sensory shows in the theatre, there is a separate “rest room” for parents who might need to give their children a break. Turns out the Knights didn’t need it, but a relative used it last weekend. One of the main challenges of bringing a child into a traditional theater is knowing what to do if they are too loud.
Deborah Rooks-Ellis, director of the Maine Autism Institute for Education and Research at the University of Maine, said sensory shows are extremely valuable because they promote inclusion for all families.
“Guests are encouraged to freely respond to shows in their own way, and organizations are relaxing ‘house’ rules,” she said. “Convention generally requires guests to be quiet and seated throughout most shows, but during sensory performances, guests/families are encouraged to do things like sing or dance.”
Betsy Puelle, who directed ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and also teaches drama at Yarmouth High School, said she approaches sensory shows in the same way as a main stage show.
“Then we kind of look at whether there are parts that are too loud, or maybe too scary, and we can make adjustments,” she said.
Puelle tells all the actors that no show is better for their ego.
“It’s such a moving experience to be able to reach these kids in this way and introduce them to this art form,” she said.
THE RIGHT PRICE
From the start of last Saturday’s performance, the children were hooked.
They had already seen the actors in disguise and knew what to expect. They knew that Jack’s horse was played by two actresses, one standing with a costumed head, the other bent behind her.
When the giant appeared, the audience had already been warned by his deep, resounding voice.
The Maine State Music Theater began offering sensory shows in 2016. Performances are free to the public, thanks to grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Onion Foundation, a Maine-based philanthropic organization that promotes the music and the arts, and the conservation and stewardship of the natural environment.
“I think if you have kids, you might be worried about spending a fortune on something that can easily overwhelm them,” Knight said. “But our children felt so comfortable. I told all my neighbors about it.
Knight said her daughter has always been a little nervous in front of crowds, but she’s also been interested in acting. Near the end of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” the mystery man (played by veteran local actor Patrick Livingston) has a rap number that provides significant story exposure. Livingston forgot a line at the beginning of the song and had to start over – twice, in fact – but he played it as if it were part of the performance. He drew the biggest laughs of the evening.
“I think that was my daughter’s favorite part,” Knight said. “Even when you make a mistake, you just keep going.”
Huckins said her daughters have already requested to return to another show.
“Seeing pieces like that and being able to interact is more than a movie, you know,” he said. “They really liked the interaction before the play started.”
Huckins said he still remembers going to the movies when his daughters were younger and how loud and stressful it was.
“It’s good to have this offer for…for kids like my kids,” he said.
There have been sensory shows at Maine theaters in recent years, but they’ve mostly been one-off.
An Orono theater company partnered with the Maine Autism Institute in 2019 to stage a sensory performance of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” based on the book by Mark Haddon, which features an autistic boy as a lead character.
In 2018, South Portland’s Lyric Music Theater offered a sensory performance of the holiday classic “White Christmas.”
The Children’s Museum and Theater of Maine regularly offers sensory shows, but these are not professional-level shows.
Clark said the Maine State Music Theater will continue to put on shows each season, as long as funding permits.
Dionne, of the Autism Society of Maine, praised the theater for its inclusiveness efforts.
“There will be a day when it becomes automatic,” she said. “And this is the day I look forward to.”
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