Accessibility, Autism, Technology

Philadelphia’s Oldest Theater Presents Sensory-Friendly Performance

 July 6, 2018

By  Deborah L Weiner Katz, OTR/L, CCM, CLCP

Almost 20 years after the release of The Matrix, quotes attributed to Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus remain omnipresent on the internet. Early in the film, he leans in and asks Neo the following question:

“What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

Morpheus is only speaking of the average person’s sensory experience. Can you imagine the experience of those on the autism spectrum, those with ADHD, social anxiety, OCD or dementia? The oldest theater in America has and now other theaters are following suit.

The Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia was first contacted by Roger Ideishi, an occupational therapist, in 2005. His idea was to use the theater to assist autistic students with their social skills. A conversation began regarding the possibility of a sensory-friendly performance.

What is a sensory-friendly performance?

The first sensory-friendly performance was held at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Ideishi’s work with the Walnut’s education program had led him there and beyond, to work with theaters and performing arts centers around the country and the world to make their venues welcoming to people with autism. Certain adjustments and accommodations are made at sensory-friendly performances in order to create a relaxed experience.

A sensory-friendly performance will omit startling sounds or lighting effects. Audience members are permitted to vocalize, stand and leave seats during the performance. Use of personal electronic devices is permitted for communication or sensory reasons.

At the start and end of a show, house lights do not go completely dark. Actors introduce themselves before and after so that no one is surprised by anyone walking onstage. A quiet area is provided in the lobby. Ticket sales are intentionally limited so the theater will not fill to capacity. This provides a comfortable space in terms of movement and reactions.

What is the experience like?

The theater’s goal is to be the most welcoming. It should be a place where families can enjoy theater together. Their upcoming performance of Ivy + Bean will be performed for over 800 guests from Philadelphia schools, many of whom are children on the spectrum.

Before the performance, teaching artists and cast members will lead three schools in interactive workshops. This will include a show-and-tell with costumes, scenes and songs from the production, and an informational video produced by the theater. Students will be informed where they will enter the building, people they will pass on the way to their seats, what the theater looks like and where the actors will perform. The entire experience is designed to be welcoming and comforting.


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