“Today, we’re not worried about theater etiquette,” Frances Limoncelli, artistic director of the Magik Theatre, announced before a performance of The Three Javelinas. It was a good thing, too, because about halfway through the show, 3-year-old Richie Buzzard started to get very antsy. And he was not alone.
By the time the big, bad wolf – or, as is the case in this southwestern adaptation of the classic story of the three little pigs, the hungry coyote – commenced with chasing the third little javelina, children were getting up out of their seats, jumping around, and chatting with their parents. During the song and dance sequences featuring live music, many kids got up and wiggled in the aisles. A few parents stretched their legs, too. This wasn’t exactly a normal Saturday at the Magik Theatre, but it is becoming a part of the routine.
The Magik Theatre’s 2016-2017 season marks its first full season during which each main stage show will feature a “sensory-friendly” production. In an effort to cater to individuals with autism or cognitive disabilities and their families, sensory-friendly performances have been growing in popularity in theaters across the country.
During a sensory-friendly production, amplified sound is lowered, most of the house lights are kept on, and theater-goers are free to talk, mill about the aisles, jump up and down, or even take a break out in the lobby without fear of disrupting the performers or the rest of the audience.
As Limoncelli explained, there are three primary methods through which theaters adjust shows to make them more sensory-friendly: Remove, modulate, and warn. In The Three Javelinas, for example, there is a scene during which the hungry coyote blows down the first little javelina’s tumbleweed home. To make this exciting moment more agreeable to the unique audience, the staff of the Magik used all three methods; they removed light cues that shined into the audience, they lowered the loud sound cue of the house falling, and, at the beginning of the show, they introduced two stage hands who would gently guide the house to the ground.
When the Magik Theatre first initiated sensory-friendly programming, it received funding from Whataburger to make some essential changes to the theater itself. Prior to beginning the sensory presentations in August of 2015, there were no doors between the lobby and the theater. Some children, however, needed a break from the show, a moment to remove themselves from the stimulating environment of a live performance, so doors became a necessity. The Magik also added a television screen in the lobby that broadcasts the action going on inside the theater, so kids (and parents) don’t have to miss a moment of the action.
Still, Limoncelli said, the goal is to keep this version of the show as similar to the non-sensory-friendly versions as possible.
“We want the audience to feel that they’re getting the same great production as any member of the public would get on any given day,” she said. “But, although we do make accommodations in the show to try to prevent any triggering sensory stimuli, for me, the most important part of the experience is that it’s a judgment-free zone.”
Indeed, there were no glares throughout the afternoon when a child loudly called out or when parents were forced to walk in front of other viewers to escort a bouncing toddler out of the theater. The only looks exchanged were knowing smiles and nods of friendly understanding. For a house full of excitable kids, the parents remained remarkably calm.
“The surprise for me was that it isn’t just for the kids,” Limoncelli said of learning about sensory-friendly theater. “It’s for the parents, too. Parents often feel really nervous about having a child with cognitive or intellectual disabilities out in a public place, because if the child does have an episode or gets triggered, then [they often feel] people who don’t understand their child are … judging them. That keeps those families home. They feel isolated.”
Instead, at the beginning of every sensory-friendly event, Limoncelli encourages the audience to “experience the show vocally, physically, get up and move — whatever you need to do.”
Some parents may have worried that children without autism’s experience would be marred by the constant motion in the audience, but that didn’t seem to be the case. As the crowd shuffled out of the theater, several newcomers to the sensory show talked about how much they enjoyed the event.
“We should always come on sensory days,” one mother said.
“He said he liked [the production] better with the lights on,” another mom said of her son, who doesn’t have autism.
Limoncelli acknowledged that this is exactly the response she hopes for after every performance.
“I think some parents might be interested in bringing their children just so they’re exposed to and aware of differently-abled people,” she said. “It’s great to take some of the strangeness or unknown out of people who are different from you and your family.”
The next opportunity for theater-lovers of all ages to experience a sensory-friendly performance will be on April 22, when the Magik Theatre presents The Emperor’s New Threads, but other San Antonio performing arts venues have also been adding sensory-friendly programming to keep up with demand.
In September 2016, the Tobin Center presented a sensory-friendly dance performance after discovering the company had already designed a modified show, and several movie theaters in the city offer sensory-friendly screenings throughout the year. April is Autism Awareness Month, so there’s no better time to introduce kids to these special performances.
“Exposure and awareness is an essential part of any child growing up,” Limoncelli said, “and for them to be able to be laughing along with the same things that differently-abled people are laughing along with or giving hugs to the actors together at the end of the show, I think that helps grow children who are more sensitive, more tolerant, more understanding.
“After all,” she continued, “we’re all here to change the world, aren’t we?”