The thunderous music and dazzling lights of a live theatrical performance can be a challenge for families with special needs children who are more sensitive to bright lights and loud noises than those around them.
So the Broward Center for the Performing Arts has begun offering special performances designed for people with sensory processing and autism spectrum disorders.
Sensory performances include a special introduction to the show by one of the actors, lower sound volumes and continuous house lighting so the theater never gets completely dark.
At a recent sensory performance of “Madagascar: A Musical Adventure,” Rick Peña took the stage before the show began.
“I am an actor, and I play Alex the lion,” he told the Broward County students in the audience. “I’m not really a lion, but I’m pretending to be one in the show. And the same thing with the noises you hear in the audience: Sometimes you’re going to hear some sounds. They’re not necessarily real; they’re being controlled by someone in the back.”
The children laughed as Peña showed them his toothbrush prop and cheered as he ran off the stage to start the show.
Special needs met
During sensory-friendly shows, the Broward Center has special ushers who provide noise-cancelling headphones and fidget devices for those who need them. A quiet room is also open for families to take a break on bean bag chairs and get some snacks and water.
“We keep an eye on the audiences from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave to make sure that any special needs are met,” said Jan Goodheart, the vice president of external affairs for the Broward Center.
The usual request to put away your cell phones is not made during sensory performances, she said. Families are welcome to use iPads and cell phones as a calming device, as long as they are muted.
“And if children get up and out of their seats and want to walk the aisles, we don’t discourage that. We actually create an environment where children are free to be more mobile and not sit quietly in their seats throughout the performance,” she said.
The Broward Center even saves a block of “solution seats” to allow families to switch seats if they find they are too close or too far from the stage, she said.
The performances themselves are also adjusted, said Patrick Fitzwater, the artistic director of Slow Burn Theatre Company, which has produced most of the sensory-friendly shows at the Broward Center, including “Madagascar” and, early next year, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”
Strobe lights and loud noises are avoided, he said, and subjects such as death get a gentler treatment. Also, actors avoid going into the audience during the sensory shows.
The results have been rewarding, he said, because the audience is so appreciative.
Orin Mayer, a special education teacher at Bennett Elementary in Fort Lauderdale, brought his students to see “Madagascar.”
“My students don’t often get the opportunity to go to the theater, so this is a good chance for them,” he said. “They enjoy it, and our students who are the most special seem to enjoy it the most,” he said. “The shows hit them at an emotional level. … They are able to pick up on that so much easier than academics.”
The Broward Center works to makes the sensory-friendly show a success before guests even arrive, with a character guide that is sent to attendees before the show, and a video designed to familiarize theatergoers with the venue before they arrive. Goodheart said.a grant program reduces the price of the sensory performance tickets, opening another door for families.
If you go
The sensory-friendly performance of “Madagascar: A Musical Adventure” is sold out on Sunday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, but future sensory performances are planned, including Art Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker” in December and “Charlie Brown” in March. For more information, visit browardcenter.org/group/detail/sensory-friendly-performance.