Pacific Northwest Ballet’s afternoon performance of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” on Dec. 21 will feel a bit different from a typical production. On stage, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Mouse King and the growing Christmas tree will perform as usual, but audience members will notice changes in the theater: the house lights will be kept on at a low level; use of electronics will be allowed (with headphones), as well as talking or walking around during the performance; and there will be special quiet areas throughout the theater for those who need to step out. These modifications are for PNB’s first sensory-friendly performance, intended to provide a supportive environment for audience members with autism and other sensory processing disorders.
“It’s been on our radar for a long time,” said PNB chief marketing and advancement officer Lia Chiarelli, on a Zoom call this month. PNB community engagement fellow Gabriela Shutt said that for the company’s most family-friendly ballet, it was important to create a space where families can come together, with all members “feeling included and welcome.”
Though this is the first sensory-friendly production at PNB, such events are not new to the Seattle arts community. Dr. Daniela Ferdico, neuropsychologist and co-founder of the local company Sensory Access, has been helping arts organizations adapt their offerings for neurodiverse audiences since 2017. Those who benefit from such performances, she said, aren’t just people on the autism spectrum, but those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disorders, dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy and other neurological issues; in other words, a large portion of the population who happen to process information differently, but for whom an evening at the theater is — as for anyone — a treat.
Ferdico, who has a son on the autism spectrum, said that she co-founded her company with her daughter after noticing that many families like hers weren’t able to make it through a typical theatrical performance. Something would happen — bright lights, a sudden loud noise, extreme darkness — that created too much of an impact for people with sensory disorders, who can easily become overwhelmed.
Her company now helps arts organizations on two levels: assisting with the details of a sensory-friendly performance (which includes training the staff to understand the needs of neurodiverse patrons) — or, if that’s not feasible, working with them to create a sensory guide to the production, so that families and individuals attending know exactly what to expect. (Though the company is locally based, Ferdico and her team are consulted all over the world; recently, she’s been working with the organizers of Expo 2020 to help create the first sensory-accessible World’s Fair in Dubai.)
One such organization is Seattle Theatre Group, which after working with Sensory Access is now committed to offering a sensory guide to all of its Broadway touring shows, said STG director of education and community engagement Marisol Sanchez Best. And it has presented special sensory-friendly performances for two recent shows: “The Lion King” and “Frozen.” For the former, strobe lights were removed from the production, as well as numerous adaptations made for the audience’s comfort (similar to that described for “The Nutcracker”).
“We heard from so many families, of how grateful they were that we took a leap in doing these types of performances,” Best said. “That families could come as a unit — not just the individual with disabilities, but the sister and brother and cousin and grandma as a unit can experience this, it was just unbelievable.” There is not yet a sensory-friendly performance scheduled for STG’s next round of Broadway tours, but “we’re working on it.”
Other Seattle-area organizations that have presented sensory-friendly performances include Seattle Children’s Theatre (which offers one such performance for every mainstage show in its season), Seattle Shakespeare Company, Taproot Theatre, Village Theatre, Seattle Symphony, Capitol Hill Block Party, The Showbox and others.
After dipping a (pointed) toe into the waters with “The Nutcracker,” Pacific Northwest Ballet hopes to continue to present sensory-friendly experiences for audiences. Shutt said the company is considering a sensory-friendly performance of “Swan Lake” next year — “we’re very early in the research to make that happen” — as well as the all-ages “Beauty and the Beast.”
Ferdico noted how fast change is happening in this area: In recent years, more and more arts organizations are looking into making their programs more accessible to the neurodiverse community. One result of the pandemic, she said, is that “for a year and a half … every person was unable to attend an event or go to the theater or experience live music, and everyone has realized how difficult that was. I’m hoping people now realize that some people still don’t get to do this — they never get to do this — because of how inaccessible it is.”
Jill Rogers, who runs an arts program for adults with developmental disabilities at the local nonprofit Friendship Adventures, brought one of her classes to both “The Lion King” and “Frozen” as volunteer helpers, and observed the many families attending. “Tears came to my eyes several times seeing these families — kids were all dolled up,” she said, noting what a rare treat it was. Normally, she said, “you can’t even go to a movie if you have a child who’s going to get up and yell … [At STG] there were several kids who were making noise but they were in good company, nobody looked at them. It was just really special that they could experience the show.”