Making Sense: Local theaters strive for accessibility with sensory-friendly performances

On July 21, some of the Wharton Center’s typical theater house rules will be a bit relaxed. Patrons will be allowed to eat snacks, look at phones and move around the theater during this production of Disney’s The Lion King.

Welcome to a sensory-friendly performance, the third of Wharton’s 2017-2018 season. These performances were created in collaboration with Michigan State University community partners like Residential Options, Inc. to make live theater accessible to those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), developmental disabilities, sensory processing disorder, and other sensory-sensitive people and their families. 

“We had been wanting to do it for years,” said Diane Willcox, Wharton Center’s director of marketing & communications who is leading the SFP program. “This was really prompted by the fact that Disney is supportive of the program … and willing to allow us to put on a sensory-friendly performance of The Lion King while they are here.”

So while the show onstage will be the same Broadway performance seen by millions around the world, there will be noticeable differences off the stage to accommodate the needs of their audience.

For example, the lights onstage and in the theater will never go fully black. Some of the sound cues have been removed or dampened. Guests can print off helpful documents before the performance, such as a “social story,” which explains what they can expect during the theater experience via pictures and text, or a character guide, which has photos identifying each character.

The Wharton Center also will provide quiet spaces and calming rooms, a very large number of volunteers (some of whom are professionals in the ASD field), and staff that has been trained for this specific event.

“It’s really just a time for us to welcome an audience that sometimes isn’t welcome in public spaces and to be very accepting of whatever behaviors they need to have in order to be comfortable,” Willcox said.

One other major way these performances differ: an extremely flexible refund policy.

The Wharton Center allows refunds for their sensory-friendly performances, as long as they are contacted within 10 days of the performance the patrons were scheduled to or attempted to attend. They just have to explain what happened and return the tickets.

“It is a situation that is unheard of and it’s only for this audience, because they are really hesitant to make a commitment like this,” she said. “We recognize the fact that it’s a unique situation, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do.”

But on the days families do attend these performances, it can be life-changing, like it was for Michele Tucker’s family.

Tucker’s 8-year-old daughter, Josalin, is non-verbal. This July, the family will mark The Lion King as their third sensory-friendly performance at the Wharton Center. They also attended Cat in the Hat and Clementine as an entire family—a rare experience.

“Our first performance was Cat in the Hat, and I’ll be honest, we were really nervous because we had never been able to go anywhere like that with our daughter. She usually is just like, ‘No, I’m not feeling that,’” Tucker said. “Then, when we went, we were just blown away.”

She described it as a perfect theater experience because they were treated like any other theater patron. They got to escape in an environment that was planned for families like theirs to feel safe and enjoy their time, judgment-free.

Tucker also said it can be harder to hone in on what Josalin enjoys compared to her son, who is involved in athletics. But at these performances, she clearly lit up and Tucker was able to see her enthusiasm and pure joy.

“I’m just like, ‘How much can I pay?’” Tucker said, laughing. “Where do I sign up? I’m drinking the Kool Aid — you have me. I hope that this is the forefront to bring other sensory-friendly programs to our community.”

The Wharton Center hopes so as well. The 2018-2019 season will have four sensory-friendly performances, two public performances and two where schools will be selected to attend.

Other West Michigan organizations are ramping up inclusivity efforts as well. Celebration! Cinema and West Michigan University Theatre have offered sensory friendly events, and Miller Auditorium is planning to do so as well.

As a marketing director, Willcox realizes the number of people with ASD is ever-increasing, so the Wharton Center wants to add more disciplines to the sensory-friendly program, such as dance performances. There also are talks about broadening their scope to not just family productions, but multi-week Broadway shows as well.

“It’s something that there’s such a great need for. It’s been a beautiful experience,” Willcox said. “Honestly, I think it’s probably the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

The Lion King
Sensory-friendly performance:
Sat. July 21, 2 p.m.
July 11-29