‘Come As You Are’: Stage One’s First Sensory-Friendly Performance

A.A. Milne’s “The House at Pooh Corner” boasts one of the most beloved cast of characters in children’s literature – good-hearted Winnie the Pooh and his chum Christopher Robin, and all of their pals, like wise Owl, mopey Eeyore and timid Piglet. In the stage adaptation, now running at Stage One Family Theatre, most kids are delighted when bouncy Tigger makes his boisterous first entrance. But those kinds of loud surprises can be jarring for a child with autism or other sensory sensitivities.

Indeed, attending a live theater performance, with all of its expected traditional etiquette – silence from the audience, sitting still in the dark in an assigned seat for an hour or more, not knowing what to expect next – can present big challenges for kids on the autism spectrum. Following the lead of theaters in Washington, D.C. and New York City, Stage One  aims to relax those rules a bit to make their upcoming public performance of “The House at Pooh Corner” more friendly to children with sensory sensitivities and their families.

In the sensory-friendly performance on October 12, ushers will give kids and their families a heads-up with glow sticks before big shifts like Tigger's entrance happen on stage, so the kids have time to adjust.  It’s a technique the staff picked up from the Broadway production of Disney’s “The Lion King,” which didn’t have much flexibility in how the show presented on stage, so most adaptations had to take place on the audience side.

“Most of the changes [for the sensory-friendly performance] are environmental,” says associate education director Talleri McRae. 

McRae hopes these accommodations will signal to families that kids with sensory sensitivities are welcome to come as they are.

“Those families are often looking for things to do, not just with their child who has autism or a sensory sensitivity, but also as a family. We sensed that there is a big demand for a family outing in a place where everyone can spend time together and everyone can feel comfortable,” says McRae.  “We imagine the demand for these programs will continue to grow as the autism community in Louisville discovers that we’re there and we’re offering a really welcoming environment.”

Stage One worked with the Kentucky Autism Training Center to create a variety of accommodations to make the theater experience more welcoming.  On October 12, the Bomhard Theater will not be filled or completely dark. Patrons can select their own seats and enter and exit the theater during the show.

“Those students and individuals who come are able to move freely throughout the space, they are able to make noise, and they’re invited to do so, and the cast and staff at the Kentucky Center will expect that and be prepared for that,” says McRae.

“We’ve also provided a space for them if they need to take a break from the performance,” she adds. “They’re able to move to a separate space in the Kentucky Center and take some time to relax and do some calming activities. If they’re feeling ready to come and join the performance they can, but that’s not an expectation. They can come and make themselves as comfortable as they need to.”

A variety of materials are also available on the Stage One website to help families prepare visual cues and expectations before they arrive at the theater.

“A lot of time when you have a sensory sensitivity, knowing what to expect next is really important,” says McRae. “There’s not any anxiety coming to that new space because they’ve had the preparation, so they know what to expect.”

The sensory-friendly public performance of “The House at Pooh Corner” is Saturday, October 12 at 11 a.m.  Traditional public performances are also scheduled for 2 p.m. on October 12, and October 19 (11 a.m. and 2 p.m.). 

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