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Sensory-Friendly Shows Cater To Exceptional Crowds

Children's Theatre offers toned-down versions of productions

A staff member holds glow signals to keep kids informed during Theatre Charlotte's sensory-friendly shows
A staff member holds glow signals to keep kids informed during a sensory-friendly performance of ‘My Wonderful Birthday suit.’ (Photo by Perry Tannenbaum)

Tyler made a surprising and daring decision at ImaginOn before attending the Sunday matinee of My Wonderful Birthday Suit

His mom, Ilana, had been sure Tyler would want to wear noise-canceling headphones at the performance, so I had to assure her that Children’s Theatre would be offering them prior to the show. Otherwise, she would need to pack his set of headphones before they flew in from El Paso and make sure he had them when they left their hotel.

But Tyler refused the headphones that were available — in a really cool variety of colors, it should be mentioned — at the entrance of McColl Family Theatre. Instead, he chose a day-glo green worm, about eight inches long, from a wide array of fidgets and weighted cuddles on display. His younger sister, Brynn, chose a little spotted Dalmatian doggie that weighed five pounds. More surprises.

Tyler had to live with his choice. Now when Oobladee and Oobladah, best friends on this side of Moonbeam, started blowing up balloons for the surprise birthday party they were planning for Shebopshebe, Oobladee’s bestie from the other side of Moonbeam … Tyler covered his ears with both hands, dreading the moment when a balloon would suddenly explode.

Yet he didn’t cower or turn away. He didn’t run for cover. His blue eyes remained glued to the stage.

I was sure that none of the balloons would explode. Even though I hadn’t seen this show before, I could see that, sitting in front of the stage, “Tree” (resident teaching artist Kaitlin Gentry) hadn’t raised her two green glow sticks, the signal that “sensory-rich” moments were around the corner. 

Anybody who had downloaded the Parent’s Guide from the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte website would also know that the balloons were “being blown up and let go, but they do not pop or make much sound.”

Tyler’s attention never wavered after the balloon scare, but he didn’t remain completely quiet. 

After that point, Gloria Bond Clunie’s Birthday Suit script becomes heavier and more emotional. When Shebopshebe shows up from the other side of the rainbow, Oobladah is shocked to discover that Oobladee’s other best friend is brown. From the start, when he points at Shebopshebe and says, “You’re brown!” it doesn’t sound at all like a description — and she hears that clearly.

The pointing and the tone get meaner, more hateful, overtly racist. 

“People say that brown skin is …,” Oobladah stammers, leaning over a ledge and pointing an accusing finger down at Shebopshebe. He’s heard whispers that “you know…” and finally he blurts out, “together — we should not play!”

You might think the two girls would be furious. Instead, they’re both rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically.

“On the Other Side of Moonbeam, we play all the time!” Shebopshebe responds once she and Oobladee have caught their breaths.

And this is where Tyler breaks his silence, in a voice loud enough for Mom sitting next to him to hear (it’s also loud enough for me — his grandpa — to hear, sitting two seats away, next to his sister.

“That’s not funny!” Tyler calls out.

Nobody turns around to shush him. Nobody glares. At all of Children’s Theatre’s sensory-friendly shows, autistic 9-year-olds like Tyler are free to call out, fidget, roam around the theater, cower in a corner, or find refuge in a quiet room, where they can still watch and hear all the comedy and drama with their parents.

That’s really the point: they’re free to be themselves without being judged.

Creating a safe space

Julie Higginbotham of Precious Developments has been overseeing the sensory-friendly shows at Children’s Theatre since 2016, when ImaginOn’s new project was still a pioneering rarity. 

Now, every run of Children’s Theatre’s mainstage shows gets a sensory-friendly performance at its closing Sunday matinee. That includes the upcoming Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, opening Nov. 6 and running through Nov. 14.

“It’s a big deal!” Higginbotham often says — because it’s so true in so many ways.

She’s preparing actors, directors, designers, technicians and ushers for the special performance — as well as carefully preparing printed and online guides for protective parents and surprise-averse children. This involves meeting face-to-face with the stage manager, the stage director, the musical director and the actors. 

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba
Each Children’s Theatre production, like the upcoming ‘Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba,’ offers at least one sensory-friendly show. (Courtesy of Children’s Theatre of Charlotte)

Higginbotham also attends the designers’ run-through, dress rehearsals and performances during the run of the show, where she scribbles over the Children’s Theatre director of production Steven Levine’s script, containing all the light and sound cues.

Where should the volume on the mics be turned down? Where should a scream be changed into a loud exclamation? Where should a live gunshot effect be changed into a muffled recording? Where must a scene with strobe effects — almost automatically a two-light-cue alert — be redesigned to curb triggers that could be hazardous to seizure-prone kids?

Amid the final tweaks to lights and sounds happening during the run of the show, Higginbotham takes hundreds of photos — because the Parent’s Guide and the Child’s Guide are also illustrated full-color scenarios that prepare audiences for what they will see. That’s helpful when a stage adaptation or a set design significantly departs from an original book that kids and their parents are already familiar with.

She also annotates the script for “Tree” so she can closely follow and precisely time her one-light and two-light cues. 

Higginbotham remained involved in the last 90 minutes before the sensory-friendly show and even while “Tree” was upfront waving her traffic-control glow sticks.

Grandpa had to rise and shine a couple of hours earlier than Ilana and the grandkids to witness Higginbotham’s final preps for My Wonderful Birthday Suit.

First came the final powwow with the actors, lighting crew and “Tree.” Actors portraying Oobladee, Oobladah and Shebopshebe all received Higginbotham’s final notes and reinforcements, with opportunities to air last-minute questions and concerns. 

Then the reconfigured “REWIND” scene — Shebopshebe’s brilliant and zany answer to the contrite Oobladah’s wish to “begin again” — was rehearsed and rerun without the strobes.

As the three actors exited and changed into their costumes, makeup and matching masks (since ImaginOn is a public building, masks are worn by actors during performances), Higginbotham ascended the long lobby ramp to the top level of McColl Family Theatre. Time to prep the ushering staff, a mix of vets and newbies overseen by volunteer coordinator Louise Lawson.

Some ushering basics are turned on their head at sensory-friendly shows. Ushers don’t simply show you to your seat, retreat to anonymity, and maybe sit back and enjoy the show themselves. They’re actively engaged in helping to ensure this special audience will enjoy their experience before the show and during the show.

Audience members don’t have a seat. With open, socially distanced seating, they have any seat. If say, they run up to the front of the house and find out that the sensory onslaught is too intense there, they can move back as far as they wish to any empty seat.

What ushers pay closest attention to is the kids’ needs. That’s how my Tyler had extra backup during the little balloon scare that his mom may not have been aware of. Ushers were armed with the same fidgets, cuddly dogs, sunglasses and headphones that Tyler was offered when he came in, standing at the ready, spread throughout the theater, instructed to come to his aid if they noticed he was constantly putting his hands over his ears and flinching.

Ushers at sensory-friendly shows are trained to pay closest attention to kids’s needs
Children’s Theater Ushers are trained to pay closest attention to kids’ needs at sensory-friendly shows. (Photo by Perry Tannenbaum)

“The biggest thing,” Higginbotham emphasizes to the volunteers, “is this: A lot of these families are overlooked, or they get stares. Our job is to actually see these folks, make eye contact, engage with everyone. If their communication style is one you don’t understand, that’s OK. Say, ‘Hello. We are really, really glad that you are here. What can we do for you? Can we show you to your seats? This is an amazing production, and we want to make sure you guys have a good time.’”

Any questions? Higginbotham is there to answer ushers’ concerns before and during the show, supervising the operation over a headset from the rear of the hall. Like a second stage manager.

A look at ‘Tropical Secrets’

Higginbotham’s meeting with Laura Beth Lee, the actual stage manager for Tropical Secrets, gave me a close-up view of how making shows sensory-friendly begins — and a rewarding overview of the Precious Developments methodology.

The situation was somewhat surreal for this reviewer, since Higginbotham had not yet read the L M Feldman stage adaptation of Margarita Engle’s young-adult verse novel. I’d covered the original webcast premiere back in March, but there were never any live shows and no sensory-friendly editions. 

The same cast, starring Adrian Thornburg as the Jewish boy Daniel and Isabel Gonzalez as Cuban native Paloma, are back with director David Winitsky. But Lee will be new to Cuba behind the scenes.

New wrinkles will confront everyone involved, however, since the production is moving from the McColl Theatre at the east side of ImaginOn to Wells Fargo Playhouse on the west, with a shrunken, more abstract set design customized for the new venue. 

Before Higginbotham and Lee met in the “Lizard Room” on Oct. 20, the returning cast had already rehearsed on the new set, likely because there hadn’t been a live show at the Playhouse since January 2020.

As the title indicates, Tropical Secrets is very much about this world — historical racism rather than the Moonbeam brand. With the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht falling on Nov. 9, during the run of the show, Engle’s story will be very much in season. 

We begin with that cataclysmic 1938 event in Nazi Germany, which prompts Daniel’s family to rush the 11-year-old onto an ocean liner bound for New York, where they all plan to reunite and live happily ever after. Except the United States turns the ship away from its ports — all of them — because there are Jews on board. Canada does the same. Hello, Havana! How in this wide world will Daniel’s family find their boy now?

Miracles aren’t likely here, and you can rule out rewinds. Meanwhile, with little more than an overcoat and a flute, little Daniel must find ways to survive and fit in. 

Paloma and Daniel bridge the gap between languages and cultures far more easily than their elders, but Daniel finds a link to his heritage in crusty old David, played by Tom Scott, a Yiddish-speaking ice cream vendor who sports a gaudy yarmulke.

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba
‘Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba,’ opens Nov. 6 and runs through Nov. 14. (Photo courtesy of Children’s Theatre of Charlotte)

“It’s also a very emotional show,” Lee tells Higginbotham, “a Holocaust show, so you’ve got police officers who are bursting in and yelling, there’s scary emotional outburst moments, so I can definitely see that there are these big impactful things.”

Together with our dip into Yiddish and repeated Judaic references, Paloma has her own story — and considerable depths. She is our gateway into Cuban culture and the Afro-Cuban beat. Daniel will discard his flute for a drum and jam with percussionist Raphael Torn, who will also play the vibraphone. Topping that outbreak of rhythm and dance, there’s a full-fledged carnival scene.

There is sensory richness aplenty in Tropical Secrets — and the kid protagonists are sharp. Explaining to Paloma what living Jewish was like back in Munich, Daniel says, “In Germany, you have to wear a star on your shirt, so everyone can know what you are and hate you for it.”

Played by Frank Dominguez, Paloma’s dad is El Gordo, the notorious decider of which ships are allowed to dock in Havana and which are turned away. 

Defending his wartime profiteering, El Gordo schools his daughter: “The world runs on business!” With no less conviction, Paloma looks her dad straight in the eye and fires back, “The world runs on kindness!”

A whole new preparation

Impactful as Tropical Secrets will be, part of Higginbotham’s job will be to prep the able actors onstage for what to expect from their ultra-sensitive, surprise-averse audience — especially when volume has been trimmed to 75% or less and houselights turned down to half. 

They will see their audience more clearly than they did at previous performances. There will be fewer kids out there, socially distanced and maybe moving around or fidgeting. It may be jarring to look out into the audience and see kids talking back to the actors or wearing headphones. Or holding their hands over their ears. Or not making eye contact. They might not even clap.

Parents will need to show proof of vaccination to enter the Wells for Tropical Secrets, but they won’t need to bring doctor’s notes or medical records for any sensory-friendly shows. Nor will it be an entirely special-needs crowd.

Perry Tannenbaum's grandson, Tyler, watches 'My Wonderful Birthday Suit.'
The author’s grandson, Tyler, watches ‘My Wonderful Birthday Suit.’ (Photo by Perry Tannenbaum)

“Some folks prefer the softer presentation,” Higginbotham explains. “Some parents feel it gives their kids more freedom, and some folks can only get tickets for the Sunday matinee.”

If all goes according to plan, Higginbotham’s guides for parents and children will go out to all ticketholders on Nov. 8, giving families six days to prepare.

Ilana was impressed by both Birthday Suit guides, but she didn’t see them as particularly useful for her Tyler, whom she describes as falling in the mild-to-moderate range of the autistic spectrum. Medication also helps him in tolerating sensory irritants.

“I don’t think Brynn or Tyler would’ve benefited,” Ilana says of the illustrated guide, “and it may actually have detracted from their experience. In children’s theatre, anything that dampens the surprise and wonder of a performance wouldn’t be optimal for my kids. And the show itself didn’t have anything too jarring (sensory-wise) that we would’ve needed to warn him about.”

On the other hand, My Wonderful Birthday Suit was far more palatable to Tyler than his previous theatre experience at Sesame Street Live! in 2019.

“Brynn loved it, but it was too loud and glitzy for Tyler,” Mom recalls. “Crazy loud, confetti storm, etc. We had to buy him off with a snow cone to get him through it.”

Higginbotham points out that the guides aren’t merely handy in preparing kids for sensory-friendly shows, they also help in revisiting and remembering what they’ve seen. That can happen soon after the theatre experience is over or before the next theatre experience, when parents want to pique their children’s interest and anticipation.

“I showed Tyler the Child’s Guide,” Ilana wrote me, “and he was very excited and asked if you had sent pictures of the stage. Then he asked if I could send him screenshots of his three favorite pictures. Why? ‘Because they’re beautiful!’”

Unforeseen as that reaction might be, it’s what Higginbotham aims for.

“People need the freedom to be exactly who they need to be,” she says, “and to be able to feel like they’re supported. And man, we can’t predict everything, but we try. They need a non-judgment zone that I defend to the death. How can I help you be you? That’s my job.”

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