On July 12, the Hangar Theatre presented the classic tale of “Jack and the Beanstalk” with a new twist – the story was adapted to a sensory sensitive format, making it accessible to children who require a lower sensory performance.
“Jack and the Beanstalk,” directed by Hangar Drama League Directing Fellow Sophia Watt, is the second annual sensory sensitive KIDDSTUFF show Hangar has put on, with last year’s being “Snow White.”
Performances were July 11 through July 13, with a free, sensory sensitive performance on July 12 at 3 p.m. Though only one day was designated for sensory sensitivity, Watt said she and the rest of the crew worked hard to make sure any of the performances would provide the same accommodations.
“I think theaters should be like public libraries – all are welcome,” Watt said. “They are a space for the community, and so to have shows that everyone truly is welcome to, … that’s just not a barrier.”
Thena Gitlin, marketing director at Hangar, said providing proper accommodations is just as beneficial for the audience as it is for Hangar.
“For us, it’s an accessibility issue,” Gitlin said. “We want to make sure that anyone is welcome to come into the theater regardless of any limitations they may have.”
Some of the sensory sensitive changes included starting the show with house lights on and gradually dimming them, introducing all the actors to the audience and who they will be playing prior to the performance, and reducing or eliminating sudden light and sound shifts, Watt said.
Audience members were also permitted to get up and walk around throughout the performance, and Watt said she enjoyed seeing how different audiences react to the show. The free performance helped bring families in as well, she said.
“It is really exciting to see,” Watt said. “That’s a really wonderful thing that the theater provides, that it’s for the whole family. Everyone can come and see this, and I think that’s really unique.”
Adam Zonder, production manager at Hangar Theatre, said in the last five years or so, there has been a pronounced movement in theater to offer sensory sensitive performances all over the country, so Hangar offering this is a long time coming.
“It sort of became ‘how do we make this happen with some of our kids shows?’” he said.
Renee Zonder, Adam’s wife, works at Racker, an agency that serves individuals across the lifespan who have developmental and physical disabilities. She provided a workshop for the crew and actors prior to the performance on how best to make the show meet the needs of the audience, and Watt said she and everyone who helped make the play a reality appreciated the chance to learn.
“This is something we hope happens more in the American theater,” Watt said. “That’s just a good tool for actors to know how to do.”
Adam said he received great feedback from audience members and actors alike, who enjoyed adding another skill to their tool belt.
“The actors were very excited about doing the show, and once they did it, they were even more excited that they had done the show and these families got to experience it,” he said.
Renee said making the entire show accessible to children with higher sensory sensitivity is important because everyone has different needs.
A lot of individuals have either under- or overactive sensory systems, so they may be oversensitive to lights, smells, sounds, etc. or may not perceive that sensory input as typical, she said.
“Everybody lives somewhere on a range of how we perceive the world around us, but for a lot of individuals, the impact of those imbalances or those differences really is impactful in their day-to-day life and makes it more challenging for them to interact with their environment,” she said.
That is why, Renee said, it is a unique and important move for Hangar to provide something like “Jack and the Beanstalk” to a new audience.
“Our main goal with this performance is to provide an environment where families who may not attend the theater or may not attend other community events can come and feel comfortable and feel OK with being out with their family members who may struggle in different sensory environments,” Renee said.
Watt and others agreed that “Jack and the Beanstalk” was a natural fit for both the KIDDSTUFF season and the sensory sensitive show because it is a familiar story with powerful themes.
“I loved the message it gave to children,” Watt said. “Jack was a really great show to do this on because it was so relationship based, … and I thought that was really unique for a children’s show.”Renee said that, as a special education teacher for 12 years, she loves that there has been a recent movement to make theater accessible to children like her students.
“I love seeing former students and other community members being able to come to the theater, sometimes for the first time,” she said.
Adam said these accommodations meshes well with the goals of Hangar and the mindset he has held for a while.
“I firmly believe that kids should see as much theater as possible, and if we have to make any sort of accommodations for them to be able to do it, like creating this show, then let’s do it,” he said.
Gitlin said that, just in the past two performances, she has seen a significant growth in the sensory sensitive program at Hangar, and that is an encouraging sign.
“I do really appreciate that we are able to offer things like this that give people … a chance to come in and get the full arts experience without the anxiety that it could normally cause,” Gitlin said. “This gives us an opportunity to see how many children we can get to the theater and gives families a chance to decide if this is something they want to continue.”
Adam said the free performance was made possible by an anonymous donation. And thanks to a recent grant, Hangar will also have a lending library for sensory sensitivity resources, which include fidget tables and other objects that help those who need them.
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