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UVU offering sensory-friendly performances of children’s theater

The house lights were kept on, the sound level was lowered and fewer tickets were purposely sold for the Saturday afternoon showing of Spicer W. Carr’s hour-long children’s operetta, “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

As a writer and composer on the autism spectrum, Carr considers it poetic justice that a sensory-friendly performance of his show was done so children on the spectrum could attend without getting sensory overload.

“I think it is awesome now that individuals who were like me when I was younger see what I wrote and perhaps see it in a way I would have liked to see it myself,” said Carr, a senior at Utah Valley University in Orem.

“Jack and the Beanstalk” is the fifth show UVU’s Theatre, Youth and Education Center, or TYE Center, has put on a sensory-friendly performance for. The first show with a sensory-friendly performance, “New Kid,” happened about a year ago after Kynsie Kiggins, the outreach coordinator for the TYE Center, was sent to Washington, D.C. by the center’s director for a conference and was instructed to meet with experts on sensory-friendly performances while she was there.

She came back to Orem and met with the Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism at UVU for advice on how to make performances sensory friendly.

Kiggins said the modifications are simple, like toning down dramatic lighting, keeping the house lights on, requesting actors to tone down their energy and minimizing loud noises or surprises. The theater also makes a social story pamphlet, which explains how to get to the theater, what might be along the way and shows actors in and out of their costumes.

She’s heard of other theaters that have ushers hold up glow sticks during the show to signal a surprise is coming.

The sensory-friendly performances are open to children being able to get up and move around during the show, or be loud.

“The kids seem to have a little bit more freedom to just be kids,” Kiggins said.

Only two children with autism attended the first sensory-friendly performance. But despite that turnout, the theater kept including the autism-friendly performances of children’s’ shows and has seen more children with autism attend.

“I think anything that is important, it is best to go with it and give it time to grow instead of give up on it,” Kiggins said. “The interest is there, and the families who would benefit from these performances, they are there. It is just a matter of time and educating them that we are here.”

The center hopes the university could eventually add sensory-friendly performances for adult shows as well.

Carr, who was diagnosed at the age of 5, was an usher for the sensory-friendly performance of “New Kid.” He’d previously heard about sensory-friendly performances that are done on Broadway.

He remembers being overwhelmed by the special effects or lighting in shows when he was a child.

For “Jack and the Beanstalk,” he purposely wrote in repetitive music and motifs, things that as someone on the spectrum he appreciates.

Sensory-friendly performances, Spicer said, helps people across the autism spectrum have better theater experiences.

The Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism has helped promote the shows and has analyzed the rehearsals for sensory needs.

“There’s just a need for some of our families and children to access things they haven’t been able to,” said Laurie Bowen, the associate director of community outreach for the autism center.

She said a sensory-friendly performance can give children the chance to express themselves and be loud during a performance. The opportunity can also break down a barrier for families of children with autism to attend performances.

“I think some families still don’t go, because it’s too hard or manageable,” Bowen said. “We are trying to help with that, trying to make sure this is a place where they can come.”

The next sensory-friendly performance will be in March.

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