Sensory-friendly shows at Charleston Stage

Charleston Stage's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" featured a main character on the autism spectrum and offered a sensory-friendly performance. Provided/Charleston Stage 

Parents are forever in search of meaningful experiences to share with their family. Imagine then, how challenging it is when one or more in the brood can’t always sit back and enjoy the show, but instead may feel compelled to make sounds and move around.

For children and adults with autism or disabilities, the standard operating procedure during most live performances makes it virtually impossible for them to attend one. In light of this, some local performing arts practitioners are creating "sensory-friendly" performances customized to this audience, so that they, too, can enjoy Charleston’s vibrant arts scene.

In July, the theater company Cultural Arts Center Charleston presented its first sensory-friendly performance during the run of its “Broadway Rewind.” It came into being during one of the final rehearsals, when a company ensemble member who has two sons on the autism spectrum suggested they dedicate a show to this audience.

“She said, ‘I think it would be a great idea if we offered this because not a lot of places in town do this type of thing, so we decided to try it,” said executive Scott Pfeiffer, who founded the company with Kirk Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer was nervous at first. “I was nervous in the sense that, I hope we do this right and I hope we open the doors to this community in the right way, so they see us as a place where they can be comfortable and where they are welcome.”

The company partnered with Lowcountry Autism Foundation, which provided guidance on the production approach, which is characterized on Cultural Arts Center Charleston’s website as creating performances “designed for children and adults with sensory-input disorders, autism, or other developmental, cognitive and physical disabilities and their families and caretakers.”

According to Pfeiffer, the foundation also provided feedback on modifying the production for the intended audience. This entailed bringing the volume down and dropping the intensity of the lighting. Also, since these audience members, at times, want to move around during performances, the company added stanchions across its proscenium line in case of wanderers.

“One of their representatives came and talked to the cast about what to expect,” Pfeiffer said. “They also created these social stories to help the parent or caregiver to explain to the audience member what they’re going to experience.“

The stories, which are shared with the audience members beforehand, include photographs of the venue, its entrance and theater seats to help guide patrons. The foundation also helped with community outreach to their family network, resulting in 28 families attending the show, a turnout that Pfeiffer says pleased both partners.

“It’s such a sensitive topic that has to be handled in such a specific way,” Pfeiffer said.

Charleston Stage has, for the past two years, made significant efforts in this area, after being awarded a Boeing Vision Award from Charleston Regional Alliance for the Arts to fund sensory-friendly performances. These usually take place on Saturday mornings during the run of the show.

“It’s really great, because of some of these kids like to respond to everything, so it’s very hard to even take them to a public movie,” said Julian Wiles, founder and producing artistic director of Charleston Stage. ”Families seem very happy that there is a place for them to come to, as well.”

Charleston Stage tends to create special performances for family shows, such as last year’s “Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!” Last season, they also presented “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a play by Simon Stephens that is based on the Mark Haddon novel centered around a young man who has an unnamed autism spectrum disorder. The production offered Charleston audiences a deeper understanding of fellow community members, both through its subject matter and the interaction with audience members at the designated performance.

“The set was made of floating letters and numbers that were all jumbled,” Wiles said. “One of the young people that was about 12 or 13 said, ‘That’s what it looks like when I read.’”

Charleston Stage also tones down house lights and noise levels, and forgoes strobe lights if they are part of the production. There are no assigned seats at the performances, so audience members are free to roam about. Additional ushers, many of whom are special-needs teachers, are enlisted to assist individuals who make their way to the lobby.

“They can respond however they want to,” said Wiles, who adds that these performances are also geared to accommodate families with younger children who may not be able to quietly sit through a show. By encouraging the general public to attend the performances, the company can shed light on what it means to be on the spectrum, which is in keeping with Charleston Stage’s long-standing commitment to inclusivity.

“It’s very much a work in progress,” Wiles said. “We’re still trying to find the best ways to reach out to these folks and to tailor our performances to them, as well.”

Other sensory-friendly shows at the Dock Street have gone beyond theatrical productions. Acclaimed pianist Stephen Prutsman, a chamber music regular and founder of the California-based nonprofit group called Autism Fun, presented one of his specially created Azure concerts in Charleston during Spoleto Festival USA in 2016.

Local audiences regularly enjoy performances by way of the nonprofit organization HEART, which presents productions as part of its mission of offering visual arts, music and performing arts mentorships, as well as community engagement, for adults with special needs.

As for these local theater companies, both plan to continue to offer sensory-friendly performances throughout their scheduled seasons. These will be announced at a later date.

“That kind of outreach is 100 percent a part of our mission,” said Pfeiffer, adding the minute the doors opened, the excitement was proof positive of the performance’s success. “We can achieve it, and it will be appreciated and it will be fostered.”

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Follow Maura Hogan on Twitter at @msmaurahogan.

Maura Hogan is the arts critic at The Post and Courier. She has previously written about arts, culture and lifestyle for The New York Times, Gourmet, Garden & Gun, among other publications.