Savannah Ballet Theatre’s Abby McCuen is making theater more inclusive with sensory-friendly performances.
It’s a rite of passage: taking a child to their first ballet and watching a little face light up as a tutu-clad dancer glides by en pointe. But for children who are neurodiverse—that is, they have autism, dyslexia, ADHD, Tourette syndrome, or other sensory differences—going to the ballet can be simply overwhelming. There’s the loud music, the riot of color, the darkened theater. But a new trend, called low-sensory performances or sensory-friendly performances, makes ballet and other theater performances accessible.
“Ballet is for all people,” says Abby McCuen firmly. She’s the behind-the-scenes director for the Savannah Ballet Theatre. She spearheaded the creation of SBT’s low-sensory programming for children with sensitivity disorders.
In December 2019, SBT premiered a low-sensory version of The Nutcracker for local students. The entire orchestra performed without their usual microphones; instead of crashing her cymbals, the percussionist muffled her instrument. Lighting was different too: The house lights stayed on, and there were only very subtle lighting changes onstage.
Part of the prep for The Nutcracker’s low-sensory show included a frank conversation with the ballet company, says McCuen. Dancers were free to ask questions about the format. “Our choreographer explained that people with autism sometimes make noises when they are excited, and that it’s not a bad thing; it means they are stimulated. It’s all about bringing awareness.”
SBT also hosted behind-the-scenes tours, where visually impaired patrons could enjoy an exploration of the costumes and props used in the show.
“I’m a parent, and as parents, sometimes we think kids just know things and how to process emotions,” observes McCuen, “but you have to teach them. You can’t expect people to know what to do at the theater if they haven’t been.” After the performance, McCuen says, “the parents of the children were coming up to me and saying they had never had the opportunity to take their child to the ballet. The teachers who had brought their classes said it was exactly what they thought it would be, which is great—because that meant we had done our homework.”
The SBT often presents ballet interpretations of classics like The Little Mermaid as a way to connect with young audiences. A low-sensory performance of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was put on hold due to COVID-19. McCuen is hoping, in December, there will be a free performance of The Nutcracker for students with sensory disorders. “We just got a generous donation from a grandparent of a child who had gone to our show and said, ‘Please, keep doing these.’”
This inclusive programming is part of a bigger trend spreading throughout the dance and theater worlds. Orlando Repertory Theatre, for example, has performed modified sensory-friendly shows for children with autism spectrum disorder. Michigan State University’s Department of Theatre produced a first-of-its-kind play, called Farm! A Musical Experience written specifically for neurodiverse audiences. The New York City Ballet has led movement workshops especially for children with autism, which include a quiet space area. (Autism Speaks lists sensory-friendly performances all over the country.)
Being inclusive, says McCuen, means inviting people of all backgrounds into the world of dance, music, and the stage. Having the programming at SBT is, she says, “an honor.”
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