A man sits in an aisle seat with a notepad on his lap, ready to take notes on the sensory experience of watching “Peter Pan and Wendy.”
In a theater packed with kids, the man will note the moments when the lights might flash too quickly, the sound might be too loud or an action might be too surprising.
This is the first step in occupational therapist Roger Ideishi’s role in helping Imagination Stage produce a sensory-friendly performance.
Sensory-friendly shows are for families with children on the autism spectrum and/or with other sensory, social or learning needs.
Many of the families can’t attend regular performances because of society’s reaction to their children’s actions, said Diane Nutting, director of access and inclusion at Imagination Stage. Imagination Stage, in Bethesda, ran four shows of this type during its 2012-13 season.
“These shows let families be who they are,” she said.
Imagination Stage helps families prepare for shows by giving them guidelines, known as “social stories,” on how to pick up tickets, where the bathrooms are and how the theater looks.
On the day of the event, families are told what will happen during the play. There are suggestions for what the children can do if they are scared or surprised. “If the music is too loud for me I can cover my ears, put on my headphones or hug my mom or dad,” the guidelines say.
Ideishi doesn’t change the script for sensory-friendly performances, but he adds clarity.
In a meeting with members of the Imagination Stage team after watching “Peter Pan and Wendy,” Ideishi discussed making the message clearer for the audience. Instead of implying that the actors want the audience to answer a question or tell them what to do, he said they should specifically ask questions such as, “What should I do next?”
Ideishi also recommended providing background on the “Peter Pan” story to the audience during or before the show to give context.
When selling tickets for the show, Imagination Stage leaves empty seats around families to allow easy movement if necessary.
Some children stand close to the stage, leaning in to absorb the play, Nutting said. A child once ran around the audience for a whole show, taking breaks once in a while to watch the actors.
“It’s a hodgepodge of reactions,” Nutting said. “There’s no textbook case of how these children will react to the play.”
The key, she said, is preparation for the families and the actors.
Actors learn about what they might hear or see in the audience while onstage. They also run scenes that have been modified.
During a show, there are Imagination Stage staff members sitting in the corners with glow sticks. When a surprising scene is approaching or the actors are about to walk through the audience, the staff members raise the glow sticks as a warning for the audience.
Nutting said the warnings and suggestions for surprising events prepare children to know how they will be able to react when watching a conventional show in the future. Going through the experience also prepares them for life, she said.
“Life is surprising,” Nutting said.
Ideishi has been interested for a long time in how people with developmental needs interact with society. Once he realized this community didn’t have much involvement, he wanted to work to change that.
“I wanted to reach out to community organizations to make [these families] able to go out more,” Ideishi said.
Through his work with museums, theaters and aquariums, Ideishi created a way for families with children who don’t develop typically to experience what everyone else does. He works with about six organizations in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the Washington area, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Kennedy Center.
Now it seems his dream is coming true. Nutting said families with typically developing children have attended the last two sensory-friendly performances at Imagination Stage.
This trend is happening at other organizations too.
Betty Siegel, director of VSA — formerly known as Very Special Arts — and accessibility at the Kennedy Center, said that all families who attend sensory-friendly performances benefit.
The performances are “really about enabling families in the community who have children, typically or not typically developing, to have engaged theater experiences,” she said.
The Kennedy Center began producing sensory-friendly performances last year, with four productions. It plans to present five in the 2013-14 season.
Siegel said there is much collaboration between the Smithsonian, Imagination Stage and other venues involved with sensory-friendly activities.
“We’re collaborative in nature,” she said. “It’s not an area of competition — it’s about helping the community. We all benefit.”