Spectrum Theatre hosts Autism friendly show

Autism Theatre Project hopes to bring sensory friendly theatre to U.Va.

The Autism Theatre Project is partnering with Spectrum Theatre to present a sensory friendly performance of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The performance will take place April 2 at 2 p.m. in the Student Activities Building.

The Autism Theatre Project began last semester as the brainchild of fourth-year Curry student Ana Mendelson, who had been interested in bringing sensory friendly theatre to the University since her second year.

“(The idea) kind of germinated in my head for a while … it just existed in-between Google searches and conversations with my mom,” Mendelson said. “Then spring of my third year, that’s when I was really deep in grant applications for funding. I was getting a faculty advisor. I was working to see who would be our first theatre partner.”

The Autism Theatre Project first partnered with DMR Adventures, a local children’s theatre, in the fall to bring “Captain Louie, Jr.” to a sensory sensitive audience. The show was a success, drawing a crowd of about 50 people.

“The smiles we saw were incredible,” Jaclyn Lund, second-year College student and research assistant of the Autism Theatre Project, said.

At “Captain Louie, Jr.,” the average age of the audience was about nine years old. Lund, who is also assistant director of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” is hoping this show will bring out a slightly older audience.

“We are very aware that there is a large population of people in the community who kind of start to age out of the system once they get to be about our age,” Lund said. “Providing resources like this for them is super important because it’s not just kids that are on our radar.”

The Autism Theatre Project aims to bring sensory friendly performances to the area about two times a semester. Sensory friendly performances are designed to “take the guesswork out of” going to the theatre, Mendelson explained.

The organization takes steps to ensure an enjoyable and judgement free theatre experience. Before the show, the organization produces a video social story explaining everything about the show from where to park to what to expect.

Because of its family friendly nature, Lund explains “curse words and inappropriate themes” have been removed for this performance.

Typically, a theatre experience could overwhelm people with different sensory sensitivities. This performance ensures a comfortable environment where the lighting is softer and the volume is lower.

“Instead of a full pit orchestra, we’ll just have a piano,” Lund said.

The seating is flexible, allowing families to sit in the most comfortable fashion, whether that be on mats on the floor or in chairs. The show provides volunteer staff to help fulfill the needs of the audience. There is also a break room available equipped with coloring books and fidget toys.

Each performance is unique. During the show, three audience members will be selected to participate on stage. The actors have been trained on what to expect.

In the future, the Autism Theatre Project is looking to expand. In addition to mendelson, there are currently are five members of the organization working on the play.

“The ultimate goal is to do as many shows as we can,” Lund said. “[We also hope] to expose children on the spectrum and with other related disorders to theatre because all of us who are so involved with this recognize how important theatre is within our lives and we want to give that to these kids too.”

Later in April, the Autism Theatre Project is partnering with DMR Adventures again to offer a sensory friendly performance of “Annie, Jr.”

University students are encouraged to reserve a ticket online and attend the performance. Other performances of the show will occur April 1 through April 3 at 8 p.m. in the Student Activities Building.

“I am really excited to see the families’ reactions at the end of the show,” Lucy Gordon Smith, third-year College student and director, said. “Most of the families have never been to a live theatre performance because the people surrounding them feel uncomfortable with people on the spectrum. I’m excited to bring theatre to people who have never seen it before.”

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