Sensory Accessibility: Theaters Create a Welcoming Space for Guests

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This article is written by Joanne Klimovich Harrop on April 21, 2024 and published by TribLive. 

When Amy Hart caught a glimpse of daughter Sophie jumping up and down in her seat in the theater, she began to tear up. Artists from the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker” were dancing on stage in a sensory-friendly performance in 2021, and 14-year-old Sophie and her friend were smiling and moving to the music.

“I was just sitting there looking at them and I just started to cry,” Amy Hart said. “Sophie just loved this show and she was there with her (neuro)typical friend. They didn’t need to speak to each other. They were looking at each other and then looking at the stage. Theater is a universal experience for everyone.”

More and more theaters are incorporating accessible performances as a way to be inclusive, so individuals like Sophie can enjoy the theater just like everyone else.

Making accommodations

Sensory-friendly performances include changes to some of the technical elements and production accommodations for audience members with sensory sensitivities, autism, anxiety and movement challenges. Those accommodations can include lower sound levels, elimination of some special effects and house lighting adjustments.

Most theaters offer quiet areas and have additional staff on hand for these special performances.

There are also shows with American Sign Language interpreters for those who are deaf and hard of hearing and audio description assistance for those who are blind or who have a visual disability.

Amy Hart searches out every opportunity to give her daughter opportunities other children have, she said.

“My daughter has the most incredible friends,” said Amy Hart. “These experiences allow my daughter to enjoy what she loves.”

Pittsburgh in the top three

Pittsburgh was the third city in the U.S. to host sensory-friendly Broadway shows and did so in tandem with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. New York was first, followed by Houston, said Vanessa Braun, director of accessibility and manager of employee engagement for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

Doing such shows at a reasonable price was important to then-Trust president and CEO Kevin McMahon. Access and inclusion continue to be values under new leadership, Braun said.

The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust debuted sensory-friendly performances of “The Nutcracker” and “The Lion King,” respectively, in 2013.

“We worked hand in glove with the ballet,” Braun said. “We approached the same groups in the community to get the word out and searched out the funding.”

Funding is necessary because aspects of the shows sometimes have to be altered, including costumes, lighting and sound systems, and length of time. “The shows try to keep their art form as close to the original product as possible,” Braun said. “Mainly we remove aspects that are seen as jarring.”

Ticket prices can be prohibitive as well, so for “The Lion King,” the Trust was able to have tickets for $19.99 through a grant from the FISA Foundation, which funds programs and activities for people with disabilities in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

In February, the ballet offered sensory-friendly “Beauty and the Beast.” Sunday afternoons seem to work well for adaptive performances, according to Lindsey Kaine, associate director of education and accessibility for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

“It is a chance for ballet to be enjoyed by everyone,” Kaine said. “People can walk around or get up and go out to the lobby and come back if they want at any time during the show.”

In “Beauty and the Beast,” the beast character removed the face mask so the audience could see a real person, Kaine said.

The ballet also provides activities in the lobby before the show and during intermission. It is a “judgment-free zone where theater staff and patrons accept and expect extra sound or movement in the audience and where we celebrate the myriad ways audience members can experience a live stage performance,” Kaine said.

Breaking barriers

Creating accessibility is about breaking barriers, said Christopher McAllister, artistic and educational director for Stage Right! in Greensburg.

Stage Right! will be hosting an American Sign Language interpreted show “Jersey Boys” sponsored by Massey Charitable Trust later this week at the Palace Theatre in Greensburg.

“The theater is for everyone,” McAllister said. “Theater moves people. They laugh and they cry. People sometimes don’t make the attempt to come to the theater because of barriers. But we can reduce the amount of barriers and the mindset to make it more accessible. It is important to get the word out about these shows. It’s a community resource.”

Sometimes people feel uncomfortable bringing someone with special needs into the theater, said Teresa Baughman, interim CEO and director of operations and programming for the Palace Theatre.

“We want them to feel comfortable and to be able to be themselves,” Baughman said. “They can vocalize if they want to or rock and move however they want. We want to be accepting and open.”

The Palace Theatre is revamping its website to make this information more clear, Baughman said.

Inspired by her son

Before there were shows for people will special needs, not everyone understood the challenges of bringing a person with special needs to a show, said Anitra Birnbaum, founder and executive director for Azure Family Concerts Pittsburgh, a program that provides sensory-friendly concerts for free.

Azure also provides concerts at schools, in addition to Carnegie Library locations and other local venues, so young people can have a sensory-friendly musical experience with their classmates.

Birnbaum started the organization so people such as her now 15-year-old son Aaron, who is autistic, can enjoy musical performances. But, Azure is not solely for the autism community — everyone is welcome, Birnbaum said.

“I wanted to create places people can come and feel comfortable and be themselves,” Birnbaum said. “They can have a good time and interact with others with special needs.”

She reached out to Monique Mead, associate teaching professor and director of music entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University School of Music. Mead, a violinist, invites students to become a part of these performances.

“This is such a great opportunity for our students,” Mead said. ”They learn it is not about them and when they see the people in the audience enjoying the music, it is such a wonderful experience. They will remember this for the rest of their lives.”


A scene from Azure Family Concerts Pittsburgh called “Baking Up Music” was held at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh in February. Mead is the artistic director for Azure Family Concerts Pittsburgh. She works with musicians and artists to train them about the elements for the concerts that are held at various venues throughout Western Pennsylvania that donate their space. She also performs at some concerts.

The program works to make it a stress-free environment and includes free tickets. Birnbaum’s son became interested in playing the saxophone after attending the concerts.

The shows are also spaces to connect with other parents, Birnbaum said.

“Music is a universal language,” Birnbaum said. “It is a way to engage with other people and foster the feeling of a community. This is about broadening people’s perspectives. We want people to see the challenges we face and how it is OK to express yourself. We need more awareness and acceptance. The arts should be accessible to everyone. You can get up and make noise. It is a challenge for my son to sit in a seat the entire time and stay quiet. There have been times during (non-sensory) programs that he has made a scene and we had to leave.”

Rebecca Covert’s son, Jack, is autistic and was the inspiration for Jumping Jack Theater, which creates original sensory-friendly theater performances. Covert co-founded it with Stephen Santa.

“We bring high-quality immersive theatrical productions to neurodivergent audiences — creating with and for people with developmental disabilities,” said artistic director Claire Sabatine. “We don’t sacrifice quality.”

“Frolic” is an original work being co-produced with Trusty Sidekick Theater Company in New York City and The Rose Theater in Omaha, Neb. It will be part of the Trust’s EQT Children’s Theater Festival next month.

“We serve eight families per show, which creates an intimate setting,” Sabatine said. “We’ve found that is the best way to serve this population.”

Funding for the shows comes from a variety of foundations. The first for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre was from the aforementioned FISA Foundation.

“It is truly an absolutely amazing feeling to watch everyone enjoying ‘The Lion King,’” Braun said. “Members of our staff who worked so hard to make this happen were crying watching the faces of the audience as they were watching the parade of animals move across the stage. The feedback we get from these shows is wonderful.”

Hart searches websites and social media pages to find entertainment for Sophie.

She also takes Sophie to non-sensory shows and talks with the people seated around her, asking them to let her know if Sophie gets to be too much.

“She is 5-foot-8 and she is a bouncer,” Hart said. “So people notice her in the theater. I have found most people to be gracious, I think because I am upfront with them. But it is wonderful to go to a show where everyone around you understands.”