By Taylor Knopf

As a 21st century Alice wanders through the meadow, her smart phone dies. She comes across the White Rabbit who informs her of the new Starbucks in Wonderland where she can charge it. Music from pop singer Jay Sean’s “Down” plays as she falls through the rabbit hole and into Wonderland.

Kids in the audience bop along to Raleigh Little Theater’s adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland.” Even after the music stops, there’s a continuous hum of voices and sounds coming from the audience.

Some theatergoers stand up, excitedly pointing to characters on the stage. Others squeeze and squish stress balls in their seats. And still more watch the show wearing noise-canceling headphones.

But it’s OK. That’s actually the point.

shows a half empty theater with the lights up and actors on the stage
Raleigh Little Theater only put 150 tickets on sale though the theater holds 300 so there would be room for audience members to move around, or have space between them. Photo courtesy: Taylor Knopf

Last month, Raleigh Little Theater put on its first “sensory-friendly” play for people with disabilities, such as autism, who enjoy art performances a little differently.

The play was toned down for this particular audience. Strobe lights were turned off. The music and sound played at half volume. The house lights stayed on.

And only 150 of the 300 theater seats were filled; this was intentional, allowing audience members room to move around if they needed.

Including everyone

The performance was just one of many efforts across the Triangle to make the arts more inclusive for those with disabilities. Arts Access, a local nonprofit, is helping different art outlets think about the whole community through the Wake Arts Inclusion Project. There was a sensory-friendly “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” at D-PAC in 2016. And this past winter saw a toned-down production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at Theater in the Park in Raleigh.

“Arts Access really thinks the arts matter,” said Betsy Ludwig, executive director of Arts Access. “They are good for kids, adults, and they impact social, emotional and mental health.”[sponsor]

“We also think kids with disabilities and other vulnerable populations don’t have the same access to the arts that others do,” she added. “We think we can make a difference by working with these organizations to increase attendance, make it easy, make it friendly and sometimes make it possible.”

Sometimes inclusion can be as simple as providing a sign language interpreter for an audience member who is deaf. Ludwig urges arts organizations to think about small accommodations that can make a huge difference for some consumers.

She noted the theater had a lot of first-time attendees for the sensory-friendly “Alice @ Wonderland” performance.

“All the accommodations were right on. I saw the show before today and it was much louder. The jabberwocks were scarier. The lights were strobes. We changed all that,” she said, noting her pleasure. “While it was still fun, the things we know trigger kids with sensory processing disorder weren’t there.”

A space for you

For 5-year-old Liam and his mom Johannah Maynard Edwards, Saturday’s experience was significantly better than their first play about a year ago.

a woman stands holding a young boy, two actors in theiri costumes stand next to them.
Johannah Maynard Edwards and her 5-year-old son Liam after the show with the Cheshire cats. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

Edwards is a teaching artist at Raleigh Little Theater and last year she took her son to see “James and the Giant Peach.” He loved it. But Liam has autism and was very vocal about what he was seeing. He described the characters and light changes to his mom. He was so excited he jumped out of his seat a few times.

“Of course that bothered some of the patrons around us. Some were a little rude about that,” Edwards said. “They were quite unkind. They said we were ruining the experience for everyone else, and that we should leave, and that I should have known better than to bring my child here.”

Edwards and her son left in tears.

“You feel like there’s just not space in the world for you,” she said. “As a parent, that feels awful. I’ve made my life in theater and the fact that he wouldn’t be welcome in the spaces I inhabit was crushing to think about.”

But last month at the sensory-friendly performance, there was an expectation that everyone could come and be themselves.

“We were really excited that they were creating this day for families like ours,” Edwards said.

“Even though I feel at home here and I want my child to feel at home here, not everybody that buys a ticket is going to be as welcoming and kind,” she said. “It’s anxiety provoking and stressful for families like ours to enjoy what other people are enjoying. This is definitely one of the more successful events we’ve been to.”

Laura Levine, the actress who played the Queen of Hearts, said it was really exciting to participate in the sensory-friendly show.

“Being able to see the audience and hear the responses to the show kind of gets you excited and reminds you why you’re doing theater in the first place,” Levine said. “You can get the feedback in a different way than you do normally.”

What’s coming next?

a woman in heavy makeup with a crown on her head clutching a pink plastic flamingo figurine points outside the picture frame, looking angry
Laura Levine, 27, played the Queen of Hearts. She’s a theater teacher at Apex High School and she performs at Raleigh Little Theater. Photo courtesy of RLT

There will be more sensory-friendly shows to come at Raleigh Little Theater. The theater puts on three family-friendly productions each year, and there will be one designated sensory-friendly performance during each run of those shows.

In addition to making the arts more accessible, Ludwig highlighted an arts festival called, “Series of Fortunate Events” that features art produced by people with disabilities.

“It’s a time to celebrate abilities,” Ludwig said. “Sometimes disabilities are seen as unfortunate.”

The festival kicked off with an opening night gala on May 3 and runs through May 16. The details of the events can be found at the Series of Fortunate Events website.

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Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...