Leadership / 06.04.18
How Lone Tree Arts Center Easily Makes Live Performances Accessible for All
It’s a common point of discussion in the ticketing industry that the stage is facing ever-increasing competition with film, TV, live music, sports and online media for patrons' attention. Appealing to the broadest range of people possible is more important than ever. Some venues approach this challenge as an opportunity to make their venues and events accessible to the widest range of audience members.
One venue that has made great progress in this regard is the Lone Tree Arts Center in Lone Tree, Colorado, a Denver suburb. Executive Director Lisa Rigsby Peterson and her colleagues have made particularly impressive strides in offering sensory friendly performances.
"Sensory-friendly performances are modified so that people with autism, sensory processing issues or a variety of other conditions that might result in unconventional audience behavior can engage in the arts in a way that is comfortable for them,” Peterson explains. “The performances we present for our sensory-friendly series are very close to the same performances we offer to traditional audiences. They've just been 'softened' with modifications to make them more enjoyable for those who need them."
Most of the modifications Peterson and her staff have to make are relatively simple and easy to implement. Sound levels are brought down. Triggers like strobe lighting or startling sounds or sudden blackouts are typically removed from shows. In most cases, house lights are left up slightly so that the theatre never goes black. Meanwhile, audience members are encouraged to applaud in ASL-fashion, waving their hands in the air instead of clapping.
Peterson and her staff also provide a quiet space in the lobby or in a small room in case someone needs to take a break. Most importantly, all of Lone Tree's staff — front-of-house, box office, production, etc. — are trained to create a welcoming, flexible and encouraging environment that allows a wide range of audience members to relax and discover the power of the performing arts in a way that embraces their needs.
Peterson shared that the really challenging part of her work is actually spreading the word among those who would benefit from it most.
"Many parents and families live in isolation when coping with these significant life challenges," she said. "Because their loved ones don’t fit the traditional profile of a 'good' audience member who comes in, sits down, stays quiet and doesn’t move until a show is over, they have never seen themselves as being able to engage in live arts experiences. So many parents tell me over and over again that they don’t want to ruin someone else's experience, or that the judgment and disapproval they felt when they did try to attend a performance was so overwhelming that they never tried again. Reaching these families and convincing them that we will take care of them and welcome them with open arms is our biggest challenge."
In turn, Lone Tree Arts Center is discovering a growing number of artists who are willing to engage with the venue's sensory-friendly audiences. According to Peterson, "Artists from opera superstar Nathan Gunn to Indian Kathak dancer Jin Won of the group Pradhanica report to us that they've had a profound experience during these performances, and [playing to] people they have rarely been able to touch. Once they've done it for us, they can suggest it and do it again for other presenters around the country."
In championing such performances, Peterson has drawn on a previous two-year stint as grant manager, working with the Phamaly Theatre Company, a Denver-based group that consists solely of artists with disabilities. There, she witnessed firsthand the power of the arts when placed in the hands of people with varying abilities.
Since then, one performer who has stood out to Peterson is magician Kevin Spencer. When Spencer performed at the Lone Tree Arts Center in 2012, he offered to conduct school workshops for children with autism or other intellectual or behavioral issues. "Watching him literally create magic with these children showed me that, even in a small way, our theater could make a difference in the lives of those who are so often overlooked," she said. "To bring him back, we engaged a sponsor in Developmental Pathways, a local group that provides funding and services to those with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Their director of community engagement, Barb Komdat, asked me if we'd ever do a 'clap-free' performance for their clients. When I asked our staff what they thought, the answer was an emphatic, enthusiastic and unanimous 'Yes!' We did a sensory-friendly performance of our holiday musical. As the families left thanking us for allowing them to come to the theater together as a family for the very first time, we knew this work would come to have a greater impact than anything else we do."
When asked if she had any advice for other venue operators looking to increase accessibility and broaden their appeal to audiences with special needs, Peterson was quick to answer. "First, it is so much easier than you may think to modify performances to be sensory friendly. Having someone from a local group like Autism Speaks attend a rehearsal or performance and then give you advice about what changes might be helpful is a great way to start. These partners are eager to help you expand your accessibility.”
Secondly, Peterson encourages anyone to give her or others doing similar work a call, as they are all happy to share best practices. Additionally, she encourages considering making work intended for teenagers and adults sensory friendly as well. “From what I hear from our families, this is an area of high need, and there is a dearth of appropriate programming. I’m hopeful we will be able to expand our programming in this area soon."
“In a time when it's increasingly common to hear loud public voices call out differences and create barriers between us, it's incumbent on us as arts professionals to be champions for those who have been and are being isolated,” Peterson said. “If we are sharing common experiences through live arts experiences, let's be sure we are sharing them with everyone."
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Tags: Accessibility , Theater , Arts