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New to Inclusive Theatre? Here’s Your Starter Pack

By Emily Baldwin

If you’ve heard anything about the U.K.’s celebrated theatre company Oily Cart, or of the recent Trusty Sidekick production commissioned by Lincoln Center Education, Up and Away, you may be familiar with “sensory theatre.”

If you haven’t, you can recognize this rapidly growing field by its three main elements: these shows are designed entirely for audiences with developmental differences; they are completely immersive, allowing for audiences to react however they want; and they engage all of the senses.

The following is a kind of sensory theatre starter pack that I developed as a result of my research in the U.K. and Ireland in 2015 and my experience directing the 2016 production by Seesaw Theatre at Northwestern University.

It should be noted that while I have found many of these elements to be common across different artists (and I give huge credit to them, in particular Tim Webb at Oily Cart, for helping me articulate these), I am speaking here to my personal experience. It should also be noted that as a neurotypical artist I only speak from my own observations and not on behalf of these audiences.

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Photo Credit: Justin Barbin

Sensory Theatre Ingredient List

1. Complete show experience

As with any kind of immersive theatre, all of the pre-show communication—from the confirmation email you receive to the way you are welcomed into the space—gives you information not only about the tone and aesthetic of the world, but also about the rules of that world. For sensory theatre, providing audiences with a social story beforehand—often in print, video, or both—does just that. It can help to lessen the audience’s anxieties that come with entering a new environment and meeting strange people. You can then extend the theatre experience beyond the performance by sending the audience home with a memento from the show.

2. Accessible space

Complete accessibility in and around your theater space is a must when many of your audiences are wheelchair users or have other mobility restrictions. Achieving this can become difficult when using older buildings, so you have to take extra care and give yourself ample planning time when selecting a venue.

There are many resources you can use to ensure your theater is suitable for your audience. A favorite go-to for me is “Shift in Perspective: An Arts and Disability Resource Pack” made by Arts & Disability Ireland (you can download a PDF of it here). You can read more about the design standards stipulated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) here.

3. Engage all the senses

Sensory theatre builds a world all around the audience; every little part of this world becomes part of the storytelling. Without the limitations of a fourth wall you can reach your audiences through any and all of their senses (including the kinaesthetic sense, or the sense of the body’s placement in space). As a sensory theatre artist you can explore the ways you can translate one sensory experience into another. What is the smell of the color red? What does sadness taste like? What’s the sound of a flower blooming? In this way live music becomes a critical element of this genre; when audiences can strum a guitar or bang on a drum they can experience the music through touch as well as sound.

4. Individualized attention & choice

While there may be some common techniques used across all companies that make sensory theatre, each individual audience member has their own unique set of interests, dislikes, and triggers. Having a high performer-to-audience ratio allows you to tailor the theatrical journey you’ve created to each individual. When paired with a performer, an audience member has the freedom to follow their impulses without you having to worry about distracting the others in the audience. Even if an audience member says “no” to every experience they are offered, your sensory theatre is still a success because you may be providing your audience with a rare opportunity to choose what they can say “yes” to.

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Photo Credit: Rafi Letzter

5. Improvisation

Sensory theatre performers are some of the best improvisers out there. Saying “yes, and” to whatever an audience may throw at you is the only way this art form works. This skill ranges from saying “yes” when an audience member wants to blow bubbles for 30 minutes, to saying “yes, and” when an audience invites you into their imagined world. In the same way that you give the audience the authority to say “no,” when you say “yes” to what they offer, you validate the choices they make for themselves. As performers, you may find yourselves like fish out of water, but you can discover new ways to delight your audience when you allow yourself to be silly.

6. Modeling

Like the social story, modeling behavior during the show indicates to the audience how they can respond to new stimuli (though, as stated above, it is okay if the audience does not mirror the modeled behavior). Seesaw Theatre, like its cousin Bluelaces Theater Company, achieves this with an ensemble divided into cast and Adventure Guides (or AGs) who are paired up with an audience member for the entire show. When a character offers a sensory experience, the AG will say, “Yes, please!” or “No, thank you,” and nod or shake their head to remind their audience buddy in the moment that they can politely choose what they want to do.

7. Whole-audience approach: primary and secondary audiences

Tim Webb, Artistic Director of Oily Cart, described to me the importance of seating what he dubbed the “primary audience” (those with developmental differences) next to the “secondary audience” (the parents, teachers, and aids). When the companion can share in their young person’s experience, they can see up-close what sensory experiences their young person delights in and then find ways to recreate those at home or in the classroom. You in turn can improve the theatre experience for the individual as you learn from their companion.

8. Wide-open mindset: “There’s always another way”

In developing your theatre, you will stumble upon the seemingly impossible every day. How do you find a venue that is in your budget, conveniently located, and entirely accessible? How do you transform an ordinary occurrence into an extraordinary experience that the audience can see, hear, smell, and touch? How do you handle a classroom that arrives at the performance with twice the number of students than expected? You will find ways to make it work when you just believe that it must work. There are no wrong answers here. You can always find a way.

Emily Baldwin is an NYC-based arts educator/director/performer/puppeteer, with a focus on access and inclusion. She currently serves as Outreach Coordinator for Spellbound Theatre and as a School Programs Educator for the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, among others. Emily graduated from Northwestern University with a B.A. in Theatre with a certificate in Theatre for Young Audiences. While in undergrad she served as the Artistic Director for Seesaw Theatre and a member of Team Education for Purple Crayon Players. Emily has won numerous awards for her research on theatre and inclusion in the U.K., including the Outstanding Undergraduate Award presented by the American Alliance for Theatre & Education.

You can find her on Facebook or at EBfinishingthehat@gmail.com. 

For further reading:

Spectrum Arts

Upfront Performance Network

Replay Theatre Company

Frozen Light

Bamboozle Theatre Company

Spectra

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