What Is a Sensory-Friendly Play?

A sensory-friendly play is simply a play that has been adapted to be less overwhelming for the senses. Essentially, it becomes friendly for your audience’s sensory experience. Plays become sensory-friendly by changing things in the theatre and by changing the play itself, if needed. The same play may be adapted differently by different theatres. Likewise, theatres each have their own unique environment. Therefore a sensory-friendly play in one theatre may look nd feel different in another one.

Why sensory-friendly plays?

Wondering why theatres offer sensory-friendly plays? The theatre experience is sensory-rich. It is often a new, unfamiliar environment. Plays evoke emotions and often use the sensory experience to do just that. As a result, for some audience members going to the theatre is overwhelming and anxiety-provoking. In fact, many people avoid going to the theatre because it makes them uncomfortable and the experience is unenjoyable. In this study, “The Experiences of Parents/ Caregivers of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder at a Sensory Friendly Theatre Performance,” by Patricia Jane Santanello (2020), revealed that people with autism might be excluded from attending theatre performances due to concerns from parents or caregivers about disrupting others. Offering sensory-friendly plays at theatres helps to foster a theatre experience where everyone feels welcome and includes more families and groups who otherwise might not attend and enjoy the theatre experience 1

Who enjoys a sensory-friendly play?

First of all, while many people enjoy sensory-rich experiences, sensory-friendly experiences are also preferred by many people too!

More and more people identify as having sensory sensitivities. You will find that autistic persons, older adults with hearing loss, veterans with PTSD, people with anxiety make up the large and growing group of people who seek out sensory-friendly experiences.

Older adults sitting in audience enjoying sensory-friendly play.

What makes a play sensory-friendly?

There are different features of a sensory-friendly play. Additionally, many of these modifications are easy to implement and can help to make your guest feel more comfortable and included. As previously indicated, there are different changes you can make to both the environment and experience. Therefore, a sensory-friendly play can look different depending on each venue and performance.

A great example of an theatre company that offers sensory-friendly plays is Neptune Theatre located in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Neptune Theatre offers a wide range of accessible features to make their performances more inclusive for all people. Check out more on their website to learn how they adapt their venue and performances to become more sensory-friendly.

Infographic highlighting 8 ways to create a sensory-friendly play.

Accessibility of the venue

If your theatre is not accessible, it is not sensory-friendly. For example, venues that lack open areas, or who have free-standing signage, installations or ornamentation on mezzanine or balcony levels create obstacles to accessibility. Furthermore, wheelchair accessible toilets help more than just wheelchair – users. There are often grans and programs to support making locations accessible, use them!

Ensure a clear passageway

For people with mobility issues, navigating around a performance venue is often difficult. Ensure your venue has clear passageways. Remove clutter, like free-standing signage. Avoid having obstacles that people will bump in to, unless necessary like rope barriers for lines. If used, ensure rope barriers for queuing gives adequate space for wheelchair users.

Does your venue have an area with seating? Make certain that patrons using a wheelchair can easily get in and round it. Likewise for guests who walk with the help of a companion, use a cane or have a guide doe or therapy animal.

Create comfortable seating

Additionally, the physically distant seating due to COVID-19 is also sensory-friendly. Have (accessible) seating areas outside the inside seating space. Give guests a place to sit, instead of stand, in between acts, for example. Chairs with arms, both for inside seating as well in a refreshment area is a nice options for some guests. Arm rests can be helpful for people with mobility difficulties.

Minimize crowds

Furthermore, an important aspect of an accessible venue is the number of people crowding into the space at the same time. Consider limiting the number of guests. Alternatively, offer early seating times for guests who want to avoid crowds. Create paths for patrons to line up, so there isn’t a crush of people at a door, for example.

Provide accessible parking

Lastly, another important thing to consider for accessibility is parking at your venue. Your venue may/may not have its own parking. Ensure accessible parking spaces are plentiful. If you do not have your own parking, work with public or private parking operators to ensure there is accessible parking. Make certain you clearly let patrons know where accessible parking exists. Make it easy for people to get to your theatre.

Creating a sensory relaxed play

Another important part of sensory-friendly plays is creating a sensory relaxed play. A sensory relaxed play is a performance that has been adjusted to be less extreme for the sensory experience with a few simple steps:

Provide clear instructions

Let people know what to expect. That includes a program online as well as in print, in signage and digitally at the venue. Let patrons know what time (approximately) intermission will occur. Advise them how long the performance will last. Tell them if there will be loud or unexpected noises, or bright lights during the show.

Create a sensory relaxed performance

Another important aspect of a sensory-friendly play is creating a sensory-relaxed performance. A sensory relaxed performance is changes to make performance more relaxing for the senses. For example, this may include:

  • no harsh, bright or spot lights.
  • no sudden noises.
  • house lights on.
  • no sudden movement on stage.
  • no scents, smells or fog.

Ultimately, these changes help to make the audience feel more comfortable.

Adjust expectations

Additionally, it is important for the venue team to adjust their expectations for how the performance may unfold. That includes, back stage staff, front of house staff and performers, alike. For example, it may not be uncommon during the play, to allow the audience to move in/out before intermission. Or to have a space for the audience to move at the back, during the show. Therefore, the venue team should be aware to adjust their expectations from the audience and to embrace the difference!

Train employees

Lastly, another important strategy to create a sensory-friendly play is to provide additional staff training. It is critical for staff to be prepared and to be aware on how to make people comfortable. Ensure you have strong customer service with your sensory-friendly play and your audience will be delighted. Make your plays sensory-friendly and include more people as your patrons!

Are you interested in learning more from similar great examples? Read on:

Create a More Welcoming World and Tame Sensory Overload

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  1. The Experiences of Parents/ Caregivers of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder at a Sensory Friendly Theatre Performance. (2020). ProQuest. https://www.proquest.com/docview/2458032684?fromopenview=true&pq-origsite=gscholar
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