Arkansas Shakespeare Makes Theater More Accessible Through Sensory-Friendly Romeo and Juliet

Jan 30, 2020

The cast of Romeo and Juliet performs its opening scene. In this particular production, the prologue is sung.
Credit Sarah Kellogg - KUAR News / KUAR

Arkansas Shakespeare Theater’s production of Romeo and Juliet differed from last year’s other productions in a few ways. As the designated “family-friendly’ show of the season, the play was shortened to an hour and toured across Arkansas through the months of June and July. This particular production also went through another round of modifications, to make it accessible to those on the autism spectrum and others who are sensory sensitive.

This was the second year Arkansas Shakespeare Theater put on a sensory-friendly performance, with the inaugural play being 2018’s production of Much Ado About Nothing. Dr. Paige Reynolds is an actor and a professor at the University of Central Arkansas. She says her son, who is autistic, is one of the reasons why she first proposed the sensory-friendly performances to the artistic director. She wasn’t alone.

“An OT at UCA had also expressed interest in helping out with furthering accommodations at our performances, so she and I worked together. We collaborated and wrote a grant and were able to execute that for a sensory performance last year,” Reynolds said. “The University of Central Arkansas Foundation provided the grant and provided it again the following year.”  

Arkansas Shakespeare Theater coordinated with UCA’s Occupational Therapy department to develop the performance. Lynne Hollaway is a clinical instructor in the department. She says a performance like this is a great learning opportunity for the OTD students who worked the event.

“They’re able to take things from the classroom that they learn and apply it and hopefully see the results of applying it. [To] see how a child responds to those sensory supports, when if they weren’t there they would not be able to engage fully in that activity,” Hollaway said.

The changes made during the show were mostly technical. The lights in the audience stayed mostly on, the level of noise was lowered and to the right of the stage, a volunteer lifted a glow stick to signal sudden changes in sound, action or anything that could have caught someone off guard. Additionally, in the theater lobby was a cozy corner, equipped with pillows, bean bag chairs and books. A few therapy dogs also roamed the lobby.

One of the changes Reynolds thinks makes a big difference is how audience seating was handled. Instead of rows, seating was sold in sections, giving plenty of space between groups.

“As a parent, that’s one of the things I’m always concerned about is looking for an easy exit in case something goes wrong. And so we’re trying to make easy exit possibilities for all the audience members,” Reynolds said.

The cast, consisting of eight actors, also underwent training for the performance.

Cast members Corrie Green and Chris Farrell Jr. perform the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.
Credit Sarah Kellogg - KUAR News / KUAR

Corrie Green played Juliet. She says the main takeaway for the actors performing is to prepare for anything, but to focus on telling the story.

“Our job as actors is just to kind of go with the flow and be really…really quick on our feet. If somebody wants to come be a part of our show, just to make sure we know what moments that can happen and if it’s something that we need to get somebody on the stage. Figuring out ways to do that,” Green said.

Green also participated in 2018’s sensory-friendly performance of Much Ado About Nothing.

“Last year, we had a really touching moment where one of the characters falls dead and somebody on the spectrum decided to come and save her during the show and I think that it was this really beautiful moment and you’re highlighting their ability by letting them be a part of it. And so, there’s beautiful moments that will happen,” Green said.

Green believes the performances are important because it increases the exposure of Shakespeare to an even wider audience.

“This show is trying to go out and reach all of these audiences. It’s what the tour is for. It’s about reaching out to people who may have never seen Shakespeare. So how do we make that same concept of making it accessible here in Conway. And it’s ‘What are the communities we’re not touching when we go out? What communities don’t feel like they can go to the theater?” Green said. “And you take our hour-long show, and you’re like, ‘Well let’s invite everyone in.’ And with this story of love and hate, it’s really important that we make sure everyone can see it and feel it and be a part of it in any safe way.”

Those on the autism spectrum are not the only ones who benefit from a sensory friendly performance. According to Reynolds, it provides families an understanding environment, free from expectations of silence that normally accompany trips to the movies or to the theater.

“When you have a child that’s a bit unpredictable, especially in how they will react to sensory input, then going to an activity like a play or a movie where other people really want their neighbors to be quiet so that they can join their experience,” Reynolds said. “It can be very nerve-racking and you can often feel really unwelcome and that you don’t really have permission to be there like other people do.”

One institution that Arkansas Shakespeare Theater modeled aspects of its performance after is the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

Betty Siegel is the director of VSA, formally known as “Very Special Arts,” and accessibility for the Kennedy Center. She says when the center decided to begin sensory friendly performances in 2004, they conducted research on what would be most beneficial, including asking families what were the most helpful parts of the performance.

“What really made the experience most welcoming to them was one, the house lights never go completely out, so the house stays what we call half. Two, we mitigate the loud noises, so it’s not that we make them go away, we just moderate them so they aren’t quite so loud or so bass-y. And three, the third thing that they all scored as really high, was that we were nice,” Siegel said.

While the performances are created for those on the spectrum, Siegel says the main goal is to create an entry point to the arts and not just for those with autism. She says she’s just as likely to stop by a sensory-friendly performance and see a family who brought along their three-year-old.

“And so they brought them to the sensory friendly performance because the things that we’re doing to make it welcoming to some people on the autism spectrum are also things that are welcoming to first time theater goers,” Siegel said.

Back in Arkansas, the audience filed out of the performance and many stayed a minute to pet the therapy dogs. Karil Greeson brought her children, including her son Peyton, to the performance.

“One of the things with having a kid with special needs is they just don’t get the opportunities to do things that other kids get to do. So being able to…he loves things like this and being able to bring him to a performance like this without having to worry about that is really awesome,”  Greeson said.

Lydia Senko is an OTD student at the University of Central Arkansas and helped out with the event. She says she has worked with children who needed support in fine art, but never anything concerning the performing arts before. 

“Doing this experience, you see just the smallest change that you make that makes it accessible to so many more people and it doesn’t take that much. I mean, it’s a lot of planning, but what you put in place doesn’t change much for the people involved and it isn’t much effort and it’s not much…for everyone else to accommodate. But it makes it so much more meaningful for those who wouldn’t be able to participate otherwise,” Senko said.