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Theater presents first sensory-friendly performance

The Record-Eagle - 3/23/2018

March 23--TRAVERSE CITY -- Michelle Dungjen loves theater almost as much as she loves her son.

But the two don't necessarily mix.

"We've been able to take him to very little theater," said Dungjen, an Old Town Playhouse actor and director whose son, Sam, 12, has autism spectrum disorder. "We don't want to interrupt anybody else's experience."

Dungjen is one of several area parents eager to attend the playhouse's first sensory-friendly performance of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The March 24 matinee was designed for people of all ages with special needs, including those with autism spectrum disorder, and for others who find it difficult to attend a typical theater event.

The performance takes place at 2 p.m. But doors open at 1 p.m. so guests can become familiar with the playhouse through small group tours, sensory-friendly activities like touching props and costume fabrics, and open seating.

"It's always been a passion of mine and a goal of mine as a director to make sure at least one performance is sensory-friendly," said Shelby Lewis, director of the show, which runs through March 31. "Then (OTP Executive Director Phil Murphy) came back from a conference where he heard this had been done and wanted OTP to do it, so I raised my hand."

Lewis, a theater education graduate student, happened to be writing her master's thesis on disability inclusion and access and disability representation on stage. So she already knew there was a "huge underserved theater patron population." What she didn't know was how easy it can be to turn that around.

"The most surprising thing about sensory-friendly performance is how little you have to change," said Lewis, who attended a symposium on inclusive and accessible theater in February.

"There are a lot of different levels of people with autism. The misconception is that they have to be treated like children at any age."

Performance adaptations include abbreviating shows, lowering sound levels, adding direct-address narration and eliminating potentially startling sound effects, she said.

"It doesn't dumb down the show, it's just making it a little easier to see," she said.

OTP also will use house lights during the show for way-finding and safety, allow guests to get up and move around, designate quiet and activity areas in the lower level for taking a break, and allow the use of iPads and other electronic devices with head phones, ear buds or with no volume for therapeutic use.

Volunteer ushers will be available throughout the theater to assist and direct audience members.

Even a post-performance meet-and-greet with the cast will be sensory-friendly, with actors seated to avoid potential intimidation.

The performance is presented in partnership with the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District, whose special needs staff came to an OTP rehearsal.

"We spoke with the cast and crew and let them know what to expect and not to be thrown," said Dungjen, OTP's Artistic Committee chairman for the performance. "As actors, we're usually used to quiet in the audience -- a cough or sneeze here and there. But in this circumstance we have to expect just about anything."

She said a case in point was a recent performance she attended with Sam in a school auditorium. His attention was captured by a colorful display of flags representing countries from which the school had exchange students.

"He just started naming them and then murmuring that through the show," she said.

Lewis, who is also on the Artistic Committee, said the group hopes to continue sensory-friendly performances, to provide and train more volunteer ushers, and even to have special needs representation on the committee.

"There are different levels of disability inclusion and access," she said. "We're doing as much as we can this first round but there's more and more to do."

The performances would be among a growing number of sensory-friendly events in the region including weekly surprise screenings at the State Theatre and monthly kids' matinees at Bijou by the Bay.

"We have the sound a little quieter, the lights a little brighter and people are free to move about," said Meg Weichman, creative director for the Traverse City Film Festival, which owns the theaters. "It's not a you-have-to-sit-and-be-quiet screening. You're free to be yourself."

She said the screenings draw regular attendance from "very appreciative" audiences.

"We've also gotten feedback from offices around town that work with people with autism about how much they appreciate the screenings and wanting the schedule of upcoming ones," she said.

Lisa and Alexander Maclellan have already made reservations for the OTP performance with their autistic son, Alexander, 11.

"We thought it would be a good cultural experience," said Maclellan, of Empire. "They didn't have these kinds of things when I was growing up so there was no exposure for kids."

If you go

The performance is free but seating is limited. Reservations are strongly suggested.

To reserve two seats, including one for a support person, RSVP to Michelle Dungjen at 231-620-6443 or Or reserve seats online at www.


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