When special education teacher and assistive technology specialist Lauren Tucker brought her own children to The Bushnell performing arts venue in Hartford, Conn., for a sensory-friendly event, she had an illuminating moment. It wasn’t the performance that generated her inspiration. It was the experience of another playgoer.
“There was an adult with some sensory difficulties who was worried about going through the metal detector. He was vocalizing, reluctant and scared,” said Tucker, an assistant professor in the Special Education Department.
Her career knowledge kicked in, mashing with Tucker’s longstanding love of the theater as well as her family ties. Nearby was Tucker’s sister, Catt Vadala, senior manager for Front of House and Volunteer Services at The Bushnell.
“My sister was trying to help. At the front of the theater, there were volunteers trying to help him get through the metal detector,” Tucker said.
Later, the sisters talked. They saw an opening to do good while creating a learning opportunity for educators. “We’re trying to make a beautifully inclusive space, and there are ways to help patrons and their families before they even get there, to be prepared for the experience,” Tucker said.
Their idea: create a program in collaboration with The Bushnell that would transform the theater experience to help sensory-challenged people learn how to attend and enjoy events. Their inspiration came with built-in challenges. Theater events often include loud noises and varied lighting that may be upsetting or confusing to people with sensory difficulties.
Tucker had been a theatre minor at Southern, while Vadala favored the visual arts but decided to pursue a business degree. While Vadala landed in event management and Tucker in special education, both always loved theater and the arts. Their common interest converged in that pivotal moment.
“Lauren and I started this partnership in 2018, partnering with a university and a special ed department,” Vadala said. At the time, Tucker was teaching at the University of St. Joseph.
The sisters began promoting the benefits of a partnership between academia and the arts. “It can be positive and create great effects on both ends, for students, teachers, university and arts organizations,” Vadala said.
The concept took root. Other educators contributed to the discussions. Ideas abounded: Lending services or resources to an arts organization, having a social story, creating quiet spaces. The combination of inspiration and career knowledge morphed into a brainstorm of ideas that focused on helping to make theatergoers comfortable and welcome in the performing arts environment. Last August, Tucker and Vadala presented their brainchild to attendees of the Kennedy Center’s Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) conference. The program advances the full inclusion of people with disabilities in arts and culture.
The idea grew. This year, assistive technology graduate student and special education teacher Amanda Pfohl joined the effort. Pfohl’s sixth year certificate and independent study project became the conduit to her latest act: a blending of her special education knowledge and assistive technology (AT) work.
“There are certain things I do in my day-in and -out that are AT. In the population of kids I work with, I’m a resource teacher. I have students who can communicate, and they have that skill. Then there are some who don’t have the ability to communicate the way we can. With this program, we can integrate them all,” Pfohl said.
For an event at The Bushnell in October, Pfohl designed “Exploration Stations,” a series of interactive activities to allow sensory-challenged theatergoers to find their “comfort zone” in the theater. Through six stations, each highlighting a different part of the theater, the attendees learned about shows coming to The Bushnell. The individual stations featured games to help the participants get familiar with the stories of shows such as Frozen, Funny Girl, Beetlejuice, and Wicked (a Wizard of Oz story).
The second part of the program focused on theater etiquette. This included explaining how to behave when the typical experiences of the theater become problematic. “These are the sensory things, like when it gets too loud, can I put my headphones on? Can I stand up and block the person behind me?” Pfohl said. Additionally, theatergoers are taught the various parts of the theater, and how to read their ticket so they can find their seat.
Vadala, Tucker, and Pfohl said sensory-friendly performances and events create a welcoming experience for families and friends on the autism spectrum or with sensory sensitivities. For these events, producers make slight adjustments to accommodate those theatergoers.
Among the adjustments are lower sound level, especially for startling or loud sounds; a reduction of strobe lighting or lighting focused on the audience; and lights remaining at a low level in the theater during the performance. Pfohl said the usual “restrictions” of attending the theater don’t apply in a sensory-friendly experience. That includes being free to talk and leave their seats during the performance. There is space throughout the theater for standing and movement.
“Everybody has a voice. It’s very important, but it can be misconstrued. It’s so cool to see all these children who want to be there. They’re not sure how to act, how to find their seat. But then, seeing all these smiles, it’s true, pure happiness,” Pfohl said. The icing on the cake? The gratitude of the families whose children had never been able to enjoy a day at the theater.
“Seeing the kids and the families, how appreciative they were, it’s making a difference to that child and to their families,” Pfohl said.
Vadala said The Bushnell plans to offer four more sensory-friendly relaxed events this season, including a holiday open house, The Nutcracker ballet, a drumming and hip-hop workshop, and Cinderella ballet. There are also plans for other visual shows for younger audiences or those with sensory concerns.
Completing the checklist of goals for the program, Tucker said her students have gained valuable insight to fuel their careers. “They’re seeing the community side of what they do, our role as educators, to create this inclusive community,” she said.