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Theatre and Autism: How do you present a sensory friendly performance?

Theatre and Autism: How do you present a sensory friendly performance?

Episode 176: Theatre and Autism: How do you present a sensory friendly performance?

How do Theatre and Autism fit together? Do you have students on the spectrum in your classrooms? Have you ever put on a sensory friendly performance? All of these questions and more are answered in this week’s podcast with James Lekatz, program director of the CAST program (Creative, Accepting, Sensory-Friendly, Theatre) at the Stages Theatre Company in Hopkins, MN.

Show Notes

Episode Transcript

UPDATE FALL 2018: James Lekatz is now the Artistic Associate at Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. The mission of Interact is to create art that challenges the perception of disability.

Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk – the Drama teacher resource company.

I’m Lindsay Price.

Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!

This is Episode 176 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at

Okay. Everyone, hands up. All of you, put your hands up – no, no, no.

So, I have a question. How many of you have students on the autism spectrum in your classrooms? And, another, how do these students react to theatre? Do you believe it can impact them? Have you ever been to a sensory-friendly performance? Have you ever planned one?

Okay, that was more than one question; that was a lot of questions and I’ll bet that there is a lot more hands up to the answer to that first question than anybody thinks. And, yes, I can see you; I can see all of you.

So, we’re talking theatre and autism today. We are going to get some answers to those questions and more with today’s guest. A very interesting conversation. I learned a lot.

Let’s get to it!

LINDSAY: Hello everybody!

I am speaking with James Lekatz.

Hello, James!

JAMES: Hello!

LINDSAY: Awesome. Tell everybody where in the world you are.

JAMES: Yes, I am coming to you today from Hopkins, Minnesota, which is kind of like a first-ranked suburb of Minneapolis.

LINDSAY: Ah, perfect! Sometimes, I ask where people are and then they say and I’m like, “Well, I don’t know where that is,” but this is good. Excellent!

This is going to be such an interesting conversation on so many levels, I think. Let’s start off, please, tell us what your job is.

JAMES: Sure. I work for a theatre company called the Stages Theatre Company located in Hopkins, Minnesota. My job is twofold; one, I’m an education association, so I’m a theatre teacher and I work at many different schools in the west metro of the twin cities, and I also am in-charge of our access programming. And so, that is working with ASL interpreters, getting audio transcribers to come to our performances to do an open captioning, but also a major portion of what I do in the access is working with our sensory-friendly and autism programming.

I run a program called CAST which is an acting program for students on the autism spectrum. And then, we have a ten-performance sensory-friendly season that we do throughout the entire year.

LINDSAY: Talk about making sure that theatre is getting to everybody, right?

JAMES: Right.

LINDSAY: Also, I have seen it, time and time in the classroom, how those with autism, theatre really helps them.

JAMES: It does, and it’s kind of counterintuitive. You don’t think it would because it’s standing in front of people so it’s nervous and a lot of people on the spectrum have anxiety. It’s being able to use your voice where a lot of our students on the spectrum don’t have that vocal flexibility. But, yet, they can do it. Seeing theatre works that way and doing theatre works that way. It’s incredible!

LINDSAY: Yeah, and this is one of the reasons I definitely wanted to talk to you and have this conversation – because I know that we have so many teachers who are in inclusivity situations where they have their class and they also have students who are on the spectrum in there as well. Some of them struggle because they want to be sure that everybody is included and they’re not quite sure how to do that. And then, also, seeing just how impactful them just being in the classroom can be.

I want to start with your background. What was your first connection to theatre?

JAMES: My first play I was in – and this was maybe tenth grade, eleventh grade; this was a while ago – was The Taming of the Shrew by Shakespeare.

LINDSAY: That’s the first one.

JAMES: Right? And so, I kind of got a little bit of the actor bug in me from that show and I was on our speech team in high school, doing drama and comedy categories in that.

I’m from a really small town in northern Minnesota. It’s called Virginia, Minnesota. It’s on the Iron Range. The arts aren’t really big there. Football and hockey, those are the major things.

LINDSAY: It’s north, eh? Lots of hockey, I can totally see, and football, they want to run around.

JAMES: Exactly. I’m from an area called the Quad City so there’s these four small towns that our drama program was all four schools coming together to get enough people to do a show because one school didn’t have enough people. So, our drama program was really cool because you got to meet people from all over the area – which was great.

And then, after I graduated from high school, I went and studied theatre at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and got a Theatre degree. And I was working a lot with a director in college named Barbra Berlovitz who was a founding member of Theatre de la Jeune Lune which is a Lecoq-based theatre company based in Minneapolis. They were around for, like, thirty years.

I was working with her. She was like, “James, you’re a great mover, you can do this stuff. Go figure out what kind of program do you want to do after you graduate.” I’m like, “I want to learn this devising theatre – the physical theatre stuff.” She’s like, “Okay, go to London. There’s a program at a school called LISPA which is the London International School of Performing Arts.

So, I did; basically, after I graduated from college, I applied, got in, and moved to Europe and was there for about two and a half years, going to school and learning the Lecoq pedagogy, physical theatre, clowning and miming, and got that background in my body to become a theatre practitioner that way.

Then, when I graduated, the recession hit so I had to move back because they weren’t allowing student visas or any visas really to happen outside of the EU if you weren’t an EU citizen so I had to move back and came back to Minneapolis and started freelancing around the twin cities as a theatre practitioner.

I also did a lot of composing. I still do; I work as a composer a lot. And I was at a parade – believe it or not – with a couple of friends. A woman there named Lauren Spears – she’s now Lauren Isley Spears – she was sitting there with us and she goes, “James, I need a piano player for a class. Can you be a piano player for this musical theatre class?” I’m like, “Sure, I’ll do it.” It happened to be at Stages Theatre Company and that was, like, five or six years ago.

Since then, I’ve been working at Stages. That’s how it kind of came in.

LINDSAY: There’s your journey.

JAMES: That’s my journey, yeah.

LINDSAY: Okay. So, my next question is, when did the performing bug and that aspect of theatre connect to the education bug?

JAMES: Sure, I wanted to be an actor for a very long time – you know, going to college for a theatre degree and then, in grad school, at LISPA, learning how to be a performer. But then, when I started teaching, well, let me back up a little bit. I wanted to be a performer and I did perform. I performed around England and Europe a little bit and kind of got that touring kick and realized what that was like. I realized, “I am not cut out to be a performer. I’m not cut out to be an actor. This is definitely not the lifestyle that I want in my life.”

Physical theatre? Yes, I love theatre and what it can do. But I’m more interested in what theatre can do for people than creating theatre. So, I got into the education – just from being an accompanist in the classroom and watching people teach theatre. I’m like, “Oh, this is how this all works,” because I never have been on that side of theatre before because I was a student. But then, realizing pedagogy and ways to teach theatre and approach theatre to make sure that every student gets it because every student learns differently.

Every student has to approach theatre from a different perspective – or just anything – math or science, every student has a different way of approaching it or a way of coming into it. As a teacher, you need to figure out how to reach that student and that’s where the creativity, I think, and a lot of education comes from – learning how to reach every student. And so, from sitting in that class, eventually, I got my own musical theatre class and taking that over and realizing education was my strong suit and it’s something I’m really, really passionate about. And it’s from I don’t have a very specific background. I can do musical theatre; I can do physical theatre – miming and clowning; and I can do traditional tech space work.

So, I can do a lot of different styles of teaching which are great for students because, when it comes to physical theatre and clowning, every pedagogical teacher I’ve ever had, let’s go back to the child learning state, open to working with kids, they’re already there. So, kids are natural clowns and mimes without even knowing it. They just have that built inside of them.

LINDSAY: Hey, I’m going to segue one tiny little bit just because we’re talking about physical theatre. So often, you’re right that they are in their own lives, they’ve got that natural clown ability. But, sometimes, when they get onstage, it seems to float away and even disappear. I’m speaking specifically of older students, high school students. It’s very hard to get them out of being themselves – that their physical body, the character looks very much like them and moves very much like them and, you know, sometimes, their elbows never leave their ribcage.

How do you, as someone who has a background in clown and physical theatre, how do you get those students out of their shell?

JAMES: It starts with the first day of class where you need to make sure that everybody is comfortable to be there because clowning and physical theatre is all about meeting people where you are. As a performer, you need to be okay with where you are at that moment. And so, working with students, you need to make sure that we can fail grandly and greatly and it’s wonderful to watch it happen and we come out for each other. It’s setting up that level of comfort within the classroom on the very first day.

I have a student right now who is an elbow hugger with the ribs. And so, her clown is based on that. I’m like, “Elizabeth, you know what, you do know you do this. Your extension is from your elbow to your fingertips. That’s as far as you really open up. Now, let’s make it extreme. Let’s use this as a character choice.” Now, it’s this hilarious part of her ability as a clown.

LINDSAY: I love that. Instead of seeing it as a frustration, seeing it as a character choice.

JAMES: Like, sitting in a chair, they can’t do it. That’s the mission of a clown – to do something every day but you just can’t get there. When you do, that’s when the audience realizes, “Oh, we’re just like that.” Sitting in a chair can be a giant, giant, giant barrier to overcome for a clown. So, a student, if we’re working on that kind of physical theatre in clowning, if their elbows are going to stay on their ribs, great! Let’s use that to the best of our ability.

Then, how does your spine and shoulders move? They’re stuck, too. So, they become like this really interesting boxy character. How do you walk then? Great. Do you maybe hop? Great. Let’s figure out, how do we exaggerate everything to make this into a giant character that is based on your ability and where you are right now because then, once they realize that, they’re comfortable with it and then they open up, I believe. Like, two or three weeks, this girl would be extending everything out, fully alive onstage, I guarantee you.

LINDSAY: I love it. Awesome.

You also have a program, the CAST program, where you do sensory performances but then you’re also having classes for those on the spectrum, right?

JAMES: Right.

LINDSAY: They’re also exploring theatre in a class setting.

JAMES: Yes, we have a class called CAST at Stages. CAST is an acronym – Creative Accepting Sensory-friendly Theatre. That is for students who are on the spectrum. I’ll bring the physical theatre back into it because I think that’s why the class, how we’ve made it work so well is because we use physical theatre tactics inside the class. I’ll come back to that in a little bit.

Our class, we meet on Saturdays and we have two groups – one that is for ages 7 to 11 and then another group that is ages 12 to 17. We have an hour and a half class. The most students are 8 at a session and there’s two adults in the room so two main teachers and we have a student intern as well for each class.

You know, we use theatre skills and improv to help teach social skills for students on the spectrum. It’s using essentially what is theatre – theatre, you know, it’s getting in front of a group of people; you’re communicating ideas back and forth; you’re communication with the audience; you’re saying ideas to somebody or you’re communicating them with your body; you’re working together to have a goal; using what theatre is just to help students understand socialization, building confidence, finding their place in space – physically and metaphorically – and just using theatre to help students navigate their lives – kind of what theatre education is, right? It’s using theatre to help students navigate their lives. But, with students on the spectrum, there are some extra barriers for them but theatre fits in naturally for that.

LINDSAY: What else is the theatre classroom doing but teaching how to communicate with each other, how to work with each other, self-confidence skills. It just must take it to an extra level when you have more of a barrier between you and the outside world.

JAMES: Yeah, it does, and the classes, you know, I was preparing, thinking to myself, “How does a CAST class differ from a regular class I have?” and, to tell you the truth, I can’t. It’s something you can see but I don’t know how to describe it – except for that the class is just slower. The class just moves at a slower pace than what a regular class does because certain students, you know, if you’re in a regular classroom setting and students are blurting out, you go, “Hey, stop blurting out because you know the rules of blurting – you raise your hand and you talk this way.” There’s a social decorum that students in a regular classroom or a typical classroom just know and we expect them to know it. If they don’t and they’re choosing not to, then you know it gets into this open-air reaction or walking down that trail of teaching.

When you’re on the spectrum, students sometimes blurt out all the time because they can’t keep it in, and it’s not coming from a place of mischievousness or maliciousness; that’s just who they are. And so, it’s being able to realize and figure out when a student’s behaviour is communicating something because they’re on the spectrum and when is it something that they’re communicating because they are eight and balancing out those two ideas and watching a classroom that way.

LINDSAY: I think that’s a really good point to bring up for some of our folks who are listening who are in that situation where they’re in a regular classroom and they have someone who’s on the spectrum in that classroom – that there are, in any classroom, and particularly in the drama classroom, there are rules and procedures. The more structure there is in a drama classroom, the more there is room for creative chaos.

JAMES: Right.

LINDSAY: So, how can a student who is on the spectrum who is in a theatre classroom, how can a teacher help them make the most of that classroom and what can the student do to make the most of that class?

JAMES: Sure. The way we approach it is that we make sure that students know what we are doing every day and make sure it’s very clear. I’ve used this in all my classes now just because it works really well as a schedule of events – I’m talking from the teacher’s perspective with students who are on the spectrum right now for listeners.

Students on the spectrum, a lot of them are very meticulous. They need to know exactly what is going to happen in the class so they can prepare in their minds so they know A goes to B, B goes to C, C goes to D. Have a schedule of events going up so students know where we’re starting from and where we are going to.

I have a conservatory class. I use it in that as well so students are like, just because I get annoyed sometimes with my mainstream students, like, “What are we doing next? When’s break? When’s this happening?” “Look at the schedule.” But, for students on the spectrum, they will never ask what’s next because they just see it and they know. Boom. It’s right there. I even have it down in times that the class is scheduled out. That’s one thing that’s really useful.

Also, having patience. Being able to work one-on-one with students on the spectrum is really useful and it’s being able to ask questions to help navigate a situation.

For example, if a student, if you think they’re not paying attention because they’re not looking at you or they’re not taking information in in a typical way, give instructions to the class and give time to go ahead and go work. Approach that student and say, “Hey, did you understand everything that was talked about?” They’re going to say yes because, a lot of times, the spectrum students, they might not make that eye contact with you. We kind of know that’s one of the things on the spectrum as we know in pop culture. Like, if someone doesn’t make eye contact with you, they might be on the spectrum. We kind of just know that. But, they are understanding everything you’re saying and they are taking it in. But then, as a way of like, “Okay, do you understand what you need to do next?” That’s where the help might need to come in – giving them the basics. “Here’s the instruction for the whole group.” Now, walking over, “Did you understand what’s happening?” “Yes.” “Do you know what you need to do next?” “No.” “Oh, okay. So, go find a partner and sit down and talk about A, B, and C. Great. There you go.”

You’re just giving that extra support for each student so they know how to thrive in the classroom. It’s breaking it down to the smallest step because asking for a partner might be a huge, huge barrier for a student.

LINDSAY: Yeah, I think that’s a very interesting division in, yes, they know what you’ve said and understood what you’ve said, but that next step…

JAMES: Yeah, the “how” is really difficult sometimes.

LINDSAY: The “how.”

JAMES: When I teach to the autistic students, everybody in the classroom is on the spectrum – every student. And so, I am assuming it’s really difficult when you have a class that is full of neurotypical and autistic students. I’m assuming that’s very difficult, especially if there’s only one or two autistic students in the whole entire group. I’m assuming that’s really difficult but I think it’s the same way of teaching – that you have to give yourself that time to talk with those students to make sure that they’re succeeding.


I want to get back to – and I wrote it down – your notion of physical theatre tactics inside of your classroom. See, here’s the thing that I have in my head as an assumption or whatever – the notion of physicality with those on the spectrum is a bit of a tightrope in terms of whether you can touch them or whether you can get into… Their physicality is something that is sometimes hard for them to do so I am on the edge of my seat, James. I would like to know about how you use these tactics with these students.

JAMES: That question of touch, I think it’s good for everybody, every educator to know, especially working with students, if you’re going to touch a student, you need to ask permission first. And so, with my on the spectrum students, I go, “I’m going to come up to you. Can I touch you to help move your body around?” If they say no, okay, I just say, “Watch my body.” If they say yes, then you can go ahead and do it, but I always them permission first, as needed, to say,

“I’m going to walk close to you and touch you, is that okay” You need to do that.

But here’s how physical theatre works in this classroom. A lot of times, students on the spectrum have a hard time recognizing the facial expressions. They have a hard time not realizing non-verbal cues for communication.

Here’s how physical theatre works. Physical theatre is acting from the outside in. I use that with my younger students. It’s acting from the outside in is a way to think about physical theatre rather than the psychological inside out character memory, you know, emotional response. You create this character that is thinking a lot. You can’t see it but we’re thinking a lot. We have that film acting style.

Physical theatre is completely opposite where we start with a physical character on the outside that’s a skeleton. A skeleton, when it moves around, that’s where we find an emotional base to connect from. If we’re starting with a character, how does an angry person look? Make that shape. There we go. We’re able to sculpt our body to show how emotions work.

And then, even if a student is unable to – “I don’t know how an angry person looks.” I’m like, “Well, look at my body. I’m going to start in actor neutral,” which is a great place to always start from when working with physical theatre, “And, now, I’m going to be angry.” So, I’m going to tense up my body. “See how my body is tensing?” Ask them, “Can you see my body is tensing?” “Yes, it is.” “Tense up your body. Okay, now, relax. Now, I’m going to change my posture. My shoulders are going to come up and I’m going to keep my body tense. Do you see how that is changing?” If they say no, then you know, I help them move their body to that way.

We’re making that physical approach of how our body replicates emotions and having that be the starting point for students to create characters and stories from.

LINDSAY: It sounds like modeling is very helpful for these students.

JAMES: Oh, my god – everything, yeah. I’m modeling, modeling, modeling all the time. It’s great with students. I was committed to their autism, if they can model it as well, it’s great to have a teacher do it but having a student in the class help is great.

Also, if you are able to have peer mentors in your classroom as well, working as another student who is neurotypical, having a neurotypical student in the classroom helping model, it achieves so much more than just having a teacher or two adults in the classroom. Having that peer in the room is a great way of getting things too because I think, I don’t know, when you turn 19, there’s this level of teenageness that every person just gets cut off and we no longer speak the language.

And so, there are teenagers that have this weird way of communicating without doing anything that they just get each other. I thought I just did the same thing but, no, you teenagers, you get it.

Modeling is very, very, very important.

Also, it comes to improvisation. Modeling is a great way of doing it because they might not understand how, even if you make it up on the spot while I’m making up the story – and they might be making it up in their head – no, let’s talk about it though. So, use those words. You have to model everything with the autism community .

LINDSAY: That’s a really excellent point.

I notice that you also do playwriting with your students.

JAMES: Yeah, I do!

LINDSAY: How does that go? Is it successful?

JAMES: It’s a lot of stuff.

We break down CAST, it’s three nine-week sessions throughout the year. Our first one, we spend on improvisation and learning how to improvise. Session two is based on devising where the playwriting comes into play. And then, number three, the third term is based on script and text work.

So, when we get to that devising section and the creation of stories, we really talk about the building blocks of storytelling which a lot of kids will know from school – you have the who, what, when, where, why; beginning, middle, climax, end. They understand that stuff. But then, we have to actually put it in practice.

This is the crazy part. It’s always so exciting with students because we never say, “We’re all going to be pirates in the story. It’s about finding buried treasure,” absolutely not. We could be finding buried treasure but you’re going to be Mario because you want to be Mario, you’re going to be the guy from Five Nights at Freddy’s, we have Spongebob, we have Superman, and we have Belle from Beauty and the Beast and they’re all going to find buried treasure. Okay, let’s figure out, how does that story work? That’s where the creativeness of students comes into play – that childlike mentality of that imagination where everything just starts getting creative.

We start from the beginning – how do we introduce the characters? Which happens at every single story as we introduce characters together, figuring out the story. We develop that conflict – what’s the problem going to be? Then, we go into fleshing out that problem and it’s all created by the students where we sit down, we write ideas, we try it on their feet. “Does that work, you guys? Should we tweak it? Okay, let’s tweak it. Come back down, write down ideas, let’s try that one up on our feet now.” We go back and forth. It’s a slow process, believe you me. It is seven, eight weeks of the nine-week session just developing the story so that last class, sometimes, this is our first time we run through before we show it to our parents.

LINDSAY: I find, in a standard classroom, that playwriting is one of the things that really terrifies students. How do students on the spectrum approach playwriting? Are they scared or do they dive in?

JAMES: My students really dive in. I think the part that’s terrifying to them is that all of their ideas can’t happen at once.

LINDSAY: Really? Oh, so it’s kind of a rush of ideas!

JAMES: Oh, my gosh, yeah.

LINDSAY: And it’s hard. I’m making gestures with my hands which you cannot see and no one listening can see.

JAMES: You should have seen me for this entire time. Oh, my gosh. Things are off the shelves in this room I’m in.

LINDSAY: That is a really fascinating point to sort of make – that, sometimes, if it’s too many ideas at once, is that something that frustrates them?

JAMES: It does, because also, I think, what’s great about this class and working with autism students, when they’re a small group – we have eight – and they’re in a group together, they’re told “no” so many times throughout their day and their lives. We’re saying, “What story do you want to create?” Boom! They just have so many ideas because they’re just told, “Yes, we can do this.” And they go, go, go, go, go. And every student has completely different ideas. And so, it’s like, “Yes, I love your idea. I love this idea. I love this idea. I love this idea. How do we get them together?” “Yeah, let’s figure that out.”

That’s when the struggles of autism comes in – of learning how to work as a team – how that idea is wonderful and, “You created it but it doesn’t make sense with these other ideas so we have to let that one idea go but I know it’s your idea but we have to let it go for the story. It’s not a bad idea or you’re a bad person. It just doesn’t work for our story. That’s when working with the autism community comes in – after all the ideas are shared, how they work together to make it happen, and that’s where it gets really difficult because it’s their ideas and they’re told yes and they never get a chance to say yes.

LINDSAY: Oh, yeah, I know! And you want to say yes!

JAMES: I know! We once had this story where they were taking a tour of the White House – all these characters were – and they went into the lamp room because, you know, there was a lamp room at the White House but it was so boring and they broke everything and they went to this other room but the room that was the best was the cheese curd, chicken nugget, and ice cream room at the White House.

LINDSAY: As you do, of course.

JAMES: That was the best place to be.

LINDSAY: Of course.

JAMES: Then, they were given a special mission to go build Wi-Fi towers in the Grand Canyon. Of course, it makes so much sense. Yes, it makes sense! Let’s do that! That was our story.

LINDSAY: Of course, it is, and what else would be the most favourite room in the White House?

Before we end, I really wanted to say, just because I wanted to kind of provide a little idea for people about what a sensory-friendly performance means. How does a show change or what does that mean for those watching and those performing?

JAMES: I can tell you how we do it here because I know every theatre has their own different way but I’ll tell you how we do it here at Stages.

LINDSAY: Of course.

JAMES: Every show, in our mainstage season and our studio season, but the way that it works is, for that performance, we limit the audience to 100 people and our mainstage, we have about 720, 750, something like that but 700 people can be in our mainstage theatre but we close up the balcony and we only allow 100 people so students can move around if they want to during the performance.

Also, it’s general seating so students can sit anywhere. They can sit as close to the stage as they want to, they can sit as far away as they want to – anything is perfect for them, whatever they want to do. We call it sensory-friendly “shush-free” so the only people that can shush a student in our performances are the parents. The ushers can’t. Nobody can. Only the parents. We tell the parents too that it’s shush-free. They can experience it however they want to. If they want to sing along with the actors to the songs, great, sing along. If they were making non-verbal sounds, great, you don’t need to shush them for anything.

For the performance itself, we lower the light levels and the sounds levels so things aren’t as jarring. If there’s strobe lights, we take them out. If there’s a lot of big kabooms in the sound, we take those out or we lower it down. We keep our house lights on so the actors or the audience can see all around them and it also helps with the light levels.

We like to have our shows for sensory-friendly be between 50 to 55 minutes and that seems to be a great length. If it’s too short, I mean, it’s too short and they’ll tell you – believe me this, students will tell you. If it’s too long, it’s not successful for the students because they can’t sit for that long sometimes and then it’s also not good for the actors because they can feel that energy onstage and the show kind of suffers. So, we have to keep it between 50 and 55 minutes.

And then, we have a whole bunch of prep for coming to the theatre where we have theatre guides – one is about the show where we have photos of the shows with the plot outline, talking about some of the things that might be tricky to understand. For example, if a character is a frog in a play and they’re wearing overalls and a green shirt, a swim cap with googles on their head, they’re not going to go swimming in overalls. They’re actually a frog. And so, explain some of the things that might be hard for the imagination to use. Also, it just tells the story.

Then, we have a guide of coming t stages. This is where you park. This is what the theatre looks like. When you come in, you can get your tickets here. This is what ushers are wearing – these purple vests, you can hand your ticket and you know where the bathrooms are so we have those guides.

We also have fidgets and sound-cancelling headphones, if those are needed. And then, we have a quiet space. In case students need to get up and leave, they can go to a quiet space and there’s activities like colouring sheets or we have more fidgets and that kind of stuff that they can use there.

That is how a sensory-friendly is different from a regular performance. It seems like a lot of work and it is – believe me, it is – to get things started, it’s a lot of work to get sensory-friendly going because you have to talk to your actors too and that’s a huge thing of talking to actors about this is what’s going to happen today. “This is a show,” because a lot of actors aren’t used to performing whilst seeing the entire audience. Well, they can now.

And so, a lot of actors aren’t used to also being able to have the audience be so loud. You know, we work in children’s theatre and TYA here so our audiences are always loud. I think there are actors that might be used to that. But, you know, if you’re not working in a TYA situation, with a lot of student audiences, it might be awkward to have such a vocal audience coming back and forth, having that talkback with you but it’s a lot of work getting it figured out.

But, now, we’re in our fourth season of sensory-friendly and we’re starting to get a nice routine going and there’s not a lot of sensory-friendly theatre going on in the twin cities. We do it in a couple of other companies but this past, I think we’ve done three performances, adults with autism are coming to our theatre. Even though we’re a TYA company, you know, we do theatre for young audiences, adults are coming in because they can see theatre now. They can sit through a performance and actually experience theatre because it is made for them which is kind of cool.

LINDSAY: As I’m listening to this, my very first thought is how frustrating it must be to go to a standard theatre for them – that the world is telling them to shush, the world is telling them not to move, it’s too dark, it’s too loud. Of course, they would respond in a way that the rest of the world would see as disruptive and they’re just frustrated.

JAMES: Right, and I think the biggest thing about sensory-friendly is it’s not about we’re doing it for our company because it’s a great thing for our company to do – no! You’re doing it for the audience that has to experience theatre in a certain way. It’s not because you’re crossing off this box that we’re doing sensory-friendly theatre. Absolutely not! You can’t do it for that reason. You can’t. It’s because, theatre, for certain members of our audience have to experience it in a certain way because it’s too overwhelming otherwise and this is a way of making theatre for everybody.

LINDSAY: The question you have to ask yourself is who is your theatre for? If your theatre is for your actors and your company, you know, well, (a) that’s wrong but (b) you know, that’s fine for your pretty production but it’s for your audience. If you have a sector of audience who needs a different experience, yeah, why not?

JAMES: Exactly! Then, do it! The best way for people who are trying to figure it out, partner with an autism organization in your community. Get those resources. If they don’t know how to do it, brainstorm together or contact me as well. Go ahead and contact me if for your community wants to figure out, “We want to get this stuff going,” you know.

Email me on our Stages web page. My email is there. Talk to me about it, too. But partner with that organization within your community to figure out how we want to go about doing this. Are there people in our community that we don’t even know yet? We don’t have an autism community. Are there people out there who would like to see theatre? How do we figure out about doing this? Work together. You have to do it with a partner organization. I think that’s the biggest way to find that audience and get the audience and understand the audience. From there, you can keep on going.

We started this with two different autism organizations in our community. It’s a slow go. Like, our audiences, we cap at 100 but most of our audiences are like 50 to 60 – except for our holiday shows which are always big because, I mean, it’s the holidays. Holidays are always big. But, you know, most of our audiences are 50 and 60 students with their parents, too – because we’re TYA. That’s what we have. You might be losing money on it but it’s figuring out what does the audience need and can we serve the audience. Yeah, we need to. We need to – it’s hard and it’s difficult but we need to figure out how to serve them.

LINDSAY: I love it! I’m going to put in some as well as information on Stages theatre and your program in our show notes. I’m also going to put in some autism resources as well.

James, our time is up! It just flew by!

JAMES: It did.

LINDSAY: Thank you so much for talking to me today and sharing your experience with this type of theatre. I think, as we end here, just the whole notion of who is theatre for and what can we do to make theatre accessible to everyone?

Awesome. Thank you so much!

JAMES: Thank you!

LINDSAY: Thank you, James!

I just wanted to mention that there are a number of links in the show notes this week for this conversation. If you want to learn more about James’ program, there’s a link to CAST – Creative Accepting Sensory-friendly Theatre. Where do you find all these links? All you have to do is go to the show notes –

Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.

So, as I’ve been saying, as we’ve been going along into the new year, we’ve changed our tagline around here. We are now the Drama Teacher Podcast and we are Theatrefolk – The Drama Resource Company. That means I have to say “drama” a lot and I’m trying to say it right, you know. Don’t judge me.

Anyway, we believe that one of our best resources here at Theatrefolk is the Drama Teacher Academy. This is the education arm of Theatrefolk and it is just for you – just for teachers.

We have professional development courses designed specifically for you. Yeah, I’m talking about you and I know that you have been through so many PD days or professional learning community events that have nothing to do with theatre. This is not like that.

We have courses on classroom management for the drama classroom – teaching mask, concept-based design, devising, turning your drama class into a production classroom for advanced students, a complete drama one curriculum and more!

Go to to see DTA in action.

You can also find the link in the show notes –

Are you doing one of Theatrefolk’s plays? Take a rehearsal picture and send it to us!

Working on a monologue in the classroom? Take a picture. Send it to us!

Are you a member of the aforementioned Drama Teacher Academy and you’re using an exercise? Take a 30-second video of said exercise and send it to us!

We want to showcase you. We want to brag about you.

Where do you send all this?

Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on and on the Stitcher app. You can subscribe to The Drama Teacher Podcast on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word: “Theatrefolk.”

And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.

Music credit:”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

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