In October 2015, Dan Zanes took the stage at the Ware Center on the campus of Millersville University to perform a concert. He had been doing that since the early 1980s when he played his first show as the lead guitarist and vocalist of The Del Fuegos, followed by years of making his own music, primarily for children. But this show was unlike any that he had played before: the sound was kept to a lower decibel, the house lights stayed on during his set, and the ushers didn't pounce when kids in the audience wandered out of their seats to dance in the aisles. It was a "sensory-friendly" performance, a trending type of live show that caters to fans with autism spectrum disorders, sensory sensitivities, or other disabilities.
At sensory-friendly events, the house rules are relaxed; ushers are trained to allow audience chatter and movement throughout a show. Sensory-friendly shows also cut down on the strobe lights and avoid total darkness so that attendees feel safe moving around the venue; sound technicians phase out any jarring sounds and keep the show at lower volume.
"We can allow a child who engages with music by being up, moving, and dancing, to do so," explains Zanes. "A sensory-friendly performance is really just a way of opening the door wider."
Roger Ideishi, the director of occupational therapy at Temple University in Philadelphia, traces the origin of the movement back to 2007, when AMC Theaters teamed up with the Autism Society to offer sensory-friendly movie viewing experiences catering to people living with autism that featured reduced noise levels and well-lit theaters. Four years later, the Theater Development Fund (TDF) launched the first autism-friendly Broadway showing of The Lion King. "The media attention to these developments triggered many other cultural arts institutions to explore and expand cultural arts accessibility," he explains.
The Kennedy Center was one of them: each year, the Washington D.C.-based venue helps to put on the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) conference, and it was during that annual convening that the performing arts center was introduced to the concept. The Kennedy Center hosted its first sensory-friendly performance in 2012 and has since worked to incorporate the special type of programming into as many of their events as possible. For the 2017/2018 season, they have 27 sensory friendly performances on the books.
In addition to making the necessary technical changes, one thing that the Kennedy Center has noticed that has been crucial to pulling off a successful sensory-friendly show is the pre-performance education.
"We post what we call 'pre-visit stories' on our website to prep the family on what is going to happen in the environment before they come," says the Kennedy Center's Betty Siegel. "Prepping people for a sensory-friendly performance is not about taking stuff away. It's about letting people know what is going to happen in advance so that they are prepared to react in whatever way is most comfortable for them. If a child knows there is going to be a loud thunderclap during a certain part in the set, for instance, they can be mentally prepared." Siegel also notes that when people visit the Kennedy Center website to purchase tickets, a box pops up to alert them if it's a sensory friendly performance. "That doesn't defer people from purchasing tickets," she says. If anything, the venue sells more for these types of shows.
According to Ideishi, the sensory-friendly movement is expanding, largely in part to the venues that have been driving it. "It's primary growth is through education at the annual LEAD conference and it seems to take off from there," he says. In the UK, the concept is being dubbed a "relaxed performance."
One arena embracing the trend is Manhattan's Symphony Space. Jeff Cohen frequents the venue with his kids, including his 16-year-old autistic son, Ben, and notes that his family has enjoyed the way that its sensory-friendly shows have allowed them to interact with the performers. "In March we saw Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band. After the set, the band was walking down the aisle and Ben exclaimed, 'Hi Lucky, my dad is wearing a Billy Joel shirt! Do you like Billy Joel?' He stopped and it turned into a quick conversation about Billy Joel and his music," he recalled.
The father of two, who writes about children's music on his personal blog, notes that as soon as the venue's schedule arrives, both of his boys beg him to purchase tickets to an array of upcoming sensory-friendly shows.
Children's musician Laurie Berkner says she's seen the benefit of working these types of performances into her repertoire. "For as long as I can remember, I have had a high number of fans with special needs, particularly those on the autism spectrum, and I have always wondered how I could do more for them," she says. The performer gets frequent emails from families explaining that they would love to bring their children to one of her shows but don't, fearing that the experience of a concert would be too overwhelming for them. So when she was asked to perform a "relaxed performance" at the McCarter Theater in Princeton in 2016, she hopped at the chance.
Guests who inquired were given a copy of list of Berkner's planned setlist before the show so that the kids in attendance would know what to expect. The venue refrained from having any flashing lights on stage and kept the audience lit during the show. McCarter Theater also provided professional staff on hand to assist the parents and caregivers, a family restroom, designated activity areas where kids could run around or let off steam as needed, and relaxation areas where children could take a break from the stimulation of the show and even use self-stimulating toys that were provided to help regulate their experience.
"I realize modifying my show a bit can bring the stress level way down for a family that hasn't come to a Laurie Berkner Band concert before," she notes.
Grammy-award winning singer/songwriter Lisa Loeb, who released a new children's album titled Lullaby Girl in October 2017, was unaware of the movement, but tells Billboard that she has noticed a need to cater to all audience types and has unknowingly been incorporating certain aspects of the sensory-friendly performance model into her show for years.
"I pay attention to the pacing of my set so that kids don't get restless. I start with some songs to listen and sing-along to, then sprinkle the beginning of the set with songs that have motions or vocal parts for participation. By mid-set, I make sure kids can stand up, dance, move, and participate," she says, noting that her sister is an educational specialist who has advised her on how to piece together her set so that it caters to kids of all abilities. "The mix should be well-balanced so that everyone can hear, but not blasting anyone out. The lighting should focus on the performer, and there should be space for the kids to move, as well as a setup that encourages them to focus and listen; the way the chairs are set up, the placement of the stage, and the lighting in the house all play into that. I create ebb and flow for the audience, a set length that is easier for kids, and a good eye on the audience to see where they are and if we need to change gears at any point."
Bill Harley, another Grammy-award winning children's act, only recently became aware of the trend. "One of the most successful things I ever did with an orchestra was to lead a parade of everyone around and through the aisles of the theater while the orchestra played march music. Anyone would have felt included in that. So, this growing interest in inclusion is a great thing."
Recently Zanes and his fiancé, Claudia Eliaza, a vocalist and former director of the music therapy program at Boston Community Music Center, worked with the Kennedy Center to put together its first sensory-friendly theater piece, a folk opera called Night Train 57.
"Since we've started doing sensory friendly shows, we've realized that there is no reason for anyone to not be doing sensory-friendly," says Zanes. "It's a win-win win. It's beautiful for the performers because we are playing for a wider range of people. It's great for the venue because more people come in the door."