Island University Offers Theater Experience to Sensory Sensitive Population

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Bang! Clang! The hustle and bustle. The flashing lights, yelling, and rushing – not to mention loud music – are often found in theater performances. However, those on the autism spectrum or who have epilepsy often find themselves unable to visit the theater due to issues processing sensory information.

“It’s important to make the arts accessible to as many people as possible,” said Alison Frost, associate professor of theatre and director. “Many theaters around the world are starting to adapt performances for sensory sensitive audiences, so it only makes sense that we do the same.”

The Department of Theatre and Dance offered two versions of its first play of the fall 2018 season, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” one traditional and one that was sensory friendly. The play’s main character is Christopher Boone, a young man with a brilliant mind who is ill-equipped on interpreting everyday life. He never ventured beyond the end of his road alone, detests being touched, and distrusts strangers. Seven minutes after midnight, he stands beside his neighbor’s dog who was speared with a garden fork. After finding himself under suspicion, Christopher sets out to solve the mystery and, along the way, finds himself on a thrilling journey that alters his entire world.

“We’re all very proud of the show,” said Colton Klopfenstein, a sophomore theatre major who plays Christopher. “We’ve all been challenged to be the best we can be – the best Christopher we can be – and since day one everyone has been extremely diligent in telling his story.”

The play was adapted from a novel by acclaimed playwright Simon Stephens and tells the tale of a journey of self-discovery and meeting one’s fullest potential. While the original author never explicitly stated that Christopher is on the autism spectrum, many readers find it apparent that he is, and this is why it was so important to offer the show in a sensory-friendly setting.

To assist in developing the sensory-friendly performance, Frost reached out to Dr. Anthony Zoccolillo, professional assistant professor of psychology who has more than 25 years of experience with individuals on the autism spectrum. Some of the modifications made to the performance included toning down the music and sound effects, keeping the stage lights on, and allowing audience members to get up and move around or leave if need be. The biggest factor in making the performance friendlier came in the form of a content guide sent out to audience members before the performance. The guide described what they could expect from the performance and, along with show cues, allowed viewers to anticipate specific scenes that might otherwise be startling.

“You don’t want to diminish the experience just because it’s sensory friendly, so the idea is ‘how do we provide the same experience while also minimizing any discomfort they might have,’” said Zoccolillo. “It’s a lot of little things that will be changed. I don’t think anyone who sees a traditional show and then attends a sensory-friendly one would notice a difference.”

Another important aspect of the performance was that each actor presented a respectful and honest rendering of Christopher on stage.  

“There’s no right or wrong way to tell Christopher’s story – just an honest way,” said Frost. “I think we’ve done that. The cast and crew have selflessly united over the past six weeks to make sure the play is about Christopher. It’s his story, his journey, and his triumphs.”