Making the arts more accessible

Local organizations offer autism-friendly, 'shush-proof' performances

There's no shortage of performing-arts events on the Midpeninsula, but for members of the neurodiverse community, who can feel overwhelmed by intense stimuli and unwelcome in some traditional arts environments, the area's high-quality concerts, plays and ballets aren't always fully accessible. Local groups are trying to change that by offering autism- and sensory-friendly, judgment-free performances in a variety of genres.

Concert pianist Stephen Prutsman and his wife, Sigrid Van Bladel, who are parents to a teenage son with autism, founded the nonprofit Autism Fun Bay Area back in 2012, with the goal of making the performing arts more open to potential audiences for whom such events are challenging due to disability, behavior and/or sensory issues. Autism Fun Bay Area partners with local arts organizations and offers around 15 free performances a year that are open to all but tailored to the those impacted by autism and related challenges (especially, Prutsman emphasized, those like his own child, who have moderate-to-severe developmental disabilities on the autism spectrum).

"My kid cannot go to the typical movie, a typical concert," Prutsman said. "He'll make too much racket for the people around him to enjoy the show, and they paid good money to be there. My dream is that on any weekend of the year families like ours ... can participate in all these kinds of activities. The parent can relax, the kiddo can relax and the community can relax."

At Autism Fun Bay Area performances, such as the "Holiday Jazzmatazz" held at Stanford University on Dec. 9, audience members are free to make noise, "stim" (self-stimulating repetitive gestures such as rocking or flapping hands) and leave their seats. The concerts sometime include musicians with autism, and often feature interactive elements, such as a meet-and-greet with performers and an "instrument petting zoo," where instruments can be explored hands-on.

The benefits for audiences of these "shush-proof" events, he explained, are multiple. Not only is everyone able to engage with top-notch art, but also there is a sense of social support and community built in to the experience, where everyone can feel free to be themselves and not worry about stigma.

"Our lives are measured by the quality of the moments of our lives," Prutsman said. "Our task is to try and find moments where we can relax and actually enjoy those moments. Not only is that good for us but that's way better for our kids than looking constantly for ways to 'fix' them."

Prutsman is a longtime faculty member of Stanford's St. Lawrence String Quartet's (SLSQ) summer seminar, and since 2013 has partnered with SLSQ and other Stanford music programs to produce the Azure concert series on campus, which Prutsman hosts and which offers classical and jazz concerts throughout the year.

"It's really high-quality music," at the same level as any concert that the group produces, said Sara Langlands, project manager for the SLSQ at Stanford. She described the performances as having a welcoming atmosphere, where audience members are free to move, make noise and exit and enter the auditorium as needed.

"All behavior is welcome. It's OK to enjoy the music. I do think that over the course of five years, people have really embraced that," she said. She noted that participants have gone on to start similar Azure concert series in other cities, which is especially gratifying. And it's not just audience members who benefit: She said many musicians "come away from it completely awed and transformed, and happy to be engaging with people in a way that they have found unexpectedly meaningful." She pointed to a letter from violinist Deanna Choi, a former SLSQ Seminar participant, who wrote, "I'm sure it touched those families of the children with autism, but it also affected me. It changed how I related to people with autism, and other developmental disorders; it altered the way I see music, and how to adapt music based on my audience."

Other local arts groups are now offering sensory- and autism-friendly performances as well. Menlowe Ballet recently presented its first sensory-friendly version of "It's A Wonderful Nutcracker": an abridged version of the original ballet with a company member offering on-stage narration, softened house lights and a gentle atmosphere where kids and adults with a range of behaviors felt free to express themselves during the show.

Other organizations, including Peninsula Youth Theatre and Peninsula Ballet, also hold autism-friendly performances, and as awareness and acceptance of the neurodiverse population increases, it seems likely that more will follow suit.

For the first time, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is offering a "sensory-sensitive" performance of its current show, the madcap comedy "Around the World in 80 Days," on Dec. 27 at 7:30 p.m., with general-admission seating and a discounted ticket price.

According to TheatreWorks' Acting Marketing Director Syche Phillips, the idea of offering this special performance has been about six months in the making. For a theater company that relies partly on a loyal subscriber base, part of the challenge was finding a potential show date that could be specially dedicated to an accessible performance without alienating season ticket holders who expect a more traditional (dark theater, quiet audience, formal atmosphere) experience. Since the holiday show is usually the most family-friendly, as well as long-running, it seemed the perfect opportunity, Phillips said.

At the Dec. 27 performance, house lights will remain half-lit and a few of the more startling sound and lighting effects will be slightly altered, she said, "but the big thing is that we're a no-shush performance. We're not going to be forcing them to stay in their seats; we're letting everybody experience the show in whatever way they need or want."

TheatreWorks will also be providing extra outreach materials in advance to let audience members know what to expect when they're at the theater, increasing the comfort level for guests. Phillips said she hopes TheatreWorks will be able to continue offering similar events in the future.

"It's a very reasonable amount of accommodations. I wish we could do it at more shows during the year," she said. "It's a simple thing to do to expand accessibility."

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