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April 1, 2019

The Patel Youth Theater Series Goes Sensory-Friendly

Originally published in the April 2019 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.

Welcome to the Judgement-Free Zone at The Patel Conservatory. 

“We’ve created a judgment-free zone for audience members of any age to enjoy a show, be who they are and not bear the disapproval of breaking with traditional theater etiquette,” explains Patel Conservatory Lead Theater Teacher Matt Belopavlovich.

“Our sensory-friendly experience includes floor seating on textured cushions, a break room with stim objects, and the ability to borrow sound-canceling headphones.”

Belopavlovich began a graduate certificate program to study the autism spectrum after noticing an increase in differently-abled students and students on the spectrum.

“We had an opportunity to respond to people who experience life in a particular way whose needs weren’t quite being met here,” he says. “I was heavily involved in the Straz Access initiative about accessibility and The Straz when Suzanne Livesay [vice president of education] approached me with an interest in offering a sensory-friendly performance. “Things came together. We thought, ‘What a great way to combine resources with information and be advocates for our students.’ We have produced five sensory-friendly productions and are consistently making adjustments to the experience based on audience feedback.”

Belopavlovich and Livesay followed similar programs launched by The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and Orland Rep, always with the notion of tailoring a sensory-friendly production specific to The Straz and their students and audiences.

After one hugely successful sensory-friendly test performance, in partnership with Lakeland Community Theatre that included modifications in lighting, sound and offered only one lighting cue, the Patel Conservatory team moved forward with plans to offer one sensory-friendly performance each season, starting in 2017 with You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Prior to the show, audience members could download or print out a “social story” from the Patel Facebook page and The Straz website. Belopavlovich created this picture-book-style document to familiarize guests with what to expect at the Straz Center and before, during and after the show.

The social story included specific instructions for permission to use the break room, a space set apart from the show that included crafts and the ability to have quiet time.

Although the need for sensory-friendly shows emerged as theater professionals began to understand patrons on the autism spectrum were being left out, Belopavlovich realized that modified performances benefit anyone who may have sensory issues such as sensitivities to light or loud noises.

“Essentially, it’s the same show with different options,” he said.

Typical kids and families are encouraged to attend sensory-friendly shows as they are designed for the enjoyment of anyone with sensory sensitivities.

“We’re very excited about it because sensory-friendly is a new frontier,” said Belopavlovich, “Not just for audiences but for the actors, who are learning a new depth to their skills as they shape their craft to a unique audience. Moving in this direction benefits all.”