The Magic of Inclusive Musical Theater

Matt Carey

Imagine the most magical theater experience you’ve ever had. Imagine watching a beautiful girl stand up in the audience and start swaying to the music, only to move to the aisles where she pulled other kids out of their seats to dance with her. Imagine kids getting up and moving around. Some banging on empty seats. Some leaving for a while only to be welcomed to come back in when they are ready. Imagine audience members’ lights glowing with the light of some technological device. Only instead of it being someone trying to surreptitiously read his email on a smartphone, it’s a nonverbal kid using an AAC device to type out, “more music, less talking!” Imagine people leaving at the intermission, not because they don’t like the show, but because they loved it and half a show was plenty. Imagine most people staying, even though it was a school night and way past many kids’ bed times.

Imagine the cast applauding the audience in the end.

Imagine kids beaming as they leave, and parents grinning from ear to ear. Not stressed after trying to keep their kids in their seats for two hours, but happy that their kids were able to move around.

A couple of years ago my wife got a great idea. She gets great ideas all the time, but this was one she was in a good position to put into action: put on a musical theater performance where disabled people, specifically people with sensory issues, could attend. She approached a local community theater company and they not only accepted the idea, they thought it was great!

And they were right. It was a great idea. Since our local theater company started working on this project Broadway has done “sensory friendly” performances of The Lion King and Mary Poppins. The basic idea is straightforward enough that I hope many more theater companies (both professional and community) start doing this. And, not surprisingly, there are lessons to be learned that you can only do by trying:

  • Yes, don’t make the auditorium as dark as usual.
  • Turn down the sound level.
  • Weekend matinees are better than night time shows (especially on school nights!)
  • Don’t try to pack the house. Leave room for people to move.
  • If you can, only sell out the aisle seats.

Tell the cast and crew that there will be people moving around, making noises,
flapping, leaving and coming back. They (the cast and crew) may be anxious about all this until they see the beauty of kids bouncing to the music, dancing in the aisles, tapping on seats…until they see that this is an audience that just loves the experience in a way that your average, experienced theater goer doesn’t.

My parents lived in Manhattan in the 1950’s. My mother used to tell stories of going to see Broadway shows in one of the heydays of the genre. I can’t count how many times I heard about her seeing The Music Man with Robert Preston on stage. I got to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opening week in the West End of London.

And none of that comes close to seeing a small group of kids getting to enjoy musical theater in a way that was accommodating to their needs.