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At Trinity Rep's Sensory Friendly 'A Christmas Carol,' Off-Stage Matters As Much As On

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A performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol might be part of your family’s holiday tradition. But for some families with autistic children, the...

A performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol might be part of your family’s holiday tradition. But for some families with autistic children, the bright lights and loud noises of a typical performance make that tradition nearly impossible. 

Trinity Repertory Company has created a sensory-friendly performance of the holiday classic that's designed with these children in mind. (Trinity Repertory Company’s sensory-friendly performance of A Christmas Carol is Saturday, November 14.)

At Trinity Rep's third annual sensory-friendly performance of A Christmas Carol, audience members can react however they like. The lights and sounds are subtle. And the characters come out to meet and greet.

Picture this: you’ve just arrived at the theater, taken your seat. The house lights dim. The music comes up, curtain opens – and suddenly you’re immersed in a sensory bath of light and fog and rattling chains….

“Theater is meant to be a sensory experience," says Jordan Butterfield, who teaches kids about that experience at Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence. But for kids with sensitivities to light, sound, and touch, like people on the autistic spectrum, that experience might just feel overwhelming. "Lights that are very bright would ruin it. Strobes, obviously. Loud sounds, banging, anything like that, abrupt noises, are just too much to process," says Butterfield.

Dr. Henry Sachs is medical director at Bradley Hospital in Providence. Sachs says a so-called "neurotypical" brain can handle all these inputs, and filter out what’s not important. People with autism spectrum disorder have a tougher time processing those sensory inputs: “So in some of the cases, they have diminished awareness of sensory inputs around them. So things we might find painful, they might not really notice. Then there’s others on the other side of the spectrum who are very reactive to a sight, a smell, a touch, a sound, that you and I might ignore entirely."

In other words, some people on the spectrum might turn inward. Others might need to react, to move or vocalize. So for Jordan Butterfield and her artistic colleagues at Trinity Repertory Theater, the question became: can we design a performance for people who have a wide range of reactions to all these sensory inputs, and still tell a good story? This year marks their third performance of a sensory-friendly Christmas Carol.

“Right now we’re in the finishing stages of the set, hanging the lights and everything,…. So it’s the general calm before the storm.”

Production director Laura Smith oversees set construction, light and sound design. It’s a couple of weeks before opening night, when nothing looks like it’s coming together, but everything is actually right on track. Crews are hanging lights from the catwalk, and drilling pieces of a moveable elevator beneath the stage floor. Smiths says adapting this particular production for a special audience was easy, because it’s familiar terrain.

“All of us here have produced – I’m on my 19th Christmas carol – so we’ve all produced Christmas carol. They’re different as far as the looks, but bottom line, especially in the way that they sound, they’re virtually the same. We all know when the big noises are going to come, which is Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Future, and all of that stuff - the chains rattling- all of that stuff, we know where there’s the big booms," says Smith.

Smith says the character of Marley’s ghost still rattles some chains, but not as many, not as loud. There’s no fog, no strobe lights. In fact, the house lights stay on throughout the performance.

And the actors adapt, too.

Today, they’re in an upstairs rehearsal room, going over the choreography for a party scene. Actors in dance shoes and sweats swing empty punch glasses around as they spin and twirl, belting out a celebratory tune.

They’re used to an audience sitting quiet and still in their seats, laughing when they’re supposed to, getting up only for admission.

But in his second floor office, Trinity Rep artistic director and A Christmas Carol’s director for this year Curt Columbus says the actors prepare for a range of reactions at Saturday’s sensory-friendly performance.

“As long as you know that this is not your typical audience, and you’re aware of what the audience is bringing to the performance, because they just have a different way of paying attention.”

They might respond out loud to actors on stage. They might hop out of their seats. And that’s expected. Columbus says the theater experience is designed to put kids at ease well before the curtain goes up.

“The actors come out in costume and talk to them," says Columbus, "and tell them 'I’m playing this person in the performance. I’m the ghost of Marley. But I’m a person so I’m not a scary ghost.'”

During the performance, kids don’t have to stick to their seats. There’s  a pacing area for audience members who need to move around. There’s a quiet play area downstairs, for kids who need a break from the performance. Education director Jordan Butterfield says parents and caregivers who buy tickets receive information ahead of time about what to expect, including answers to questions other audience members would never think to ask.

“'Can I bring edibles or things for my child to chew on because that makes them comfortable? Can they have headphones on during the performance? Would it be possible for them to get up and move around if they need to?' And so we answer those questions. All of the answers are yes.”

Butterfield says they also created something called  a “social story” about the experience of going to the play. It’s an online video parents and caregivers can show kids to help them visualize the whole process, from leaving their house and driving to the theater to clapping at the final curtain. Bradley Hospital’s Doctor Henry Sachs says rehearsing an outing like this before it happens is important, because many autistic kids thrive with routine and structure.

“And when they do need to go outside that routine, they will go over that story with their child repeatedly before the event to have them feel comfortable about what’s happening, what’s happening in order, and sort of the final outcome of it," Sachs says.

It might sound like a lot of work –all the preparation, the adaptations – for a single performance. But Trinity Rep’s Jordan Butterfield says the feedback they get makes it worth it. Some parents tell her after the show that taking their autistic child on an outing is usually too difficult. The child might have an outburst. People stare. People judge.

“And they always say that, 'I felt at ease in a public setting for the first time.'Like they’ve never been able to go on vacation, they’ve never been able to go to a movie theater without people looking at them and shushing," says Butterfield.

More movie theaters and playgrounds are offering sensory-friendly performances and events these days. But they’re still not as easy to find. Or as close as parents would like. 

Trinity's education director Jordan Butterfield addresses the audience before a performance.
Dress forms wait for a fitting outside the costume shop at Trinity Rep.
Last year's sensory friendly performance packed the house, where the lights stay on throughout the performance.
Dress forms wait for a fitting outside the costume shop at Trinity Rep.
Dress forms wait for a fitting outside the costume shop at Trinity Rep.
Last year's sensory friendly performance packed the house, where the lights stay on throughout the performance.
Last year's sensory friendly performance packed the house, where the lights stay on throughout the performance.
Trinity's education director Jordan Butterfield addresses the audience before a performance.
Trinity's education director Jordan Butterfield addresses the audience before a performance.