December 8, 2019

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Avoiding a sensory overload

Theatres, concerts and cinemas open the door to new audiences with relaxed performances

Silence and stillness are usually expected when the lights go down in a theatre — but that kind of viewing experience doesn’t work for everyone.

"Maybe the way that we’ve always been expected to interact in those types of environments isn’t the way that it has to be," Teresa Johnson says. "Maybe we could all stand to be a little more relaxed."

Teresa and her 11-year-old daughter Ella are avid moviegoers and have been attending sensory-friendly movie screenings in Winnipeg for the last few years. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Teresa and her 11-year-old daughter Ella are avid moviegoers and have been attending sensory-friendly movie screenings in Winnipeg for the last few years. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Teresa and her 11-year-old daughter Ella are avid moviegoers and have been attending sensory-friendly movie screenings in Winnipeg for the last few years.

Ella has a rare disability and can get overstimulated during loud, action-packed scenes. She also likes to vocalize and bounce in her seat when she’s enjoying what’s on screen, which has been a problem for other theatregoers in the past.

"The last time we went to a (traditional) screening at a theatre, the people sitting nearby... they seemed to find our presence distracting," Teresa says, adding that her family decided to leave before the movie was over. "Sometimes people don’t always have to make comments to let you know that they’re not accepting."

Sensory-friendly screenings are aimed at people with sensory-processing disorders and autism spectrum disorder or those who are looking for a more relaxed movie setting. Some of the considerations include lower volume, smaller crowds and brighter theatre lighting.

Relaxed calendar

A sample of upcoming sensory-friendly entertainment events:

WSO
● A Day in Bohemia; Friday, Nov. 1; 10:30 a.m., Centennial Concert Hall. Appropriate for all ages.

RMTC
● Open-caption performance: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Dec. 8; 2 p.m. Recommended for those in Grade 6 and up.

A sample of upcoming sensory-friendly entertainment events:

WSO
● A Day in Bohemia; Friday, Nov. 1; 10:30 a.m., Centennial Concert Hall. Appropriate for all ages.

RMTC
● Open-caption performance: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Dec. 8; 2 p.m. Recommended for those in Grade 6 and up.
● Relaxed performance: The New Canadian Curling Club, Feb. 28, 2020; 7:30 p.m. Recommended for those in Grade 9 and up. Tickets for caregivers are 50 per cent off.
● American Sign Language interpretered performance: Women of the Fur Trade, March 12, 2020; 7:30 p.m. Includes strong language and mature content. Recommended for those in Grade 9 and up.

MTYP
● Tiny Treasures; Nov. 17, 4 p.m. Recommended for ages eight and up.
● A Year with Frog and Toad; Dec. 28, 4 p.m. Recommended for ages three and up.
● Beep; March 28, 4 p.m. Recommended for ages three to seven.
Spelling 2-5-5; May 9, 4 p.m. Recommended for ages five to 12.

CINEPLEX
● Frozen 2; Nov. 30; 10:30 a.m., SilverCity St. Vital. Tickets available Tuesday, Nov. 26.

In Winnipeg, these kinds of screenings are offered at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday mornings at SilverCity St. Vital every four to six weeks. While it’s not her nearest theatre and the movie selection is limited, Teresa is willing to make the drive across town for a better experience.

"There seems to be less judgment, people are just free to enjoy things as they want and so it’s a much more comfortable environment," she says.

Local arts organizations have also been making a push to offer more accessible entertainment options.

The theatre world has been leading the charge, but on Friday, Nov. 1, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra is putting on its first relaxed concert during a matinée performance of A Day in Bohemia at the Centennial Concert Hall.

"We began to realize that there are more things we could be doing in a more open way," says Brent Johnson, the WSO’s education and community engagement manager. "It will look a lot like a regular concert, but in many ways it will be pretty different."

The symphony has been preparing for the show since the spring with guidance from Michelle Yaciuk, the owner of music therapy and lesson studio Prelude Music and an assistant professor of music therapy at Canadian Mennonite University. Yaciuk works with clients of all ages and abilities and recognizes the barriers that exist for those living with sensory issues.

Michelle Yaciuk of Prelude Music and Brent Johnson of the WSO have teamed up to make WSO performances accesssible to those with sensory processing differences. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Michelle Yaciuk of Prelude Music and Brent Johnson of the WSO have teamed up to make WSO performances accesssible to those with sensory processing differences. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I hear their journeys and their struggles about even just grocery shopping or going to school... and participating in what we sort of take for granted," she says.

On Friday morning, the house lights in the concert hall will stay on to allow people to move around, seats will be kept open at the back and the front of the auditorium for those who want a more or less intense experience, and there will be a quiet room with fidget toys for patrons who need a break during the show.

Assistive hearing devices and sound-dampening headphones will also be available and music therapy students from CMU will volunteer as ushers during the concert.

"What it boils down to is that the patrons have a bit more choice in how they experience the concert, as opposed to walking in, sitting in a chair and just listening," Yaciuk says, adding that the relaxed-performance framework can be applied to any kind of musical genre.

"We all process music and attach to music differently whether we have a sensory processing disorder or not... for some people it will be classical music and for other people it will be rock or pop or folk."

“We all process music and attach to music differently whether we have a sensory processing disorder or not... for some people it will be classical music and for other people it will be rock or pop or folk.” - Michelle Yaciuk

Bringing this idea to life has been eye-opening for the symphony. Johnson says the Accessibility for Manitobans Act has been top of mind for the organization since it became law in 2013, but putting on a relaxed concert has highlighted other barriers that exist at the concert hall.

"It has helped us to look at all the ways people access and interact with our primary venue," he says, adding that the symphony is working on making its website and patron materials more accessible. "It’s helped us identify some weaknesses that we take for granted because we’re there every day."

Theatre companies that cater to younger audiences have been ahead of the curve when it comes to relaxed performances.

Rainbow Stage has been offering low-key matinée performances for the last 20 years, but last summer the shows were branded as relaxed for the first time.

Actors Jan Skene (left), Jennifer Villaverde and Geoffrey Tyler in Manitoba Theatre for Young People’s relaxed performance of A Year with Frog and Toad. (Hubert Pantel photo)

Actors Jan Skene (left), Jennifer Villaverde and Geoffrey Tyler in Manitoba Theatre for Young People’s relaxed performance of A Year with Frog and Toad. (Hubert Pantel photo)

Manitoba Theatre for Young People put on its first sensory-friendly play in 2017 for its Charlie Brown holiday double bill and this season the company is offering a relaxed performance for four of its plays. Artistic director Pablo Felices-Luna was in the audience during that first performance.

"It was one of my favourite shows of the entire 37-show run of Charlie Brown," he says. "It’s not just a gift to see a different audience in the theatre, but I found for the performers too, this idea of relaxing into the performance actually made the show quite special in that they were so present and so connected in this really gentle way."

In the last three years ago, Felices-Luna has realized the lighting and sound considerations made during a relaxed performance are just as important as the way they communicate with audiences beforehand. The theatre provides visual stories for relaxed performances that explain what ticket holders can expect when they arrive at MTYP and the storyline for the show. It’s not a spoiler, but a way to avoid upsetting surprises.

Twelve-year-old Miles Jackson has autism spectrum disorder and enjoys the environment of relaxed theatre performances. (Supplied photo)

Twelve-year-old Miles Jackson has autism spectrum disorder and enjoys the environment of relaxed theatre performances. (Supplied photo)

Krista Jackson’s 12-year-old son Miles is a pre-planner and appreciates the heads-up.

"He gets his lineup at the beginning of the season and it’s very much a ritual every year with the brochure," Jackson says. "He’ll do his own research and go online and find clips of the plays so he knows what to expect."

Miles is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and has been going to plays with his mom since he was two years old. Jackson is a theatre director and founder of Winnipeg’s independent zone41 theatre company and says taking her son to a play for the first time was a big moment.

"I got sort of teary because I was introducing him to how I spend my working life and it’s something we’ve always done together."

Over the last decade, Jackson has watched relaxed performances gain popularity in Canada. Before they had that option, Miles would have to wear noise-reducing headphones to plays and Jackson would worry about disrupting other audience members.

"When people come together for a relaxed performance we all know that anything goes and it’s a real celebration of that inclusivity," Jackson says.

Adam Farrell is pictured in the play Tiny Treasures, which Manitoba Theatre for Young People is offering a relaxed performance of this season. (Theatre Hullabaloo)

Adam Farrell is pictured in the play Tiny Treasures, which Manitoba Theatre for Young People is offering a relaxed performance of this season. (Theatre Hullabaloo)

For Felices-Luna, making theatre more inclusive hits close to home. His eight-year-old daughter Alejandra has an intellectual disability and she has enjoyed attending relaxed performances at MTYP.

As a playwright, accessibility is an important part of Felices-Luna’s writing process.

"Creating the work has to take into account who you’re creating it for," he says. "It’s up to us to make it happen, the person who’s having a challenge with access it’s not their problem, it’s ours as a society, the problem has been created by how we’ve built the world."

The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre has also made efforts to make its lineup more accessible over the last few years. This season, the company is running an American Sign Language interpreted show, a relaxed performance and, for the first time, an open-caption performance for deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons. The goal is to offer a wider variety of accessible plays in the future.

"A large part of accessibility is choice and that’s why it’s wonderful to see more and more companies doing it," says Elena Anciro, Royal MTC’s education and community engagement manager. "I think that the city as a whole is going in the right direction."

eva.wasney@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @evawasney

Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney reports on arts, culture and life for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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