Northern Michigan University’s Forest Roberts Theatre will present a modified performance of the musical Tarzan geared toward children and adults who are on the autism spectrum or have sensory issues. The goal is to preserve the entertainment value of the show so families can enjoy it together while also creating a supportive environment. Free admission is made possible through private donor support. FRT has partnered with the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) in New York City to produce this “Theater for All” performance, scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday, April 15.
FRT Director Bill Digneit said TDF is providing resources and guidance on creating a sensory-friendly version of Tarzan. A consultant will come to watch the show in advance to identify potential triggers for those on the autism spectrum.
“We’re already planning on some changes, like removing or reducing the strobe effects and keeping the house lights on a little during the performance so individuals can move freely throughout the theater,” Digneit said. “The lobby doors will remain open and the sound will be restricted to the 90-decibel level. There will also be hearing protection available and we’ll have fidget and squeezable toys for those who find comfort in them. We’re not taking a lot out; we’re just making sure everything is at an acceptable level.”
Families who reserve tickets will receive a mailed packet in advance of the show with information on FRT, the seating chart, Tarzan characters and the musical’s storyline to build familiarity before the performance.
Digneit said there is a large, underserved population of children and adults on the autism spectrum in the Upper Peninsula. Sensory issues prevent some from being able to enjoy movies, plays or concerts. FRT aims to change that through the partnership with the Theatre Development Fund.
TDF launched its Autism Theatre Initiative in 2011 with Disney’s landmark musical The Lion King, the first autism-friendly performance of a Broadway show. Fueled by its success, the program continues to make theater accessible to children and adults on the autism spectrum. Other sensory-friendly performances on Broadway have included Mary Poppins, Spider-Man, Matilda, Phantom of the Opera, Aladdin and Wicked.
To prepare for the FRT initiative, a Northern delegation traveled to New York City to see a sensory-friendly performance of Wicked and took note of how producers trained audience volunteers, set up the venue and dealt with situations that surfaced during the show. They also had conversations with actors about the differences they would encounter with brighter lights and potential movement and talking during the show.
FRT is also collaborating with NMU’s Behavioral Education, Assessment & Research (BEAR) Center and School of Education, along with MARESA and the Superior Alliance for Independent Living (SAIL). Digneit said the “Theater for All” performance program will expand next season to include three productions: Beauty and the Beast, Scrooge! and a dance concert.
For more information, contact Digneit at 227-2044 or firstname.lastname@example.org.