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Sensory-friendly performance makes FMCT more inclusive

Theaters like Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis use things like noise-canceling headsets to help audience members on the autism spectrum feel more comfortable at performances. Photo courtesy Pixel Dust Photography

FARGO—There will be huffing and puffing and plenty of singing on stage in the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre's musical take on a classic fable with "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs" this weekend.

During a special saturday afternoon performance, there may also be plenty of moving around, talking and maybe even singing along to different songs in the audience.

Theater crowds are normally calm and quiet, reverent toward the actions on stage, but for this show the cast and crew is fine with an active audience. In fact, they're looking forward to it.

The 2:30 p.m., Saturday, performance will be a sensory-friendly show, geared towards those on the autism spectrum.

Bright, flashing lights, loud sounds and sudden movement can be upsetting to those on the spectrum, making some theater performances a challenge.

Director Sarah Arnold says the house lights will be turned on during the performance to make it less intensive when light shifts happens. Sound will be carried only through front speakers, not throughout the full house. Actors will be more limited in their onstage motions, all efforts to make the show more appealing to those who may not otherwise feel comfortable in a theater setting.

Rachel Stotts, for one, is already appreciative. An assistant professor of speech language hearing sciences at Minnesota State University Moorhead, Stotts has worked with lots of families with members on the autism spectrum, including her 23-year-old son.

She says everything from school orchestra concerts to plays took much more planning to make sure her son was comfortable.

"It was a running joke: if we ever wanted to go to a movie, it was a two-car deal because one of us would likely have to leave (with the son)," she says. "We always had a plan A, B and C for how we would take him out if he couldn't handle that environment."

She helped spark the decision for FMCT to include a sensory-friendly performance after staffers heard her speak at an Arts Access for All meeting.

The theater reached out to Stotts, and they started working on how to make a play sensory-friendly.

Even before families get into the theater steps have been taken to make the experience more accomodating. Noise canceling headphones, fidget gadgets and weighted blankets will be available in the lobby to reduce anxiety. If attendees get overwhelmed, there will be a quiet room across the hall to help them relax.

Of the 300 seats, only 100 will be sold to allow families to set up their own spaces with buffers around them.

The added expenses in producing this performance were "notable," says Lindsey Stacklie, FMCT's development director, but worth it. The theater partnered with a handful of local businesses that saw the value in making the arts more inclusive.

"Everyone we've talked to has talked about what a need this is. There's nothing like it being offered in the community as it stands right now," Stacklie says.

While the Plains Art Museum has some autism-friendly programming, the only regional theater to do so is the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, where Arnold worked and saw sensory-minded productions.

"People are not going to stay in their seats the whole time," Arnold says when asked what she tells the actors. "They are not going to get a quiet audience, necessarily. It's preparing our cast for a wide variety of variables."

Including the fact that some families may have to leave mid-show. Knowing that families of those on the autism spectrum must plan for the unexpected and may not even make it to the theater, tickets were kept at a reasonable $3.

"Parents get almost anxious about just the thought of trying something new because they don't know what to expect. They're the barometer for the children," Stotts says.

On the theater's end, the staff doesn't know what to expect either, but they view it as a first step in a learning experience.

"This will be a success even if we have only one family show up; we are going to be off-the-charts excited," Stacklie says.

"I can't say enough positive things about all of the work FMCT is doing. As a parent we hope we break down some of those barriers," Stotts says. "It's such a great thing to know that you're welcome in all of these places. It shows that the community is trying to be inclusive."

If You Go

What: "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs"

When: 2:30 and 5 p.m., Saturday and 2 p.m., Sunday

Where: The Stage at Island Park, 333 4th St. S., Fargo

Info: Tickets are $3 for Saturday afternoon's performance, otherwise $10 for adults and $5 for children. www.fmct.org/, (701) 235-6778.

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