CEDAR CITY — In an effort to serve those with autism spectrum disorders, sensory sensitivities or other similar disabilities, the Utah Shakespeare Festival is offering a sensory-friendly performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” in the Randall L. Jones Theatre on Saturday at 2 p.m.
What this means for attendees is that general rules of theatre etiquette – primarily, that members of the audience sit quietly and in the dark for the duration of the show – will be relaxed.
“Instead, patrons can freely respond to the show in their own way and without judgment,” said Michael Bahr, Utah Shakespeare Festival education director. “This is our second time undertaking this type of performance, and our patrons enjoyed it so much that we doubled the number of performances this year.”
This isn’t their first performance of this kind. Last week, the festival performed a sensory-friendly version of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” where playgoers were encouraged to engage in self-expression. This could mean singing and clapping along, talking or making other noises.
Playgoers are allowed to take breaks during the performance. They may bring a fidget toy or other calming objects. Playgoers may look at their phones and tablets during the performance, or they may wear headphones.
“We don’t really change the play,” Bahr told St. George News. “We change the environment in which it’s performed. We may decide, for instance, to lower or dim any strobe lights or sudden, loud noises that could startle patrons.”
Bahr said he is passionate about this kind of performance because it opens up the invitation to the audience. And in some ways, it harkens back to the Elizabethan audiences for whom Shakespeare wrote.
“We often think of theatre as a polite event, where everybody sits quietly,” he said, “but when Shakespeare wrote his plays, the audience was lively, even raucous. I like to think of it as Chicago-style improv meets mosh-pit.”
While Bahr said he doesn’t expect the “Pirates” audience to be too rowdy, he hopes the audience will lean forward and engage rather than sit back and relax.
“When I introduced ‘The Comedy of Errors’ to the audience, one boy got so excited that he screamed and raised his hands,” Bahr said. “As educators, we’re used to this. Theatre audiences, not so much. But that reaction is exactly what we’re after. Especially for this underserved group.”
Bahr said that he was worried when two days before the special performance of “The Comedy of Errors,” they had only sold 90 tickets. After some door-knocking, Bahr said that caregivers were excited to bring their loved ones to see the show.
“Two days later, we’d sold 310 tickets,” he said. “I’m grateful to our administrative team, especially Artistic Director Brian Vaughn, and Executive Producer Frank Mack, as well as our Stage Management team.”
Billed as a comedic opera in two acts, tickets to this special performance are half-price. More information about the play is available online, but tickets must be ordered by calling the Ticket Office at 800-752-9849 (PLAYTIX).
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