Katie Vahey Gaebler
Arvada Center Beauty and the Beast: Sensory performance review
On December 30, 2022, I took my family to a sensory friendly performance of Beauty and the Beast at the Arvada Center for the Arts. My kiddos, on the cusp before their 10th and 5th birthdays, have really never attended such a thing. Before COVID, once I tried to take Bryson, then age 5, to a movie (regular showing), and it had been too much for us. Mostly because there hasn’t been an option to attend a theater, we hadn’t tried again. Yet being intentionally invited by Michelle Peterson, Volunteer and Accessibility Services Manager at the Arvada Center, to review the sensory aspects of the show was an incredible reason to try a theater experience again. And both of my children had a wonderful time.
While the theater holds 540 seats, capacity was for 150 tickets sold. This made for room for people to stretch out and move around during the show as needed. In being sensory considerate, any sights, sound, smell, and touch were all mild and regulated. General theater lights remained on when they may have otherwise been dimmed considerably in order to highlight the stage. While microphones were still used, sound levels were consistent so there wasn’t anything overly accentuated for dramatic purposes. It was announced at the beginning that instead of clapping, we would use “jazz hands” to show appreciation. There was a short experience of smoke used on stage, and it seemed to be minimal and not extended to the audience.
Upon arrival we had either stairs or elevator options toward the 2nd floor theater entrance (the theater was amphitheater style seating; my family chose to sit in the back at the top). The elevator was spacious and all ADA accessible. At the door we were offered not only a program bill, but a colorful multi-page description of characters, and a squeezy stress ball. There was a table of optional sensory objects including fidgets and noise reducing headphones. A designated gathering room off to the side was designated a quiet space for anyone who needed it. A snack bar offered various crunchy and chewy options for sale, which helped my kids simultaneously stay focused on the show. Ushers were considerate to proactively offer options and encourage supports for individual needs. It was all so thoughtful so people of varying needs could be engaged.
There were many needs represented throughout the audience. Wheelchairs, bouncing, vocalizing, and various communication devices were all there, and some participants excitedly demonstrated their love of Belle- I saw at least 6 young people dressed in her costume! Clearly this was a special occasion for many families. I had wondered if the attendance and demographic was influenced by the choice of a Disney performance; Michelle confirmed this was the first sensory performance to resume since COVID, and certainly having a family-friendly theme was an attraction. Anecdotally, I wonder how participation would look for a more adult theme; I can envision a show theme less commonly known among youth, even with sensory considerations, could shift the audience demographic. I would include a 2pm start on a Friday over the holiday season, also makes it an accessible time for a family outing.
Over the last decade with my children, I’ve found that planning ahead and supporting their awareness of upcoming experiences in advance, as much as possible, is a key to their positive participation. It was ideal that multiple advanced emails were sent to ticket holders with information on what to expect. The email for my ticket receipt stated, “sensory-friendly are relaxed performances designed to be welcoming and inclusive for families of individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities, autism, sensory processing disorders or other conditions.” I felt this statement was truly manifested in our experience.
The next sensory-friendly performance at Arvada Center is set as Charlotte’s Web on Monday February 27th. Although both my children are scheduled to be at their schools at this time, I’m considering taking my younger son as a special outing, as I know he will love it. It’s a family memory making opportunity; as he now has a special reference for seeing Beauty and the Beast, and not on a screen, I would love for him to have that same reference for Charlotte’s Web. There have been so few options in his life so far to be among a community, and in particular a space so welcoming of his diverse sensory needs. I’m grateful to The Arvada Center of the Arts for prioritizing an Autism education workshop for their staff, and a sensory friendly performance among their offerings. I look forward to our continued partnership to bring awareness and opportunity to families and their Arts community.