“It Can Open Their World”: Maine State Music Theater Brings Back Sensory Performances

The artists show viewers how the dragon prop works in a sensory performance of Sleeping Beauty. Courtesy of Maine State Music Theater

Maine State Music Theater artistic director Curt Dale Clark said he first recognized the need for sensory performances about seven years ago, after a member of the audience struggled with sit through a particularly heavy interpretation of the effects of Les Misérables.

“When the guns exploded, the kid couldn’t take it and panicked,” Clark said. “Loud noises, bright lights and special effects, thunderclap and stuff like that, it was too much for him, it was sensory overload for the kid.”

For people with autism, hypersensitivity to sounds, smells, touch, taste and lighting can be a barrier to interacting with the world around them. This can include live theater, where the influx of thrills that accompany a performance can be overwhelming.

After Clark did some research, the theater launched the first series of sensory performances in 2016. Although he took time off last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the theater will continue the tradition this year by offering three shows: “Beauty and the Beast”, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Shrek, Jr.”

The performances allow the audience to meet the actors in costume and out of costume, as well as an adjusted intensity of volume, lighting and special effects.

“By the time we finished the very first time, the whole cast was in tears, I was in tears, it was so beautiful,” Clark said. “We’ve been doing it ever since. “

According to the parents interviewed, children on the spectrum react in various ways to an excess of stimuli, whether it is nervousness, unexpected flight, verbal explosion, excessive happiness, or physical and aggressive reactions.

For parents, these reactions can often result in negative looks, comments, and general judgment, contributing to a sense of stigma that makes exploring the world isolating, difficult, and uncomfortable for both parent and child. However, what might be viewed by the public as an acting or unruly child, is usually the result of over-stimulation for people with autism or similar disorders.

“In a nutshell, it’s heartbreaking,” said Malarie Clark, a Windsor resident (not related to Curt Dale Clark), whose five-year-old son Dylan has autism, is non-verbal and uses an electronic device to communicate. “I don’t think this judgment comes from a negative place, I think it’s just awareness and acceptance of the situation.”

Activities that most take for granted, such as going to school, the grocery store, the movies, the water park or the cafeteria, become intimidating and anxiety-provoking for those with sensory sensitivity.

According to the executive director of the Autism Society of Maine, Cathy Dionne, sensory activities, such as performances at the Maine State Music Theater, are an essential tool for engaging and helping people with autism feel comfortable.

“They are more than precious,” Dionne said, noting that other examples in Maine include sensory events at restaurants, bowling alleys, meet up with Santa Claus and water parks.

Dionne estimated that there were probably over 10,000 people with autism in Maine. According to a study published in 2020 by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 5.4 million – or 2.2% of adults – in the United States have autism spectrum disorders.

Visual by Nina Mahaleris for The Times Record.

“We are now in a place where people are experiencing autism,” Dionne said. “But they are just starting to realize how affected individuals are in certain arenas, be it the cinema, the cafeteria.”

Brunswick resident Shannon Landry said her son, Ethan, was born prematurely and suffered three strokes at birth. Her son, now 17, has autism.

Landry said she had attended a handful of sensory activities with her son, including a Maine State Music Theater performance of “Shrek”, which she considered a great experience for him.

“It can open up their world,” Landry said. “The fact that this type of activity is offered and that families can do it together and enjoy being together and having an experience, it’s incredible.

Landry added that of all the sensory events she attended in Maine, most were good.

“You can hang out with people there and there’s a stigma,” Landry said of what one can take away from sensory events with friends. “They don’t understand that this is a special screening.”

Crystal Davis, a resident of Hartland, said four of her sons suffered from ADHD and autism spectrum disorders, along with other diagnoses. She said they’ve frequented museums, zoos and sense-sensitive movies across the state, though most events aren’t local to her area, which can make attendance difficult.

“Most of the time they’re in southern Maine and traveling with four kids for two and a half hours for an event and then spending hours there just isn’t an option for us,” Davis said. “This is one of the biggest challenges.

Davis said the important elements for a successful sensory event are that the staff are trained and that they are closed to the public, so that if one of the children runs away, it is easier to find them.

“It’s very important that the people around us can understand and grow with us,” Davis said. “It kind of helps to know that other parents understand why the kid is like this – they don’t judge us.”

Davis added that, specifically for his 12-year-old son, the events give him the opportunity to see that there are other children like him around. “It really makes them feel more comfortable,” Davis said.

Malarie Clark said that while she too would like to see more sense-sensitive events in her area, there are still concerns about the stigma and how the event will be sense-sensitive.

“We haven’t had a performance yet,” said Malarie Clark. “There’s a fear of going to something like that and it’s not as sensory as we need it to be and then of course there’s this stigma of your kid having a blast or having a hard time. . “

Malarie Clark said her son is delayed in processing, which means it sometimes takes him around 30 seconds or more to respond. “In a situation that does not allow this time to process in a sense sensitive environment, it could be overlooked,” she said, citing an example where he was unable to get a cookie at school. due to late response.

Malarie Clark added that the only event she attended with her son was a sense-sensitive Santa Claus in 2019, stressing that there was no time limit, low stimuli and no pressure.

“He has to be himself and enjoy the day,” said Malarie Clark. “It was a fantastic environment for him and our family. I wish we had more of those in the area.

Performances at the Maine State Music Theater are funded by grants from the Maine Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Anna-Maria Moggio Foundation, and the Onion Foundation.

The performances are free and will take place on August 5 and 17 as well as on October 9. Visit msmt.org for more details and to register.

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