BRUNSWICK – When Tracy Gregoire called the Maine State Music Theater a few years ago to ask about volume levels and loud noises in a particular production, she was surprised when they invited her and her sensory sensitive child to a rehearsal.
“It was a wonderful experience for him,” she said, “and allowed him to see a play that he would have been worried about seeing otherwise.”
MSMT’s rehearsal hall is a smaller venue, and the reduced sound levels and scaled down production worked for her child. Gregoire, who works with the Learning Disabilities Association of America, told the MSMT just how important that experience was to her and her child.
“I shared that there was a real need for sensory friendly performances,” she said.
Now, MSMT is in its second year of presenting these special shows for children’s works.
The company will present a sensory-friendly show of “Cinderella” at 5 p.m. Saturday at 5 p.m., and a production of “Pinocchio” at noon Aug. 18. Both shows are free, but seating reservations are required. Performances are held at the MSMT rehearsal space at 22 Elm St, in Brunswick.
“You know, it just shows what can happen when one person asks a question, or suggests something,” said Carol Marquis, MSMT director of marketing and communications. “Tracy asked, ‘do you normally do anything like this?’ And we said no, but we should.
“When we did it for Tracy’s son, the only other people there were a few staff, who coached the acting company and explained what we were trying to do. Her son had a great time, and the actors had a great time,” she added. “It’s also a helpful exercise, it provides a whole different experience for these young actors. It was really eye opening for us all.”
While some children who experience heightened sensitivity to things like crowds or loud noises, there are also children for whom those issues alone — or even certain physical challenges — make large theaters problematic.
Angele Rice, of Bath, has a 12-year-old son who has a Sensory Processing Disorder, as she does.
“SPD is an overload in any or all areas of input like taste, touch, sound or sight,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many buildings, stores, performances, classes, we have had to leave because my son became so overwhelmed to the point of being in physical pain from a normal bump from a kid, or the noise level was too loud, lights would be too bright. He still can’t stand crowds and tons of noise.”
MSMT’s sensory-friendly performances are held in a much smaller venue than the 600-seat Pickard Theater on Bowdoin’s campus. The orchestral production is scaled back, and there is no special lighting; everything is quieter, calmer and smaller in scope. In addition, the production can be stopped at any time, and an interactive component can be offered, if needed. There is also a quiet space for children to retreat to nearby.
Rice says these are all good things, and if her son were a bit younger, she would try a performance. She also suggests that parents limit scents such as perfumes, bring a child’s transitional objects (such as a favorite toy), and sensory headphones, if they use them.
“We have a packet on our website that parents can print out and refer to before the show, so it feels familiar before the child comes,” Marquis said. “We have study guides that can be shared with the child.
“The actors do a meet-andgreet, both as themselves, as actors, and they explain what they will be doing, and then they go and get into character, and show them, now I’m this person,” she added. “That’s very helpful if a character is scary or intense, for the children to see that transformation take place. We want them to know there is a good person underneath the character.”
Marquis said that MSMT Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark, “really wanted this to happen.”
“He said, ‘We’ll try it and we’ll get a grant and make it happen,’” she laughed. “He also said, ‘Let’s figure it out,’ which is often what we do in the theater.”
“We spent a lot of time looking at other theaters who are doing it, and we were very lucky to have a woman working with us in company management who had worked at another theater that offered this,” added Marquis. “We used her expertise to build our program. It’s still a work in progress.”
A grant from Anna-Maria Moggio Foundation makes these shows possible and free for families.
“These sensory showings allow more children to enjoy a theater experience, and be with other families that have kids with sensory challenges,”
Gregoire said. “The whole structure of the showings makes it a welcoming experience for the family. Being able to meet the performers and see they are friendly, kind people helps kids be at ease, and they even get photos with them if they want. It’s a wonderful program.”
Marquis says Gregoire continues to be a guiding light in this new endeavor.
“We really look to people like Tracy to help us and guide us,” she said. “We’re still growing and figuring out the best way for us to do it.”
Marquis says that feedback from attending parents is also critical to MSMT continuing to refine the program. They even pass out forms for parents to leave comments about the experience.
“It’s all very exciting for us,” she said, “and we are still learning.”
Seating is usually planned for about 30 people, and calling to reserve a seat is important.