CHANHASSEN — Attending a theater performance, for some, can be a bit daunting or unnerving.

Imagine if you struggle with loud and sudden noises, dark rooms, or actors dressed in scary or bizarre attire; or have difficulty processing the storyline.

Those types of struggles may prevent some from attending live performances.

In an effort to quell some of those concerns, theater members at Chanhassen and Chaska high schools are each presenting a sensory-friendly performance of their fall musicals.

Chanhassen High presents its sensory-friendly performance of "Little Shop of Horrors" on Nov. 7; and Chaska High presents its sensory-friendly performance of "The Drowsy Chaperone," on Nov. 20.

“We think this is important because it’s all inclusive,” said Lauren Manna, co-president of the thespian troupe at Chanhassen High. “Our musicals are such that we want to include everyone we possibly can.

“We want those special needs students to be able to experience a show just like anyone else could,” added Manna, a central character in "Little Shop of Horrors." “This is a fantastic way to make sure they can too.”

The sensory-friendly performances are the first of their kind in the area, according to Jane Herget, District 112 theater producer.

Herget attended a workshop last summer at The International Thespian Festival regarding sensory friendly theater. After meeting with her student thespian leaders “we decided that there was no time like the present to make District 112 Theater a place for all members of our community,” she said.

Part of the sensory-friendly effort includes:

  • Creating a social story to inform and guide audience members through the theater experience.
  • Actors introducing themselves to the audience before the performance to make audience members comfortable with the characters actors portray.
  • The theater will never be completely blacked out, as house lights will be dimmed to 50 percent the entire performance.
  • The audience may snack and move about as needed.
  • Earplugs and quiet spaces will be provided.
  • A small reception will be held afterward to interact with cast and crew members.

The performances will only be altered by adjustments to house lights and volume of sound effects, which will be reduced by 20 percent.

“The whole idea is catering to our patrons who otherwise might find a regular theater performance intimidating,” Herget said.

The social story, created by students William Maus at Chanhassen and Diego Symouksavanh at Chaska, is designed to provide a guide of what to expect when attending a theater performance, Herget said.

“The social stories will teach them about the theater; from what it looks like to what to expect,” said Laura Pingry-Kile, director of specialized education services for Eastern Carver County schools. “It will help students with disabilities to have a better understanding of the show.”

Herget said Manna will go on stage before the Chanhassen show so audience members can see her in “normal” attire, and she will tell them about the character she portrays.

“In the show, Lauren has a black eye, but in reality she does not and we want those in the audience to know what she is really like and does not have a black eye,” Herget said. “We want them to understand these people are not like the characters they play.”

Pingry-Kile believes a significant number of families will utilize the sensory-friendly performances.

“The nature of inclusion is very important to us and this provides an opportunity for families and friends of those who may have difficulty with a regular performance to be together in a more inclusive and relaxed environment to enjoy the different performances together,” she said.

“I think we are very progressive in this,” Pingry-Kile added. “I’m anticipating that there will be a lot of interest in this effort.”

Community Editor

Mark Olson, the Chaska and Chanhassen community editor who has worked in Carver County for 20 years, makes any excuse to write about local history. In his spare time, Mark enjoys perusing old books, watching blockbusters and taking Midwest road trips.

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