Sensory Friendly


Hartford Stage’s Fifth Annual Sensory Friendly Performance of A Christmas Carol Welcomes New Audiences to the Live Theatre Experience

By Grace Clark, Education Enrollment & Marketing Coordinator

Seven-year-old Matty is fascinated by characters on movie screens and television shows. If he is captivated by the characters, Matty becomes them. Although Matty, who has autism, does not understand the happenings of the Christmas season he loves the festivities of the holiday, said his mother Esther Delmonte. Matty will attend his first live theatre production at Hartford Stage’s sensory friendly performance of A Christmas Carol on Saturday, December 1. Delmonte said finding places for Matty to enjoy live performances has always been challenging.

“He has such a personality,” said Delmonte. “Sometimes, it’s that people pay for their ticket and they get upset [if Matty makes noise]. They want silence. It happens everywhere.” He does not always sit still and at any random moment, showing his excitement by making sounds, Delmonte added. Matty’s challenges with autism –

a neurological disorder that affects communication, social interaction and sensory processing – makes him sensitive to loud sounds. Being in a sensory friendly environment, “I feel like he will not be judged,” Delmonte said.

Hartford Stage’s sensory friendly performance of A Christmas Carol creates a welcoming theatre environment and experience for children with autism and other special needs. Throughout the performance, there is a reduction in loud or jarring noises, as well as other potentially startling effects, such as bright or flashing lights. Relaxed house rules allow audience members to move about as needed during the performance. There is a quiet room in the lobby for audience members who may need to take a break during the performance, and fidgets are available. Audience members also have an opportunity to meet the actors playing the ghosts in the lobby before the performance, lessening any fear children might have about those characters.

Diana Yeisley, who served on the planning committee for Hartford Stage’s sensory friendly performance and attends each year with her son, Carter, recalls how her son was a bit scared of the “strange-looking” characters. “He now knows what to expect… he can find the funny in the scary in almost anything,” Yeisley said. “What’s great for him is not only is he growing and experiencing live theatre, but he has a different emotional response to it than what’s on a flat screen.” Carter likes to see the costumes and all the things that represent the most festive part of the holiday.

“The candles, the Ghost of Christmas Present – he looks like a king!” said Carter, 18.

“Christmas presents around the tree… the snow, the sleigh. I’m so excited [about seeing A Christmas Carol].” He eagerly invites his friends to attend the sensory friendly performance every year.

“This performance has become such a beloved event by our staff and by so many families for whom going to the theatre together can be a struggle. Over the past five years, we’ve seen our audiences grow for this performance,” said Jennifer Roberts, Director of Education at Hartford Stage. “There’s a real need for this kind of event in our community. While we are proud to have been the first to offer it in Connecticut, we are also thrilled to see other theatres now offering sensory friendly performances, too. The more opportunities that create a welcoming and worry-free environment for families of children with autism and other sensory needs to experience a performance together, the better.”

Hartford Stage was the first professional theatre in Connecticut to offer a sensory friendly performance in 2014. Since then, other theatres across the state have begun to offer performances designed for audiences with special needs.

One parent, Christine Faressa, said she is relishing the opportunity to bring her son, Domenic, 7, to the sensory friendly performance at Hartford Stage for the first time and coming together with other families living with special needs. She also notes that the materials Hartford Stage offers families, including a social story and character guide, will be particularly helpful. “It’s great because our children are visual learners,” said Faressa. “We’ll review the social story a few days before attending.”

Parents and community members have served on the advisory committee for this event, giving the staff at Hartford Stage valuable insight on how to best create theatre experience that serves the needs of this particular audience.

“Having seen A Christmas Carol in both [standard and sensory friendly] formats, the thing I’ve loved about the sensory friendly performance is that people enjoy and react to it in their purest form,” said Jane Woodcox, a planning committee member and volunteer. “The goal is not to have a perfect theatre experience; it’s to have a human experience, and that’s wonderful.”

For more information about the sensory friendly performance of A Christmas Carol, visit Tickets are available by calling the Hartford Stage Box Office at (860) 527-5151.