Sensory Friendly Christmas Carol

A Sensory-Friendly Christmas Carol

Hartford Stage will offer its second annual sensory-friendly performance of our holiday classic on December 8.

By Erin Frederick, Education Enrollment and Marketing Coordinator

Poster ArtEach year at Hartford Stage, we welcome thousands of families into the theatre to experience our annual production of A Christmas Carol. This beloved production, now in its 18th year, brings to life Charles Dickens’ classic tale of redemption through thrilling special effects, stunning production design and intimate performances. This show is many young theatregoers’ first experience with live theatre, and families throughout the region have made our production an annual holiday tradition.

However, there are many other families for whom attending this show, or any live performance, may seem improbable. According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder each year. Based on 2014 Census data, this would account for over 11,000 children in Connecticut alone. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term that encompasses the varying types of autism disorders, including Asperger’s syndrome. For children and adults affected by ASD, the increased sensory input of a darkened theatre, large crowds, bright stage lights, and loud noises can be overwhelming and frightening. Add to that the fear that other audience members will be distracted or angered by their child’s involuntary noises, movements, or need to step out of the performance, and many families opt to skip the event altogether.

At Hartford Stage, our mission is, “To enlighten, entertain, and educate by creating theatrical works of the highest caliber that have a transformative impact on our field, our audiences and our community.” We are dedicated to serving audiences of all abilities, and ensuring that people with little or no access to theatre have access to Hartford Stage. Through the work of our education department, we know the power of theatre can help encourage social engagement and self-confidence in young people, including children with ASD, and we sought a way by which to better serve this audience. Inspired by the work undertaken on Broadway by the Theatre Development Fund, we began planning our first sensory-friendly performance of A Christmas Carol in 2014.

Staff and Volunteers at the 2014 Sensory-Friendly performance.
Staff and Volunteers at the 2014 Sensory-Friendly performance.

A sensory-friendly performance is a performance that is modified to accommodate individuals with sensory-input challenges, those with anxiety, and people with a wide range of cognitive abilities. The production itself – the script, characters, and action onstage – remains unchanged, but some of the technical elements are softened to accommodate sensitive eyes and ears. Overhead lights remain lit at a low level, strobe effects are removed, and jarring sound effects are softened or removed. The performance also features relaxed “house rules” – people may make noise as needed, get up, move around, and leave the theatre as needed throughout the performance, all without worrying about distracting others or being judged.

The planning process for our first sensory-friendly production was an organization-wide effort. With the guidance of partnering organizations Autism Speaks, Unified Theater and Theatre Development Fund, we researched varying forms of sensory challenges, sensory-friendly programs around the country, and how we could best adapt our own production to suit this audience’s needs. We created a Performance Guide, which prepared audience members for their experience at the theatre – from waiting in line to pick up tickets at the Box Office to finding their seats and anticipating applause at curtain call – as well as a Character Guide, which walked audience members through the various characters in the show, and what they could expect to see happen.

On the evening of the performance, December 9, 2014, a team of 33 volunteers (comprised largely of enthusiastic Hartford Stage staff members) waited eagerly in the lobby. As the theatre doors opened, families began to pour in and explore the building. They each got a complimentary fidget toy and set of earplugs to provide comfort as needed throughout the performance. They colored Dickens-themed coloring pages with staff members in the Activity Area and enjoyed quiet activities in our separate Quiet Room area, where audience members could take a break, if needed. Shortly before the performance, some of our “Apparition” actors came out in costume, with their masks removed, and spoke individually to members of the audience, showing them how their costumes worked and answering questions about the production.

Johanna Morrison in A Christmas Carol. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Johanna Morrison in A Christmas Carol. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

When the performance finally began, the audience hummed with the thrill of excitement and watched enthralled as Dickens’ classic tale of redemption unfolded before them. Staff members, positioned on either side of the stage, held up green lanterns to warn of impending scary moments. Children in the audience recognized their new “actor friends” onstage as the Apparitions, and they shrieked and giggled with delight as the characters haunted Scrooge throughout the show. At the end of the show, as the audience poured out of the theatre, children chirped excitedly about their favorite moments and parents marveled at their children’s level of engagement throughout the evening.

It went so well, in fact, that we’ve made it an annual event. On Tuesday, December 8, 2015, at 7:00 p.m., Hartford Stage is proud to present our 2nd annual Sensory-Friendly performance of A Christmas Carol. Those with sensory sensitivities, their families and friends – and anyone else who might find this version of the production a bit less startling – are invited to join us for this very special evening of theatre. For more information, to view our Performance and Character Guides, or to purchase tickets, please visit or call (860) 527-5151.